It wasn’t seeing the bronzed face, the accomplishments chiseled into stone, or even the façade proudly bearing her name. Instead, the instant that the University of Alabama’s gymnastics coach began to fully understand what it really meant to be honored with the Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza occurred when she was walking by it along with a musical group you may have heard of, the Backstreet Boys.
Alabama teams other than football that win national titles now have their place of recognition as well.
It was August and the musicians had just enjoyed a tour of the football facilities hours prior to performing a concert at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, when Patterson invited them to visit the gymnastics team in their recently revamped facilities at Coleman Coliseum. While heading back, one of them saw the engraved sign and put two and two together, saying something like, “Hey you guys, that’s her!”
Patterson, who has won six national titles, didn’t know how to react to being, as the band might put it, “Larger than life.”
“What it showed me was that people take and look at it in a different way,” she said. “The Backstreet Boys, that’s the moment I realized that ‘Oh yeah, this is going to happen on more than one occasion.’”
Although the plaza may have Patterson’s name on the front, and will finally be dedicated Friday at 4 p.m., it was designed to recognize the success of all Crimson Tide programs other than football, and pay homage to the teams and coaches who have captured conference and national championships.
However, until 2012, Patterson and her husband David had coached the only program besides football to wins national titles. Women’s golf won the race to be next and was quickly joined by softball during the Crimson Tide’s unprecedented 2011-12 academic year, when Alabama captured four NCAA crowns.
They were joined this past spring by men’s golf. Consequently, additions had to be made before the plaza could even be dedicated, with Jay Seawell’s bronze likeness joining those of Mic Potter, Patrick Murphy and Patterson.
“Hopefully they fill up that whole black wall with coaches of championship teams,” Murphy said. “It almost adds a park-type atmosphere, where you can go to football, go through all their statutes and read the teams on the sidewalk, and then come over here and do the same thing.
“I think it’s a neat thing for Alabama fans, but also just for people who don’t know the history of non-football (sports). I think it’ll add to the spectator interest, fan interest, and people coming to Tuscaloosa.”
Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy.
That history includes some meteoritic rises over the years. For example, when Murphy took over in 1999, Rhoades Softball Stadium hadn’t even been built yet. Now it’s considered one of that sport’s finest facilities, and where the coach has helped guide the Crimson Tide to nine SEC titles and eight College World Series appearances.
Before Seawell arrived before the 2002-03 season, men’s golf had only qualified for the NCAA Championships eight times, with one top-10 finish (tied for third in 1975). Now the Crimson Tide is considered a finals regular, placing sixth in 2007 and second in 2012 before winning this past spring.
Comparatively, Alabama had never had a women’s golfer named an All-American before Potter arrived in 2005. A year later, Jenny Suh became the first and helped the program get over an important hurdle.
“I came here because I thought it was a possible to win a national championship here and we’ve done that, but what the men’s programs success has brought to us is hard to measure,” Potter said. “The girls and guys like to practice together, so the better players they have the more it means to my recruiting.
“The question to me was, once I had seen the campus I knew that it would sell itself, it had the facilities to sell itself. But just good young players interested in coming here and visiting would be the key.”
Obviously they did, but that’s nothing compared to Patterson, who arrived in 1979 and was hired by none other than Paul W. “Bear” Bryant. She went from scrounging for equipment to having regular sellout crowds at Coleman Coliseum, where she now has an office overlooking Champions Plaza.
“When I think of where we were in the beginning, it was football and we sort of survived and won,” Patterson said. “Now, the goal is for every coach on this hall, we talk about it. We call it the Hall of Champions. Everyone wants to be like that.
“We’re doing it at a level that it hasn’t been done before.”
Brick by brick, the plaza went up like the way the coaches built their championship programs, only instead of being hands on they all watched from afar until the construction process neared completion. That changed when Murphy’s mother visited and Patterson joined them in taking a first look up close.
They spent over a half-hour reading the plaques for each sport and posed for pictures. When they finally saw their completed bronzed faces on display, they had the same reaction of many Hall of Fame inductees in both Major League Baseball and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“She thought it didn’t look anything like me,” Murphy quipped about his mother, while Patterson joked that bronze “isn’t even in my color chart.”
Seawell, meanwhile, got an important thumbs up from his mom.
“It’s kind of weird, I’m a little uncomfortable to be honest with you,” he said. “I’m very honored. It’s an absolutely beautiful plaza of champions and I think Sarah Patterson really deserves everything that goes with that. She’s a champion of what Alabama is all about. To have my name up there, and unfortunately my face, that’s the part that’s a little bit weird.
“I’m truly humbled,” Seawell said on a more serious note.
Perhaps as the school adds to this exclusive club the coaches won’t be quite as self-conscious, but you can be sure they’ll be just as proud. As these four have started a whole new coaching tradition, Alabama has similarly added to how celebrates its proudest accomplishments, in a way that fans and former athletes can share and enjoy as well.
Proposed by former Director of Athletics Mal Moore and approved by the Board of Trustees in June 2012, the plaza now stands in concert with the Bryant Museum, Walk of Champions and the statues of championship football coaches in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We honor the (gymnastics) championships in the back of the gym, but the public doesn’t necessarily see that,” Patterson said. “I think to have ay sport, any athlete who’s been a part of a championship program to walk out there and be able to show their children, and then their grandchildren, that they were a part of history, to me that’s the most amazing part.”