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June 9, 2012

Women's titles a win in more ways than one

In the course of the University of Alabama's softball celebration on Wednesday night, there was a fairly significant bit of history taking place, and a long journey coming full-circle.

Sarah Patterson, already etched in NCAA history for the accomplishments which she and her husband and co-coach, David Patterson, have attained in the world of gymnastics, watched as their daughter, Jordan, won her NCAA championship ring, not in the sport they coach, but in softball.

Occasionally, a coaching parent will have a child share a national championship, often as a member of the team he coaches - for instance, Alabama football assistant coach Sal Sunseri and his son, special-teams standout Vinnie Sunseri, both part of the Crimson Tide's BCS title run.

"I can't think of another case, though, where you have a father, a mother and a daughter all winning championships in the same year, in different sports," Patterson said.

"It's been such a blessed year for our family. Jessie (the Pattersons' oldest daughter) has finished her master's degree. Jordan played on a national championship team and we were all there to cheer for her. And our ladies (in gymnastics) won for a second straight time."

Family pride, then, is more than understandable.

But there was another sort of pride at work. For 34 years, Sarah Patterson has been at the University of Alabama, starting out with a fledgling, struggling gymnastics program that practiced on mats that served double duty with the wrestling team. Over the course of those years, the success of Alabama gymnastics - not just the winning, but winning without losing sight of core values such as academics - has done more than anything to bring women's athletics into the mainstream at Alabama.

Certainly, there is no greater bond than the parent-child relationship that glowed as Jordan Patterson won her national championship. But in a broader sense, every female athlete has a lineage that goes back to Sarah Patterson and through her to the athletic director who hired her, Paul "Bear" Bryant, and thus back into an athletic tradition that stretches for more than a century.

So, there were really two Sarah Patterson families that were winning on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, and a few weeks before that in Nashville, where the women's golf team had won a title as well.

"I've thought about that," Patterson said in a reflective moment. "I feel like my daughters have lived through that transition. It's been an amazing journey. I think of all the people who have been a part of it.

"I've known Patrick Murphy for 16 years now," Patterson said. "I have seen softball come to where it is now from when we had no softball program at all. Now there are thousands of people at Rhoads Stadium every game, thousands of people at our meets.

"For years, we heard that it was just about Title IX. Now, we have girls who don't even know what Title IX is."

Patterson says she has also felt a sense of camaraderie grow among all the athletic programs at the university.

"For years, our offices were together on the third floor of the coliseum. Now that hallway is lined with championship coaches, but we would all do anything we could do for one another. I don't know if it was that way 10 or 15 years ago, but it is now. And it is everyone pulling together. I am a big Anthony Grant fan. Nick Saban spoke to our team after we lost at the SEC Championships and told them exactly the things they needed to hear. And I am very aware and very appreciative of football, which provides us with the financial basis we need to succeed."

So there is more than one sort of family feeling, and more than one type of emotion that was tugging at Patterson's heart on Wednesday night, although she managed to tie them all together, and to touch on a crucial point - there was more than one kind of victory on Wednesday night, as an entire Alabama fan base cheered.

"We have come to the point that as parents in today's world, we want the same opportunities for our children, girl or boy," she said. "And my daughter has that."

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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