In 1988, Alabama Gymnastics Started a Great Tradition

J. Bank

In 1988, Alabama won its first national title in gymnastics. 

The program went on to win five more, becoming a powerhouse in the sport with numerous conference championships, regional championships and NCAA tournament appearances.

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Coach Sarah Patterson was beginning her 10th year at the helm of Alabama Gymnastics.
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The National Champions roster.
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Four Alabama gymnasts earned seven All-American honors. Sarah Patterson was named NCAA Coach of the Year

The Alabama athletics department describes the first title as such:

It started quietly. The University of Alabama’s brand-new gymnastics squad, under the direction of Riki Sutton that first year, came together in the fall of 1974 and would compete for the first time in January of 1975. That first team finished third at the state championships and sixth at the regionals. Through the first four seasons of the program there are four different coaches and no winning seasons, and there is talk about discontinuing the program. That talk will come to an abrupt halt soon though, because things are about to get better for the young program, much, much better.

In the summer of 1978, “Grease” reigned at the box office and ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” filled dance floors coast to coast. “Laverne and Shirley” was the most popular TV series on the air, though it was in re-runs. It is the summer of 1978 and things are about to turn around for the Crimson Tide, because Sarah Patterson has said yes.

Postgraduate Scholarships and over 300 SEC Academic Honor Roll honors. And long gone are the days of stray volleyballs flying through practice. Since 1996, the Tide has trained in a state-of-the art practice facility dedicated to gymnastics alone.

The fan base has grown by leaps and bounds as well. Alabama gymnastics is one of the top draws in women’s collegiate athletics, averaging a school and SEC-record 13,786 fans in 2010 and ranked second in the nation for all women’s sports in 2014, 2013 and 2011 and third in 2012, 2015 and 2016. That wasn’t always the case, though.

“In the early days, we’d have three dozen people and two dozen would be Ann Wood’s family and friends,” Sarah Patterson said.

Most importantly to all involved is that the student-athletes who helped turn Alabama into a national powerhouse have themselves developed into outstanding women making a difference in the world around them. The Tide’s all-time roster is filled with doctors, lawyers, mothers and executives all excelling at the highest level.

“We are so proud of all the ladies who have come through our program and every championship won and every honor earned,” Sarah Patterson said. “But more than anything, we are proud of the tremendously rich and full lives they go on to lead after graduation. To have been a small part of their success is a great thrill.”

Things certainly changed, grew and blossomed since those first days of Alabama gymnastics success. Fast forward to the summer of 2014 and “Scandal,” “The Voice” and “Modern Family” were keeping everyone glued to the small screens, while super heroes, including the X-Men, Captain America and the Guardians of the Galaxy, reigned supreme on the big screen, filling the theaters. On the radio, the ladies ruled the charts with Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea leading the way.

The summer of 2014 also saw a passing of the torch as Sarah and David Patterson – after helping the little program that couldn’t quite find its feet in the 1970s win six NCAA championships, eight Southeastern Conference crowns, 29 NCAA Regional titles, 25 individual NCAA championships and earn 302 All-America honors – stepped down from coaching and Dana (Dobransky) Duckworth, who grew up in the program as an NCAA champion, volunteer coach and assistant coach took up the challenge of carrying the Tide into the future.

Embracing the mindset that created more than just one of the nation’s best overall athletic programs, but a family that stretches back to the class of 1975 through the freshmen of 2020, Duckworth continues a philosophy that echoes another top song from 1978, this one by Sister Sledge, one that perfectly sums up Alabama gymnastics, “We are family ... I got all my sisters and me ...”

She didn’t ask about salary, or facilities or equipment. When the letter came asking if she would be Alabama’s head coach, Patterson, all of 22 years old and just out of Slippery Rock State College, gave the Crimson Tide an emphatic and unequivocal “yes.”

Her first move as Alabama’s coach was to hire David Patterson, coming out of his freshman year as a Crimson Tide diver, as an assistant coach. The couple, married in 1984, then turned to the task at hand, taking a team without a winning season and creating a juggernaut that has performed at the highest conceivable level for more than three decades.

The adventures along the way came fast and furious. Sarah found herself explaining to her boss Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Tide’s legendary football coach and athletics director, why a wrestling mat with a hole in the middle wouldn’t do as a floor exercise mat.

“Once I explained what we needed,” Sarah Patterson said, “Coach Bryant told Coach Sam Bailey (Bryant’s right-hand man administratively) to get us what we needed. Coach Bryant wanted all our sports to be winners and he was willing to provide us with the tools.”

And the facilities that Sarah hadn’t asked about when taking the job, started with Foster Auditorium, where the Tide shared its practice space with the volleyball team.

“It was interesting,” David Patterson said. “Every once in a while you’d have a stray volleyball come zinging through practice. Before every practice we’d have to set up all the equipment and the mats and at the end of every practice we’d have to break it all down again.”

Things progressed quickly though. Prior to their first season, Sarah and David scoured the dorms on campus looking for anyone with tumbling experience, just so they could fill their lineup. They were though, doing some far more important recruiting farther afield.

In signing their first class, Sarah and David made one basic promise to their recruits. They promised the freshmen of 1980 that they would go to the national championships.

“The first real defining moment of our program was the first year we went to NCAAs,” Sarah said. “Our first recruiting class was in their senior year. We had promised them that we would make it to NCAAs. In their junior year, we finished 11th and they took 10 teams. At the end of 1982, we all knew that we had one year to fulfill our commitment to these ladies. Seeing it happen their senior year, making it to the NCAA Championships — I couldn’t have been prouder.”

One promise fulfilled and another goal on the horizon. Sarah and David built their program, almost from scratch on the simple premise that Alabama would develop the whole person instead of just the athlete. From the beginning, Patterson-coached student-athletes excelled not only in the gym, but in the classroom as well. And beyond that, they developed lives outside of both. By the mid-1980s, the Pattersons began to wonder if their system would take the Tide to a national championship. They began to wonder if the Tide could truly have the best of all worlds.

The answer came as another emphatic yes in 1988 when the Tide won its first Southeastern Conference and NCAA championships.

“Before ‘88, I think sometimes we looked back and said, ‘Maybe you can’t have this philosophy of developing the whole person and be number one,’” Sarah Patterson said. “When we won, it was a validation of that philosophy. We could do it this way and be successful on all fronts. We may not win every year, but we will be successful.”

And just to prove that 1988 was no fluke, the Pattersons led the Tide to NCAA titles in 1991, 1996, 2002, 2011 and 2012. Under their direction, Alabama is the only gymnastics program to win NCAA championships in four different decades.

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