Sarah Patterson Proves That Matching Bryant’s Six Titles Can Be Done
By Larry Burton
Whether or not Nick Saban ever gets his sixth national championship title, someone has already proven that it can be done in Tuscaloosa and her name is Sarah Patterson.
While Alabama will never be known in the largest sense as anything but a place where football is king, the simple fact of the matter is that they may be in the midst of an even bigger dynasty in ladies gymnastics, where Sarah Patterson just keeps the ball rolling. With six national championships under her belt and counting, Patterson not only has met Bryant’s national championship total, but is set to break it and become the most successful coach in Alabama’s long and glorified history.
Earlier this month, in a meet with Georgia, a team expected to be the top SEC team this season, Patterson and the women’s gymnastic team pulled off yet another win in a close come from behind win. With Patterson, those unexpected wins just keep becoming routine.
It was Bryant himself that gave Patterson her start, being the last coach that Bryant would hire as Athletic Director of the University of Alabama. After four absolute dismal seasons in a row, Bryant was considering dropping women’s gymnastics altogether, but hired Patterson as the fifth coach in five years to lead that team in 1979.
With just graduate assistant coaching experience on her resume, she actually came to Alabama to apply for the assistant coach’s job, but when the head coach was terminated, she was instead given a chance to become the head coach. Most didn’t give this young inexperienced coach much hope of turning things around. She had heard through the grapevine that if she failed as the others had done, Bryant was set to dissolve the program and she would go down in history as the coach that killed the Alabama ladies gymnastic program.
While other coaches would have seen this job as a dead end, Patterson was excited to have the chance to make her mark and make not only winning a program, but a home for herself.
She was given just $5000 a year in salary, an un-air conditioned gym that was converted from an old armory and little equipment that included an old wrestling mat with a hole in it. She had no scholarship athletes to work with, no real budget and few assistants that included her husband who did so on a volunteer basis and upon his retirement, still works with her as a volunteer today.
For a spunky, virtually inexperienced 22 year old coach, born in New York, just a few years removed from graduating from college herself at Slippery Rock in Pennsylvania, coming to Alabama and taking over a program in shambles was perhaps a longshot hire for Bryant, but he saw some spunk and spark in her and while he hoped that she would succeed, little was expected given the all the bad circumstances of the state of women’s gymnastics at Alabama.
Instead, in that first season, Patterson built confidence in a team that had never enjoyed success. She mentored, coached, cajoled, mamaed and pushed that team to seven wins in meets that year, more than the last four years combined, and instead of canceling the program, Bryant instead gave Patterson four scholarships to recruit even better gymnasts. The checkbook was opened and better equipment was brought in. Bryant rewarded and wanted to feed the success that he saw in hopes that this was the beginning of a turnaround for that program.
In the next year, Patterson brought in the first recruiting class of her own and both a challenge and promise was made to that class, that they would, before they graduated, not only be winners, but go to the NCAA Championships. By their senior season, they did in fact surprise the college gymnastic world by not only making it to the championship series in 1983, but finished amazingly in fourth place in their very first appearance in a championship series.
Getting to the top is never as hard as staying at the top, but after their first appearance in the NCAA Gymnastic Championship Series, Patterson made Alabama one of the top programs in the country with one of the most astounding feats in all of college sports. Since that first appearance in 1983, under Patterson Alabama has returned to the championship series every year since, an astonishing 31 times in a row, winning six titles. Besides the titles, her teams have finished in the top six 29 times, including an NCAA record of 22 top-three finishes.
And to her credit, Patterson is showing no signs of slowing down or resting on her laurels. Her championships include back to back wins in 2011 and 2012. Her other championships were in 1988, 1991, 1996 and 2002. In addition to these wins, her teams have 27 regional titles and seven SEC titles.
Much like her present day fellow coach Nick Saban, Patterson coaches best on the big stage. In years where the team may not have finished with an SEC title, once they get to the national championships, they shine their brightest.
Patterson has the respect of the collegiate world today. She has eight coach of the year titles as well as being inducted in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. She has rubbed shoulders with other great coaches besides Bryant and Saban and often recounts lessons and things she’s learned from Pat Summit, perhaps the best female basketball coach in history.
There have been many highlights in her illustrious career, but none topped the emotion of the 2012 season where she saw Alabama win it’s second in a row football championship, her own gymnastic team win yet another national championship, the lady golf team win a national championship, but most of all, getting to see her daughter help win a national championship for the Alabama girls softball team.
Another highlight, not only for Patterson, but her legion of fans, was the completion and dedication of the Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza. This cherished area honors the Crimson Tide’s national champion coaches for all sports other than football. It also features marble slabs that highlight all of the Tide’s varsity sports besides football, including a listing of all the Tide’s NCAA and Southeastern Conference titles. It is located in front of Coleman Coliseum.
For Alabama, Patterson is their third “Giant Among Coaches”. While some schools long to just have one in the history of their program, Alabama is lucky to have two still serving at the present time. While both Bryant and Patterson share six national titles and Saban just has four, both can expect to add more before their time at Alabama is over.
Patterson has shown Saban that you can match the great record of Paul “Bear” Bryant and quite possibly surpass it. The future is indeed bright for fans of Alabama sports in lots of areas.
Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at