TUSCALOOSA — With her family seated to her right side, gymnasts both past and present to her left, reporters and university administrators scattered throughout the room and her voice cracking, Sarah Patterson made it just 44 seconds through her speech before tears began to fall.
Dressed in her houndstooth-print blouse, donning her NCAA championship jewelry, Patterson, 58, formally announced her retirement as Alabama’s gymnastics coach, leaving the only job she has ever known.
The news, which broke Tuesday morning, marked the end of two eras: Patterson’s 36-year coaching career at Alabama and a part of the university’s connection to legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, as Patterson was the last remaining coach he hired during his tenure as athletics director. Long-term health concerns stemming from degenerative knee issues ended Patterson’s career.
Patterson opened with an inspirational quote that centered around focusing on the important things in life from iconic Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, relating it to how she and her husband, David Patterson, tried to live their lives by similar virtues. David also stepped down as a volunteer coach, a position he has held since chronic back issues forced him to retire in 2008.
“We have pursued excellence, we have pursued championships,” she said, unsuccessfully trying to fight back the tears. “But more than anything I think we have pursued making the world a better place by sending these women out to make a difference in our world. We’ve tried to lead by example and show them what’s important.”
During her tenure, Patterson led the Crimson Tide to 1,066 wins, six NCAA championships and eight SEC titles.
Among others, Patterson thanked her first recruiting class who she said, like Bryant, took a chance on her long before the program became the powerhouse she leaves behind for her replacement.
Assistant coach Dana Duckworth has been named as Patterson’s successor, pending approval of The University of Alabama Board of Trustees.
Duckworth, a two-time individual NCAA champion at Alabama during the early 1990s, will be Alabama’s sixth coach. Assistant Bryan Raschilla has been promoted to associate head coach.
Patterson said she wanted the coaching change to be a “seamless transition” and Alabama athletics director Bill Battle agreed to accommodate her wishes.
“I think the seamless part of it is important to a coaching transition for us to have continued success, which is the first and foremost of what this university is about,” Patterson said.
Battle said the university is “eternally grateful for the legacy” the Pattersons have built.
“The greatest thing I can say about Sarah and David is that they have been living examples of our mission for the last 36 years,” Battle said. “They have recruited and developed their student-athletes to compete at the highest levels of gymnastics on an amazing streak. They have educated and prepared those student-athletes to compete at the highest levels in life after graduation. And they’ve done both with honor and integrity.”
Putting everyone else first
The pain has been there for years, but just like she teaches her athletes, Patterson wouldn’t let herself complain. She pushed through it, masking the pain behind her smile and glowing personality.
“She’d said, ‘I’m sore. I do workouts to help me get better. You guys do workouts that help you get better,’” rising senior gymnast Kayla Williams said. “She took it just like one of us.”
But eventually it caught up with her, as she can’t put off surgery any longer.
“It’s been suggested to me that someday you would have to do it,” Patterson said. “I struggled this year tremendously with the pain issue.”
It took a secret visit with renowned surgeon Lyle Cain to convince Patterson on surgery to replace both her knees. The meeting itself was put off until her daughter Jordan Patterson and Alabama’s softball team finished the Women’s College World Series.
Still, the procedures will have to wait until at least September as three more special events take priority. Jordan and the softball team receive their SEC championship rings and the gymnastics team will receive their SEC championship rings.
Battle and others pushed Patterson to take a year off and return to coaching fully recovered. But putting the program first meant ending her coaching tenure.
“The reality of it is, if I took a year off … I think it would be used tremendously against us in recruiting,” Patterson said. “If you do that, you wouldn’t just be taking me out, you’d be taking a volunteer coach out (David). So you’d be taking out two coaches who have 36 years of experience each, bringing in another staff member and then the next year, making a transition back.
“I don’t think that’s what will help our program.”
Despite all of the championships and other accolades, the one piece of Patterson’s legacy that will stand the test of time is her Power of Pink initiative. Over the past 10 years, Alabama gymnastics has raised $1.45 million for breast cancer research, including a $108,900 check presented to the DCH Breast Cancer Fund at the 2014 Power of Pink meet. Patterson said that’ll be something she remembers for the rest of her life.
The growth of the gymnastics Power of Pink led other female teams at Alabama to host their own “pink” events.
That coupled with her ability fill seats helped Patterson turn the Crimson Tide into a national juggernaut while earning her elite status among the all-time Alabama athletic figures.
She did all of the ground work, including handing out flyers and pushing reporters to cover her team and its initiatives and countless other things to promote the program.
“Pat Summit once told me, ‘If you’re coaching a women’s sport and you aren’t willing to market and promote as much as you are to coach and recruit, may you compete in front of no one,’” Patterson said. “And I listened to that.”
That hard work in her early days created a lasting memory.
“I’ll never forget in 1997, we had our first sellout,” Patterson said. “It was against the University of Georgia and there were people scalping tickets because some husbands waited too late to buy their little girls tickets, and it was sold out. I will never forget that moment.”
Sports Writer Marq Burnett: On Twitter @Marq_Burnett.