- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The faces of Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Gene Stallings and the forever stoic Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant look off in the distance, their countenance marked forever in larger-than-life bronze statues. The newest addition, Nick Saban, joined the University of Alabama’s “Walk of Champions” in 2010 following his first championship victory. His stern look and half-clapped hands have been the centerpiece of thousands of family portraits since then.
The staging area just north of Bryant-Denny Stadium has become hallowed ground at UA, a spot reserved for those that brought titles to a town that craves them. An untold number of graduation photos capture smiling coeds standing alongside the likeness of the men responsible for all of the Crimson Tide’s 14 football national championships.
But since the monuments were built six years ago, the picture has been half-complete, half-told.
Today, a much-needed chapter was added to the Alabama songbook, albeit a few years and a few high notes late. The other sports at UA -- yes, Bama does more than football -- will finally get their recognition. Sarah Patterson, one of the most successful Alabama coaches of all time, is finally getting her due. The women’s gymnastics coach midway through her fourth decade is getting her name carved in stone, her overdue placement alongside the legends of Alabama athletics.
Patterson has won six national championships, seven SEC titles and a staggering 27 NCAA regional titles in her 33 years at Alabama. She’s won two consecutive national championships and doesn’t show any signs of slowing. She’s a fan favorite, beloved for her work with breast cancer awareness, her glowing personality and above all, her winning record.
So when UA gymnastics brought home its sixth title in April, the whispers for a statue for Patterson rose to an uproar. Enough was enough. Patterson tied the Bear for career championships and it was time she got her moment in the sun. After all, it was what Bryant, who hired Patterson in the late 1970s, would have wanted.
“Coach Bryant loved champions,” Patterson said on Friday. “… As long as you won, it was recognized.”
More than 20 years after her first title, Patterson’s recognition is coming. This week it was announced that Alabama would expand on the “Walk of Champions” by introducing a second staging area that would be named after Patterson. The “Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza” will be a monument dedicated to all of the University’s championship coaches away from the gridiron.
The timing couldn’t have been any better. The past year has been arguably the most successful in UA history with football, gymnastics, women’s golf and softball all winning national titles. Men’s golf made it deep into the postseason and basketball earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2006.
Patterson and other coaches won’t have statues like football does, but for her that’s OK. Since winning her fifth title in 2011, she’s claimed that bronze just isn’t her color. She joked that it might have to be pink to work.
In truth, neither would suit her. Her fashion range is more along the color of gold, the glint of diamonds and the deep crimson glow of a red ruby to tie it all together. When she gets dressed in the morning, she has six glistening championship rings to choose from, borne through decades of devotion to a sport that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The hard-earned championship jewelry compliments her beautifully.
The newest accolade is just another accessory, a duly noted citation of her success.
When fans wander the Alabama campus, they’ll still pause to capture the steely faces of Bryant, Saban and other legends on the football field. Those days will never end, as the lion’s share of devotion will always go to the men who support Alabama’s No. 1 passion. But now, fans and visitors alike can walk a little further and take a moment to pose with the names of coaches from other athletic arenas and appreciate all they’ve done. They’ll see Patterson’s name and trace her six titles with their fingers. Finally, they can touch the complete history of Alabama.
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough