Tide program that came from nothing goes for fifth national title this weekend

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Jason Galloway

Particularly at the University of Alabama, it is easy to rekindle tradition that is rich in history.

Rarely, however, is that storied past recognized from its true beginning, when it was practically nothing, ignored by all and revered by none.

When it comes to the four-time national champion Alabama gymnastics team, only one man needed to be swayed to open the door for the rest.

Former Alabama athletic director Paul “Bear” Bryant had planned to get rid of the tiny, money-eating women’s gymnastics program after the 1979 season. After first-year college graduate Sarah Patterson, then Sarah Singer, led the Crimson Tide to a seven-win season, however, Bryant gave her the chance to build a champion.

“Coach Bryant loved a winner,” Patterson said, “and if you were a winner, things were going to move forward, and that’s really what happened for us.”

Patterson was the gymnastics team’s fifth graduate assistant coach in five years, and at 23 years old, had already gained the confidence of a Capstone legend. Not only did Bryant allow the program to live, he equipped Patterson with the tools to win.

Bryant moved Patterson to a full-time salary and gave her four scholarships to recruit with.

Patterson needed more. She pleaded her case in front of Bryant and football coach Sam Bailey, who ran day-to-day operations in the athletic program, asking for $5,000 to buy a real floor exercise mat. It would make a vast improvement from the Tide’s current floor, a red wrestling mat with a script ‘A’ covering up a hole in the equipment.

After hearing Patterson, Bryant turned to Bailey. “Sam,” he said, “just give the little lady what she wants.”

Patterson said, “Under Coach Bryant, if you won, you got what you needed.”

She and coach David Patterson, who eventually became husband and wife and co-head coaches for Alabama, used their four scholarships from Bryant wisely.

Along with signing Ann Wilhide Dziadon from Florida, Sarah Patterson used her connections back in Pennsylvania, where she graduated from Slippery Rock State College the year before, to sign the rest of her first class, promising them Alabama would make the NCAA Championships during their careers.

“I was very impressed when I talked to Sarah and David at that time with their vision of where they wanted to go with the program,” Dziadon said. “I think mostly it was the fact of being in a relatively young program and having the opportunity to make a major impact long-term.”

David Patterson said, “When we were out on the road, we were just so enthusiastic and excited about where our program was going that I think the kids we were recruiting saw that.”

The promise was not broken. Dziadon and the first recruiting class’ senior season in 1983 ended with the first trip to the NCAA Championships in school history, where the Tide finished an astounding fourth place in the nation just four years after near extinction.

Five years later, Alabama won its first national championship. The Pattersons have won three more since, seven SEC Championships and have made the NCAA Championships 29 consecutive years. Their crowds have expanded from 50 people in Foster Auditorium to more than 15,000 in Coleman Coliseum.

They have now survived through eight athletic directors, seven school presidents and nine football coaches in their tenure and have seen every position in the University’s athletic department change at least once.

The little lady whose program was left for dead has outlasted everyone.

“The only paycheck I’ve had outside of the University of Alabama was when I was in high school and I worked for McDonald’s,” Sarah Patterson said. “Not many people have the opportunity to start their coaching career in one place and stay their entire career at the same institution.”

Patterson will lead Alabama into the NCAA Championships once again this weekend in Cleveland. The Tide is the No. 1 seed at nationals and possibly the favorite to win a fifth national title.

She said this age of Alabama gymnasts probably doesn’t understand exactly where the program came from and how far it has come since she took over, but she said this year’s team had a different mindset than teams of the past.

“This is a different group,” she said. “They just want to do the very best that they can, and wherever that leads them…. I know they would be thrilled to win, but I know they don’t need that as a motivation. They just need each other.”