Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Statue for Sarah

image Other than the players, no one takes greater pride in the accomplishments of championship teams than the coach. When someone on the Alabama Gymnastics Team sticks a landing or executes a perfect floor routine, the pride shows on the coach’s face as much as it does on the face of her pupil. It’s personal and it’s pride, and it shows.

When you win football championships for the Crimson Tide, the program erects a statue in honor and thanksgiving.

No one deserves to be immortalized on the hallowed ground of the Alabama campus more than Sarah Patterson.

Patterson is a rarity among college sports coaches in the modern era. No one sticks around for decades anymore. They just don’t in this nomadic society of ours. Regardless of the sport, most coaches are in one position for something well south of a decade and they’re moving on, moving up, getting fired or retiring. Student-athletes rarely see the same faces for two years straight, but Alabama gymnasts rarely see a new one during their entire stay at Alabama.

Even when they do stick around for the long haul, coaches’ success like this is as rare as the length of the tenure:

  • Five NCAA Championships – just one shy of Paul Bryant’s six titles.
  • Seven Southeastern Conference championships.
  • Twenty-six post-season NCAA regional championships.
  • Twenty-two gymnasts winning individual national championships.
  • Fifty-six gymnasts winning individual SEC championships.
  • Seven gymnasts with Honda National Gymnast of the Year awards.
  • Four-time SEC Coach of the Year.
  • Four-time National Coach of the Year.

During her 37-year tenure as the coach, a total of 261 Academic All-American awards have been earned by 62 different gymnasts. Patterson’s teams win on the floor and they win in the classroom. It’s a commitment she and husband David made more than two decades ago and it’s paid dividends that they couldn’t have imagined.

The legion of lawyers, doctors, accountants, teachers, mothers and corporate executives that have been through the Tide’s gymnastics program will all tell you the same thing—they learned how to win at Alabama.

That’s no small endorsement, because these are the women of Alabama.

In the 2011 season, Patterson’s Crimson Tide went 11-1 in the regular season and along the way earned her the milestone 400th career regular season win. The 2011 post-season brought the program’s fifth NCAA Championship, seventh SEC Championship and the 26th regional championship, the coveted gymnastics “triple crown.”

No other modern gymnastics program has won hardware like this one has, but through it all Patterson remains the same down-to-earth woman that first stepped on campus as the coach during the 1977-78 academic year. She’ll tell reporters that she’s had to change her approach towards kids over the years, but I daresay you’d get her to admit she lacks the passion she carries for winning that she’s had since 1978.

Think about that, sports fans. In 1978, Jimmy Carter was still President. Disco still ruled but the Van Halen 1978 World Tour was just kicking off. Wide lapels were still the rage and Paul W. Bryant still had two national titles to win in football. And while I was still in high school she was setting a legendary course for victory.

Four years after Patterson’s first recruiting class stepped on the floor, the program made an appearance in the NCAA Championships and finished fourth. The program hasn’t missed a Championship meet since then and won its first championship hardware in 1988. Twenty-four years later, Alabama is the defending NCAA champion and is positioned to repeat.

Since 1983, Alabama has been in the hunt for a national championship every single year. Every. Single. Year.

I am only a casual fan of gymnastics. Most football guys are, but anyone with a competitive bone in their body takes notice when a coach instills such a culture of winning. And when it comes to vanquishing your rivals, no one understands the stakes better than coach Patterson. Just before extending the win streak against in-state rival Auburn, Patterson had this to say:

“It’s personal, it’s pride. Whether it’s basketball, football, gymnastics, it doesn’t matter. It’s pride. It’s all about state pride. You may not be the SEC champions, you may not be regional champions, you may not be national champions, but it’s a state championship in gymnastics.”

For 104 straight times, the Iron Bowl of Gymnastics honors went to Sarah.

Alabama bas become the gold standard for women’s gymnastics and Sarah Patterson is as woven into that fabric as Bryant’s legacy is woven into the school’s football program. Patterson’s infectious smile is inseparable from Alabama gymnastics, and houndstooth-clad Tide fans know a little something about inseparability.

While the championships and ownership of her rivals would be enough for the ardent Bama fans to support immortalizing Coach Patterson with her own personal hardware, the commitment to community and academics should push even the most casual over the edge. The Easter Seals, the Stallings RISE Center, Project Angel Tree and support for local schools just scratch the surface of the Pattersons’ commitment to being woven into what Tuscaloosa means to Alabamians everywhere.

Patterson is the driving force behind the Power of Pink initiative to raise awareness in the fight against breast cancer. Power of Pink has raised over $1.25 million for the DCH Breast Cancer Fund and the DCH Foundation. In 2005 she was nominated to the DCH Foundation Board. She also speaks to clubs and civic organizations around the state of Alabama and she and husband David are always there to lend a hand with local causes.

On the first opportunity to do so after the devastating April 2011 tornadoes in north and central Alabama, Patterson and 2011 Honda Award winner Kayla Hoffman gave one of the most impassioned pleas for help, support and prayer that the affected communities could have heard, and Alabamians responded.

There aren’t many people who deserve to have statues erected in their honor. Sarah Patterson is one of those people and the time for that has come.

Championships on the floor. Championships in the classroom. Championships in the community.

Exit question: What else could anyone ask for?

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