TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- No coach in the history of the University of Alabama ever won more national championships than the six belonging to Bear Bryant, the most famous coach of all in a state where houndstooth is always in style.
That math could change in a matter of weeks, after Sarah Patterson, hired by Bryant late in his time as the school's athletic director, takes her women's gymnastics team to Los Angeles for the NCAA championships. Patterson's program is in pursuit of its seventh national championship and its third in as many years. Not even Bryant ever went back-to-back-to-back with trophies.
But the first family of Crimson Tide sports already has Bear beat by at least one title. Sarah and her husband, David -- until a few years ago a full-time gymnastics coach and now a volunteer assistant -- have six. Jordan Patterson, their youngest daughter, made it seven for the family when she and her teammates won the school's first softball national championship in June.
Jordan isn't a star. She isn't a starter. But as much as Alabama's athletic success is the product of those recruited to come here, there is also something to learn from the effort one person expended to stay here.
"She just has one of those roles that goes unnoticed by everybody outside the team," Alabama junior Ryan Iamurri said of her classmate. "But it's people like her that make this team successful and people like her who make you want to work harder because she's working harder. She does everything right; everything is done the right way.
"I know she was raised right, raised a leader and a champion, and she's been in those situations before. She knows how to calm you down, how to hold you accountable. She just knows every role to play."
Hitting close to home
It's a strange coincidence that a long-distance call provided the key moment in a story very much about staying put.
Like any university, Alabama is a temporary home to many people for four years. Still more reside within its reach for decades and make it a place to live their lives -- people like softball coach Patrick Murphy. They come to know the shortcuts to avoid traffic on University Boulevard. They know where to get the authentic barbecue. They feel the change in the air that signals spring has arrived for good. But at best, the place becomes a home, a distinction shared with some other home that can be returned to for holidays or family gatherings. Those divided loyalties are what sent Murphy, who has lived in Tuscaloosa for nearly two decades, back to his native Iowa for Christmas in 2008.
But Tuscaloosa is home for Jordan. And not just the city and its environment, which have provided the Tide with their share of softball players over the years. This university, this campus, is where she grew up.
It's where she was that Christmas when Sarah, at Murphy's urging, told her daughter to give the softball coach a call. Even more relatives than usual were around, the holiday coinciding with the wedding a few days earlier of Jordan's older sister, Jessie. So Jordan slipped into her parents' bedroom and called him in Iowa. There was a smattering of holiday small talk, and he asked her what kind of loot she had scored under the tree.
Murphy then told her he had one more gift to add to the list. He wanted her to be part of the Alabama softball team.
The telephone connection made it easy for those listening in Iowa (Murphy had the moment on speakerphone, so his mother and sisters could listen in) to hear the screaming emanating from Tuscaloosa. It's perhaps only a touch of hyperbole to say they might have been able to hear it even without the phone. A lot of kids are excited to hear those words from Murphy. There may never be anyone more excited than Jordan.
"That week, with my sister getting married and that happening, and winning the World Series were the two best weeks of my life so far," Jordan said.
Sarah was eavesdropping on the conversation from the other side of the door. The coach in her that had been part of hundreds of similar calls was secondary in that moment to the emotions of an anxious, nervous, hopeful parent. One of the most successful coaches in college sports, she knew next to nothing about softball when Jordan started to play the sport. Much to her daughter's embarrassment, she used to call runs "points." She still professed little more than ignorance to its nuances all these years later. She said she never swung a bat until finally persuaded to step inside the batting cages in Alabama's practice facility this year.
"I didn't know anything about it," Sarah said. "People were coming up to me at the little softball games, the little leagues you do for girls softball, and they started talking about travel ball. Now, I knew how an athlete gets to the Olympics in the sport of gymnastics; I had no idea what we were getting involved in with softball.
"It was quite an experience. But she loved it."
Model for success
It is easy to draw a line directly from Sarah to the crowds that fill Rhoads Stadium for softball games to the very program Jordan wanted to play for. Before there was Alabama softball as a model of success for women's team sports, there was Alabama gymnastics. That team can fill Coleman Coliseum for meets, topping the crowds men's basketball draws in the same arena. Gymnastics averaged nearly 13,000 fans per meet a season ago, a figure that trailed only Tennessee basketball and Utah gymnastics among women's sports.
The surroundings were decidedly more modest when Bryant hired Sarah in 1978. What she didn't know then, only a few weeks beyond her graduation from Slippery Rock University, taking over as the team's fifth coach in five years, was the entire program was on the cutting block.
It went 7-7 that season and earned a reprieve. Soon she found herself in Bryant's office trying to negotiate for a floor-exercise mat that cost as much as her annual salary.
Her recollection of the encounter ends with Bryant eventually instructing a deputy, "Just give the little lady what she wants."
By 1983, the team made the NCAA championships. It hasn't missed the season's final stage since, this season marking its 31st consecutive appearance.
When Murphy took over the fledgling softball program in 1998, he followed many of Sarah's strategies for building a fan base. A community that embraced one women's team that won and won and won had no trouble doing the same when Murphy's squad started making trips to the Women's College World Series.
That was the atmosphere in which Jordan grew up, going to meets and watching as a little girl when her parents won their second national championship in 1996 and a slightly less little girl when they won again in 2002. (She followed last season's gymnastics championships in Duluth, Ga., online while she rode the bus with the softball team on a road trip to Athens, Ga., then caught a ride to go celebrate with her parents.) She retains an affection for gymnastics, but she never had much interest in the family business -- at least once her dad told her she couldn't just jump on the trampoline all day.
"I'm built for a team sport. I'm not built for an individual sports," Jordan said. "That's not really my DNA. I think that's why I was drawn to softball. I love being on teams. That's why I play. I love having that camaraderie and all of that."
It's easy to see the last name and assume it was a foregone conclusion she would play softball for the Crimson Tide. Her mother's office sits just down the hall from Murphy's. She went to Murphy's softball camps -- and brought her mother's locally renowned chocolate chip cookies -- her whole life. Former Crimson Tide softball great Capper Reed used to babysit her and pick her up from school when Sarah and David had practice to run.
She told Murphy early in high school she wanted to play for Alabama and would do whatever it took and then went out and did what he said it would take. She put in the hours and played the level of travel ball necessary to make herself a legitimate Division I talent. As a senior in high school, she hit .500, drove in 44 runs and stole 17 bases.
Is she on the team because of her last name? Well, yes. But mostly because not many other kids would understand quite so innately what it would take to get in that dugout.
"She worked her butt off," Murphy said. "She's probably the hardest working kid we have on the team. Weight room, field, classroom, put them all together and she's probably the hardest worker. And I know at the end of it she's not going to have one regret about what she's done because she has worked her hardest."
That extends beyond the field, where Patterson was recently named to the university's all-female honor society, the XXXI, one of 18 juniors selected. But for the girl who used to throw a fit if it looked like she was going to be late to watch Alabama take batting practice before softball games, the Crimson Tide have always been a part of who she is. And a part of what she worked to remain.
"Her legacy isn't going to be left by her playing time; it's not going to be like that," All-American senior outfielder Kayla Braud said. "It's what she means to her teammates. She cares so genuinely about every single person, and she works harder than anybody else here. I mean, she's just the heart and soul of our team in a sense of she knows how to do things the right way, she knows when you're having a bad day. She's just a good teammate."
She is a champion the man who hired her mother would surely appreciate.