Tuscaloosa's Rising from the Tornado Inspired an Age of Champions

In the three years following the April 27 tornado, Alabama football, gymnastics, men's golf, women's golf and softball combined to win seven national titles
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By Christopher Walsh, Tyler Martin and Joey Blackwell 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was almost as if on some level he knew. 

Mal Moore didn't of course, at least not to the degree that it happened. But in February 2012, Alabama's athletic director called together some of the more prominent Crimson Tide coaches to discuss creating the Sarah Patterson Wall of Champions. It would be built across the way from Coleman Coliseum, down the right-field line of the baseball stadium, and honor the championship teams and coaches outside of football. 

"I remember it was Sarah, me, Mic Potter and Patrick Murphy," Alabama men's golf coach Jay Seawell said. "We were all ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country and he wanted our ideas about it. 

"I still remember that meeting like it was yesterday. It’s funny, all four of us have our face on that wall now."

In the wake of the horrific April 27, 2011 tornado, which Moore saw just miss the campus while on his way to a shelter (and video crews inside Coleman Coliseum shot the epic film of it narrowly going past DCH Regional Medical Center), Alabama sports subsequently had its greatest stretch ever. 

In addition to football winning back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012, and gymnastics repeating in the spring of 2012, softball and women's golf both won in 2012, and men's golf followed with consecutive NCAA crowns in 2013-14.

There were two common traits that could said of all those national champions: Talented teams, and dealing with the aftermath of the tornado not just as individuals, but as a team.  

"I think things that bring you together are always beneficial," Potter said. 

"Maybe that was a factor in us winning it the next year."

It didn't just happen overnight

To give an idea of how coaches think during a season, and how they're always looking for an edge, Potter spent the early hours of April 27 considering how he could take advantage of the gusty wind. 

Mind you, no one knew at that point what would happen, or how everyone's lives were about to change. It was a beautiful morning in Tuscaloosa and even though there had been sufficient warnings about what might happen later in day, it wasn't until long past lunch that the weather started to turn ominous.  

The Crimson Tide was getting ready to play in an NCAA Regional in Daytona, Florida, a course and area known for its windy conditions.

"It seemed like a great opportunity," he said.

When the first sirens went off, no one in Tuscaloosa seemed to be in immediate danger. However, the second time it was. By then the women's golf team was already off the course when assistant coach Susan Rosenstiel (who left early to be with her kids because schools had closed as a precaution) called to raise the alarm. 

Ironically, many of the players were at study hall inside the Bill Battle Academic Center, which, due to a basement, new construction and the way the stairways were built, was considered one of the safest places on campus.

Like so many others, they were completely shocked after emerging from where they had taken refuge 10 years ago today. 

"A crazy time," Murphy said. "A scary time.”

While there were 360 tornadoes in the 2011 Super Outbreak, the largest in United States history, most of the rest of the country was immune to the kind of damage Tuscaloosa and Alabama endured. So the regional went on as scheduled. The Crimson Tide players did a lot of volunteering for a couple of days, and then Potter got them out of town. 

"They were pretty shaken," he said. 

In impressive fashion, Alabama won the tournament and qualified for the 2011 NCAA Championships. Along the way, the hotel where the team stayed put together a care package of extra supplies to bring back to Tuscaloosa. At the NCAAs, held at Texas A&M, a major donation was made by the parent of another golfer.

"People circled up," Potter said.

And then Alabama struggled at NCAAs. 

"You never know how that's going to affect you," he said. 

A year later, the Crimson Tide did the opposite With senior Brooke Pancake rolling in a 4-foot putt for par on the final hole, Alabama held off a charge by USC for the program's first national title. 

Perspective is always important

To really understand how far the athletic program as a whole had come, one really has to go back to 2002, when football was handed down NCAA penalties that included five years probation and a two-year postseason ban due to a recruiting scandal. Ironically, it was also the last time gymnastics won the national championship until 2011. 

In 2002, Sports Illustrated named Alabama the 26th best collegiate sports program in America, which most Crimson Tide fans took as an insult. The facilities were not considered special. The football program hadn't won a national title since 1992.

In reality, the ranking was not off the mark, and in danger of sinking even lower. 

That changed under Moore, who had both the vision and drive to get the Crimson Tide back on top, and not just with football. It was only after the overall commitment was made and followed by serious upgrades was he able to lure Nick Saban as a head coach.

When football won the 2009 national championship it directly helped and influenced all of the other teams. So when the tornado came through 11 days after the Saban statue in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium was dedicated, Crimson Tide athletics was already on a big upswing. 

That 2011 gymnastics title was also secured just a few days before the tornado struck. There would be no chance to celebrate ... yet. 

A year later, the Crimson Tide repeated. 

“I think athletes in all sports felt almost a duty next year,” volunteer coach David Patterson said. “They worked harder in the offseason because that’s what people were looking forward to. They were looking forward to getting out and watching Alabama sports again.”

Only this time the opposite happened in terms of the celebration. There was women's golf and there was softball also getting rings, and in the process doing more to help the rebuilding and the spirit of the community heal in ways no one could have foreseen. 

That was on top of football, of course, which trampled Notre Dame for the 2012 title.

It was as if Tuscaloosa was being reborn as championship city. 

“It felt like every team was in such a good place," Sarah Patterson said of her sixth, and last, national gymnastics title. "It was like ‘We’ve been through this, put everything you have into your season,’ and those four championships came the next year.

"It was everything to our athletes."

Only the Crimson Tide wasn't done yet. Men's golf, which finished second for the 2012 title, won the next two.

It just took a little longer. 

“I think all of us feed off of each other," Seawell said. "There’s excellence. I do believe whenever anyone else does something beside you, it makes you feel like you can so I definitely believe all that happened in those years were us helping each move forward in that time.”

As for how much the tornado might have helped those title-winning teams, there's no way to know for sure. Every day the athletes lived through and helped the cleanup and rebuilding process, and as Saban would put it pushed through adversity. Whether it was offensive lineman Barrett Jones going around town with a chainsaw, or the simple act of handing out water, Tuscaloosa pulled together in the aftermath, and worked together in a way that would almost seem foreign today. 

It was a coming together that made everyone closer while embracing the attitude of "Whatever it takes." 

The Crimson Tide then directed that same mentality back to the playing fields. 

“It was a real sweet moment," Seawell said about the win that put him on the Wall of Champions next to Murphy, Patterson and Potter. 

But since Seawell's team won again in 2014, Alabama hasn't added anyone else. 

This is the seventh story in a weeklong series about the 10-year anniversary of the Tuscaloosa tornado.

10 Years Later, Tuscaloosa's Process of Coping, Recovering from Tornado Continues

Throwback Thursday: The Tuscaloosa Tornado

With the Help of Alabama Athletics, Tuscaloosa Has Been Rebuilt Stronger 10 Years Following Deadly Tornado

All Things Bama Podcast: Mayor Walt Maddox Reflects on 10-Year Anniversary of April 27th Tornado

Memories of Destructive April 27 Tornado Still Vivid for Brian Robinson Jr., Kat Grill

78 Minutes: In Tuscaloosa's Hour of Need, the Patterson Family Answered the Call

To Alabama Baseball, the Game They Loved was a Return to Normalcy Following the April 27 Tornado