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June 23, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Thousands upon thousands of female athletes have earned their college education through scholarships provided under the auspices of Title IX. No one, however, owes more to the educational amendment, passed 40 years ago last week, than Jordan Patterson.
A catcher for the University of Alabama softball team, who just completed her sophomore season, Patterson wouldn't be playing that sport for UA were it not for Title IX. She wouldn't have an athletic scholarship.
More importantly, she wouldn't be here at all.
"I guess I wouldn't have been born," Patterson said. "That's true, I guess. I never thought of it like that."
The Patterson family has been a part of the growth of UA athletics under Title IX almost from the start. They were a part in a unique way in 2012, the 40th anniversary year of the federal act, with mother Sarah Patterson coaching the Alabama gymnastics team to a national championship and daughter Jordan playing on the Crimson Tide softball team that also won a national title.
Alabama also won a women's golf title in 2012, to post a third-place finish in the Capital One Cup women's collegiate sports standings, best-ever for UA.
Jordan Patterson owes her life to the fact her mother arrived at the University of Alabama in 1978 to work as an assistant coach for a gymnastics team that had been around for just four years, a program that was an outgrowth of Title IX mandates. It was at UA that the former Sarah Campbell met David Patterson, a member of the Alabama swimming and diving team. Sarah was promoted to head coach, David Patterson joined the program as an assistant, the coaches married and had two daughters - Jordan being the younger of the pair.
"I would say our whole family's life is based around women's athletics," Jordan said. "It runs so deep in our family that I kind of took it for granted. A lot of attention has been brought to Title IX this year, and that's good because it made me think about it a lot.
"They wouldn't be where they are and I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for Title IX. I have it to thank for so much in my life that I don't even realize."
The early days
Sarah Patterson was in high school when Title IX became the law of the land.
"At that point in time, there weren't a lot of women's sports," she said. "In my school we had gymnastics and we had swimming."
Not much changed at the next level. Sarah Patterson didn't have a scholarship when she competed in gymnastics at Slippery Rock in Pennsylvania.
"I think there was one girl or two girls on our team that during my time got like $200 (in scholarship money), just a small amount," she said. "People were just beginning to get offered scholarships."
She came to Alabama at age 22 to join Tom Steele's staff as a graduate assistant for a salary of $5,000. The gymnastics team had gone through four losing seasons with as many head coaches, and she was promoted by Paul W. "Bear" Bryant when Steele left before the season started.
"What they had not told me was that at the end of that year they were going to drop the program," Sarah Patterson said. "I did not know that. That year we had our first winning season."
It probably didn't hurt that Ann Woods, then the girlfriend and later the wife of UA quarterback Steadman Shealy, won several regional championships and helped put the program on the map. Bryant and Sam Bailey, who was in charge of sports other than football, rewarded the young gymnastics coach for her success.
"They gave us four scholarships to work with," Sarah Patterson said. "We went and got three kids from Pennsylvania. To be honest, it was easy to go in there and talk about Joe Namath and Coach Bryant -- you recruited on the success of the football program, and you went places where people knew, based on those athletes and where we had a presence.
"They took a chance, came down and it worked. Those ladies' senior year, those are the ones that led to us qualifying to nationals for the first time."
The coach had to take a chance when she went to convince Bryant and Bailey that she needed gymnastics-specific equipment.
"They had just dropped the wrestling program, so we had the old mat and it had a hole in it," Sarah Patterson recalled. "We taped it with athletic tape and put an 'A' over it. I'm trying to tell them whey they need to invest $5,000 in a real floor exercise mat with carpet and all, and explain that to (Bryant). He turned to Coach Bailey and said, 'Oh, Sam, give the little lady what she wants.'
"I use that in a way so people understand that (Bryant) was all about winning, and once you won you could get that support. We were in such a different time, you didn't have a budget back then. It was you win, OK, we got four scholarships. You win, you ask for a floor exercise mat. Getting those things, those were huge."
By 1988, Alabama was a national championship gymnastics program. UA would repeat in 1991,'96, 2002, 2011 and again this year, but there were growing pains along the way.
Alabama's gymnastics program started in Foster Auditorium and stayed there until the early 1980s before moving to an old armory. It backed up to the city morgue, where autopsies were performed.
"There is a picture where David and I are standing next to the bars and all the paint is peeling off the walls," Sarah Patterson said. "It was the ugliest, nastiest thing. It was not the best of situations, but it was our facilities."
After the 1996 national championship, with the city talking over the armory property to build a fire station, UA built a state-of-the-art gymnastics facility in the back of Coleman Coliseum. Alabama women's athletics at the time began to grown into a success story, with the gymnastics team winning national titles and the women's basketball game in the midst of a stretch that would see it make five straight trips to the Sweet 16, with one Final Four appearance. In the spring of 1997, Alabama played its first collegiate softball game at Sokol Park, and moved to Bowers Park for the next two seasons before its on-campus stadium opened in 2000.
"I remember going to a softball game at Bowers Park with my mom," Jordan Patterson said. "She took me one time, and the summer after I went to camp."
UA gymnastics didn't just win championships, it became a hot ticket. On Feb. 1, 1997, Alabama drew a sellout crowd of 15,043 for a gymnastics meet against Georgia. UA has averaged 10,000 fans or more for gymnastics meets nine years in a row and 10 years overall.
Softball also grew after building its on-campus facility, now known as Rhoads Stadium. UA broke into the top 20 in national attendance in 2000 at No. 19, and rose to No. 1 in average attendance in 2008. Alabama has finished No. 1 in either average or total attendance every year since, and let the nation in both in 2012, averaging 2,474 and drawing a total of 91,541 fans.
Those crowds have made a difference. They are filled not only with Alabama fans, but with young girls who look up to female athletes as role models.
Jordan Patterson has seen it from both sides.
"Those girls were my heroes (as a youngster)," she said of UA's softball players. "I would go on trips as like a bat girl and I thought they were the coolest girls ever, and I wanted to be them.
"That's the way those girls look at us, and it's just such an opportunity to affect people's lives in a positive way. It's so surreal to me. It makes it for me."
The little girl who used to stand in line for softball player autographs now signs things for another generation of little girls.
"Sometimes we've been at the field for six hours already and it's hot and it takes like 45 minutes and you would think it would be a drag, but it's just so ironic," Jordan Patterson said. "I was that kid. A lot of us on the team were that kid. We were those girls growing up.
"You'll see someone and it doesn't even matter whether you play or you don't play, they think you hung the moon. It makes me smile every time I do it."
The Title IX life
Sarah Patterson, the mother and coach, has lived the Title IX life.
"I went from 15-passenger fans to a motor home to buses to regular flights to charter flights," she said. "We've done it all."
Just a couple of weeks ago, she saw her own daughter step on the tarmac at Tuscaloosa's airport as a national champion.
"She played on the biggest stage that she could possibly have been on, and they won a championship and they took a chartered flight home and had hundreds of people greeting them," Sarah Patterson said. "The biggest difference between when I started my career and now, it doesn't matter whether you have a son or a daughter, the expectations are that they will receive the same opportunities. To me, that's how far it has come."
Forty years after Title IX was enacted, Sarah Patterson figures it's about time.
"At one point I had one of the many administrators I've worked for, and I was saying, 'Let's do this, let's do that,' and I had someone say to me, 'You know what, women just haven't stood on the sidelines long enough to achieve those opportunities.' You know what," UA's gymnastics coach said, "we've stood on that sideline long enough now, and the women today do have those opportunities. And I think that's a great thing."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.