Longtime Coach Leaves Lasting Legacy on and Off Gym Floor
By Jessie Patterson Jones
For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of my mom as limitless. She’s the ultimate marketer, the determined philanthropist, the fiery redhead. The list goes on and let’s be honest — on and on and on.
But it’s hard to fit the Sarah Patterson I know into the box most Alabama fans have concocted for her. Now, on the heels of her retirement in July, I think it’s time to share who she is when nobody’s looking – because that’s the true measure of a person, isn’t it?
When the spotlight fades, my mom shines even brighter. If you want to see her smile, you can talk to her about Alabama gymnastics, national titles and her favorite championship rings.
But, if you want to see her light up the whole room, ask her about the Power of Pink – and what it felt like when a family friend had to use the DCH Breast Cancer Fund that mom helped establish to pay for her treatment as she beat cancer. Ask her about her daughters – and what it means that they are both graduates of the University of Alabama, well on their way to happy, fulfilling lives of their own.
Here’s my take on the strongest, most incredible woman I know, and what it means to be simply “Sarah” – but I just call her “Mom.”
After a 36-year career leading the Alabama gymnastics program, with David Patterson at her side as both a loving husband and the ultimate assistant coach, it’s been a time of transition as Sarah has transitioned out of the only job she has ever known.
In 1978, Sarah Campbell accepted the job as the head coach for the University of Alabama’s gymnastics team, she knew she was taking on a lot – and would be facing creating her own legacy in the shadow of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and his football dynasty.
She embraced the opportunity, and headed South from her upstate New York home with a degree from Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania.
What many don’t know was that for Sarah, the trip back to Alabama was in many ways coming home. She was raised in Huntsville, Alabama from second grade through eighth grade.
“Then my family moved. But then I came back right after college,” Sarah said. “I did have some upbringing in the southern culture. I remember when I was starting ninth grade in Endicott, New York, and I responded to a teacher and said ‘yes sir.’ He told me I was being disrespectful and sassy by responding in that manner. I quickly knew I was not in the South anymore.”
Fast forward 36 years, and Sarah and David coached Alabama gymnastics to 6 NCAA championships, 29 NCAA regional titles and 8 SEC championships. But it’s the lessons they’ve taught and the relationships they’ve built with her former athletes that matter the most.
“For our career, the relationships mean everything,” she said. “That’s more important than any and all of the championships we’ve won, to see our athletes become successful women in their careers, as moms, to be great parents, and to be servants to their communities. I think that’s probably more rewarding than any of the championships that we won, to have had that influence on their lives.”
More than a decade ago, Sarah left her biggest mark on the Tuscaloosa community when she had a mammogram scare. While getting a routine check up, she couldn’t pass her mammogram. She received the ultimate in care, eventually finding out that nothing was wrong. The experience and extra testing caused her to ask what would have happened if she didn’t have great insurance. She didn’t like the answer, and set out to raise awareness for breast cancer in Tuscaloosa.
A partnership with the DCH Health System and local business owner and philanthropist David DeSantis led to the Power of Pink at the University of Alabama – and the establishment of the DCH Breast Cancer Fund, which provides mammograms and treatment, if needed, for women without insurance in the West Alabama area. To date, more than $1.3 million has been raised for the fund.
“Taking our fan base and using our position in the community to help make a difference in the lives of others was so important, because so many people helped us,” Sarah said. “I’m as proud of our involvement in our community as I am our success in athletics.
Now, Sarah is embarking on a new journey, as special assistant to the athletic director and working with the Crimson Tide Foundation. In the midst of wrapping up a storied career, her focus has turned inward as she undergoes two total knee replacements. The first one took place in late September, and have in many ways turned the tables on the lessons she taught athletes over four decades at the Capstone.
“So many of our ladies have texted me and said, ‘You’re the strongest woman I know,’” she said. “What I say to them is that I’m going through this rehabilitation process, and I’m trying to use the attitude that so many of them had when they were injured as athletes.
“I’m trying to emulate them now. They’re my role models and it’s so interesting for me to say that. It’s a role reversal, and I take what they say as a great compliment. I’m trying to follow in their lead coming off of surgery and preparing for another one.”
As the holiday season looms, things will look a little different at the Patterson household this year. Mom won’t be running around wrapping gifts and cooking meals at the same pace as she always has. In fact, I’ve been put in charge of Thanksgiving for first time in my life… and that’s a lot to live up to when Mom is one of the best cooks I know.
But as we prepare to gather together to celebrate and look back on a year of change, I’ll hug my husband, my sister and my incredible parents, and we’ll be looking forward to all the fun that’s in store for us when Mom gets through one more surgery.
We’re ready to tackle life’s adventures head on, no matter what comes next.
And her strength is the reason why.
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