Sarah Patterson made an eternal impact on women’s sports

Ashlee Woods | @ashleemwoods, Contributing Writer

In 1972, the Title IX amendment gave equality to men’s and women’s sports, spawning the creation of the Alabama gymnastics team in 1974. The consistent national championship-contending teams we see today were not what fifty or so spectators saw in the early days of Alabama gymnastics. With a struggling gymnastics program, then Athletic Director Paul W. Bryant knew he needed to hire someone who could transform the program into a success inside and outside the arena. He would bring on Slippery Rock University graduate Sarah Patterson in 1979. 

Patterson was the fifth head coach in five seasons for the gymnastics team at The University of Alabama. Originally picked to become the assistant coach, she was offered the position after the head coach at the time, Tom Steele, decided to leave. At just 22 years old, she and her now-husband David Patterson would take over the team. Their first goal was to lead the gymnasts to their first winning season in program history. Patterson was able to accomplish that goal in 1980, and by 1983, Patterson was able to lead her first recruiting class to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. For the rest of Patterson’s tenure, the gymnastics team would not miss the NCAA tournament. Her teams would win six NCAA Gymnastics titles (the first in 1988), eight SEC Championship titles and 29 NCAA Regional titles. 

With all the success Alabama gymnastics was starting to garner, the next step was to promote the team and earn money for recruiting. In an interview with the New York Times, Patterson recalled former Tennessee Women’s Basketball head coach Pat Summit telling her that coaching and recruiting was not sufficient in women’s sports. Patterson sought to make that change at Alabama. Patterson would talk to local reporters and hand out stickers at basketball games to try and attract more fans to the gymnastics competitions. She would even call into the Paul Finebaum Show under the alias “Sarah from Tuscaloosa” and would mention that tickets were always available for Friday’s meets. 

This constant marketing put 15,043 fans in the Coleman Coliseum in 1997 for a meet against storied gymnastics rival, the Georgia Bulldogs. With their long-standing cross-conference football rivalry, adding gymnastics into the mix allowed for fans of Georgia and Alabama alike to show their pride for each school while supporting another sport on campus. 

“Sarah has done a great job in not only winning, but marketing the sport,” former Utah Women’s Gymnastics head coach Greg Marsden said in a New York Times article. 

With Title IX allowing the creation of women’s sports teams just seven years before Patterson’s first season in 1972, women’s sports faced a ton of challenges. Patterson was able to create a loyal gymnastics fanbase at Alabama through her marketing. Fans can be seen in 2020, six years after her retirement, continuing the tradition of covering themselves in red body paint while donning shakers and cheering for the team. Through her promotion—and of course, winning—Patterson brought the football craze to the gymnastics arena. Her biggest pride, however, is how women’s sports were able to grow at a football-dominated school. From softball to women’s tennis, the support for women’s sports has grown immensely at the University. 

Of course, Patterson understood the importance of developing the entire person and not just the athlete. She prides herself on seeing her athletes graduate from the University and become active members in their communities. In an interview with Tuscaloosa News, Patterson mentioned how coach Bryant influenced her philosophy of how she treats her girls. 

He put great emphasis on the team as a family – a philosophy I continue today. His insistence on always doing the right thing influenced players throughout their lives,” Patterson said.

This philosophy showed within her teams. The team would constantly visit retirement homes, support Project AngelTree and work with handicapped kids. As a result, fans began to see the kind of women Patterson had molded, and the Tuscaloosa community has been able to experience the type of heart Patterson had for serving others around her. 

Leading by example, Patterson created the Power of Pink initiative, a fundraiser for the DCH Breast Cancer Fund. This initiative has allowed disadvantaged women in Tuscaloosa to receive cancer treatment and has inspired other schools to have their own pink meets. She was also active in relief efforts after the 2011 tornadoes. This love for serving others grew as her and David Patterson matured as coaches.  

“I feel that if we can instill that quality, that characteristic of giving in our athletes when they are 18 to 22, and they have the sense of accomplishment that working in the community gives,” Patterson said in an interview with “Then when they graduate and go out into the world, they will have gained so much from that experience that they will always be giving people.” 

Patterson, through her work in the community, allowed herself to grow as a person. She understood the importance of volunteering and knew that this value must be instilled in the women on her teams. Patterson, while cultivating a winning program, created caring community leaders. 

With all of the accolades, the community service and the work Patterson has done, her resume begs the question if she is among the best head coaches of all-time at Alabama. When she was hired, the women’s sports movement at the collegiate level was just beginning. Patterson, along with several other female head coaches, began to push for equality for women in sports. During her 36-year tenure, Patterson was able to create one of the most successful gymnastics programs in NCAA history. But what is most important is the culture she was able to create at Alabama. She mentored young women to go out on campus and in the community to be role models and leaders. Patterson instilled values in the gymnastics team that would still be used by current head coach Dana Duckworth.

“[Patterson] was a trailblazer for women’s sports,” former SEC Commissioner Michael Slive said in a press conference after Patterson’s retirement. “When you think about Pat Summitt, Sarah Patterson is in the same place as Pat Summitt.” 

Patterson’s spirit and passion for the sport has been felt outside of the Coleman Coliseum. Without her heart and consistent advocacy for her program, Alabama Gymnastics would not be where it is today. Sarah Patterson was able to turn a fledgling gymnastics program into a successful NCAA powerhouse.