The best coach in Alabama history?
When the University of Alabama women's gymnastics team won their fifth NCAA championship under head coach Sarah Patterson in 2011, people started saying that Patterson deserved a statue on campus. Preferably one right outside Coleman Coliseum, where people packed to cheer on the Crimson Tide gymnasts in record-setting numbers in the tens of thousands -- no small feat for a sport that isn't called football.
After all, why not? By 2011, Patterson's teams had won five NCAA rings for Alabama (and they'd add another in 2012). Coach Nick Saban, with three NCAA championships to his name at that point, had a statue. Frank Thomas, whom you've never heard of unless you really, really like football, had a statue. Even the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant -- who reaches godlike status in Tuscaloosa -- had only one more title than Patterson. Where was Sarah's statue?
Patterson herself never responded to calls for her likeness to be immortalized in bronze. Not that she needed to -- her life's work was taking a fledgling program that had had five coaches in five years when she was hired in 1978, and making it into one of Bama's winningest dynasties. Today at the U of A, even those who don't really, really like gymnastics know Sarah Patterson's name and how good her team is.
During her 36 seasons of coaching alongside husband David Patterson, a former associate head coach and more recently volunteer coach for the team, Alabama gymnastics became a deeply ingrained part of the Crimson Tide sports identity. The gymnasts sold out the Coliseum and backed up their fan support with six national titles and eight SEC titles. In addition, Patterson and former Georgia head coach Suzanne Yoculan were the principal characters in a classic SEC sports soap. The personal rivalry -- which included plenty of memorable moments and choice quotes throughout the years -- ignited NCAA gymnastics for 20 years and made each program better than it would have been without the other. When Georgia won its first national title in 1987, Alabama responded by doing the same a year later. When Yoculan landed prize recruit Courtney Kupets in 2005, Patterson wooed Kupets' U.S. Olympic teammate Terin Humphrey to Alabama. Each became an NCAA champion multiple times over.
Patterson, who announced earlier this week that she is stepping away from coaching in order to have knee replacement surgery on both knees, will be remembered as one of the all-time great Crimson Tide coaches, in addition to the mark she leaves on NCAA gymnastics. And just in case people forget her accomplishments, they can walk through the Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza, located between the Coleman Coliseum and Sewell-Thomas Stadium. There's no statue of Patterson there, but her presence is felt all the same.
Sarah Patterson's career accomplishments
July 1, 1978: Sarah Patterson, a 22-year-old graduate of Slippery Rock State College, is hired by Bear Bryant (in his role as athletic director) to coach the Alabama women's gymnastics team. She is the fifth coach in as many years -- but will hold the job for 36 years and lead the Crimson Tide to six NCAA women's titles, including back-to-back wins in 2011 and '12.
April 22, 1988: Alabama wins its first NCAA team championship, in Salt Lake City, becoming only the third school (after Utah and Georgia) to capture the title. It was also the first NCAA title for Alabama in a sport other than football.
April 19, 1991: Alabama wins its second NCAA team championship and first in front of the home crowd in Tuscaloosa, three years after its first NCAA title. It does so by beating Utah and Suzanne Yoculan-led Georgia. The Sarah-Suzanne SEC rivalry will simmer for the better part of the next two decades, with the teams trading SEC and NCAA titles in some years.
February 1, 1997: Alabama sells out Coleman Coliseum for the first time as 15,043 fans come to see the Tide take on Georgia, with a reported 400 fans turned away. Alabama gymnastics still reports sellout crowds and some of the highest fan turnout of any NCAA program: In 2014, average attendance at home meets was 12,826, the second-highest number in any NCAA women's sport. (No. 1 was Utah gymnastics, at 14,349.)
April 21, 2012: Alabama wins its second consecutive NCAA title, marking the first time the Crimson Tide has won back-to-back national championships. It is the sixth and final national title of Sarah Patterson's career, tying Alabama football coach Bear Bryant's mark of six NCAA titles.
October 4, 2013: The University of Alabama dedicates the Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza, honoring Patterson for her vast accomplishments in gymnastics and for Crimson Tide athletics.
April 18, 2014: Senior Kim Jacob becomes the first Bama gymnast to win the NCAA all-around title since Jeana Rice's performance in 2004. In June, Jacob wins the Honda Cup as the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year -- the first time an Alabama athlete has won the award.