Paul “Bear” Bryant never dismounted from a balance beam nor stuck a landing after a vault. But he had as much to do with Alabama winning its second consecutive NCAA gymnastics championship last April as anyone else. He hired Sarah Patterson.
In 1978, Patterson was fresh out of Slippery Rock (then known as Slippery Rock State College) in Pennsylvania. She interview with the legendary head football coach and as usual Bear picked a winner. In her 34 years at Alabama her teams have won seven SEC titles, 27 NCAA regional titles and six national titles. As the last Alabama head coach on campus hired by Bryant its only fitting that Patterson’s six titles tie her former boss for the most championships at the school.
That standard of excellence compelled the Alabama Board of Trustees to unanimously approve the construction of the Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza. This $2.8 million project will be a tribute to Alabama’s success in all of its athletics programs. The plaza will be next to Sewell-Thomas Stadium and is slated to open next spring.
“I think this is probably the largest honor that could be bestowed upon me, my husband [an assistant gymnastics coach], and my family,” Patterson said. “I feel there is such a rich tradition of history and championships and a legacy here at Alabama. For my husband, my family and I, it’s just so humbling to be part of that championship tradition that the university has.”
Nobody has had a bigger year than Alabama. The football team won its second title in three years in January. Its women’s golf team and softball team won national titles this spring to go along with Alabama’s gymnastics team. What has been doubly special is that Patterson’s daughter is also a member of the championship softball team. Three titles in two sports is quite a haul for one household.
“To have a 20-year-old daughter on our championship softball team who’s grown up since age eight as a ‘Bama softball fan at camp behind home plate of Rhoads Stadium, that’s very special,” Patterson said, who was in Oklahoma City every day for the softball championships. “I really don’t think there are any other examples I can think of a mother, a daughter and a father all win a [national] championship in different sports.”
“And really, to me the most meaningful part of this [honor] is that I get to enter it with two of my peers joining me — Nick Potter, our golf coach, and Patrick Murphy, our softball coach. We’ve taken and expanded this from being just a football championship institution to football and gymnastics and now in any sport, any program. There is a pursuit of excellence in championships. To me that is the biggest honor. To have this erected and designed while having two of my peers by my side.”
Last year was the 30th consecutive year Alabama has competed for a shot at the national title. It is a model program that is the envy of Division I. There is no debating the plaza being named for her is deserved, but she readily acknowledges it has far greater significance than any individual glory.
“It’s not really about me, but about this champions plaza,” Patterson said. “This is going to recognize all those ladies on our ’88 championship team, on our ’91 championship team, ’96. It’s for every one on those six [national] championship teams plus our seven SEC championship teams. Now when we’re here and we’re bringing recruits and visitors and when recruiting general students, you can bring them over to this plaza and show them that the entire institution is about excellence.
“We’ve had great fan support. My hope is that everyone is extremely excited about it. I think when you’re at an educational institution, when you’re there I don’t think there’s any greater honor than having something named for you. To me this is a dream come true. The fact that this all happened the same year we won four championships.
“There is no person that is more supportive and helpful to our coaches than coach [Nick] Saban. I fully understand that the success that our institution has had with our football program during my 34 years at Alabama, this has enabled me to compete at the highest level because of the success of coach Saban and our football team. It all goes together here.”