Among all the trophies, awards and pictures that spell out recent University of Alabama gymnastics history in Dana Duckworth’s office, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit in with the abundance of memorabilia. Perhaps it looks out of place, but the artifact was actually one of the first pieces to really personalize the room.
It’s a ceramic stiletto – customized with the Alabama Crimson Tide logo – that was not only a gift from Sarah Patterson, but also a message.
“You need to walk in your own shoes. Not follow in my footsteps,” the legendary head coach told her replacement more than three years ago.
Duckworth will be taking Alabama to the NCAA Championships in St. Louis next week for the third time in her three seasons as she makes the program in her image.
Switching the shoes
The only request Patterson made when she announced her retirement to former UA Athletics Director Bill Battle was that it was seamless. She didn’t want the gymnasts to question their standing on the team, and she refused to let the program she spent 36 years building to drop its standards all of a sudden.
Battle did not disappoint.
The day Sarah and David Patterson told the team they were stepping down was the same day they named who was stepping up. Battle promoted from within, too.
“I had a conversation with one of the seniors, and the conversation was, ‘You didn’t sign up for me to be your coach. I was an assistant coach when you got recruited. I was an assistant coach when you came here,’” Duckworth said. “No one knew Sarah and David were going to retire.”
But they did anyway.
“It didn’t change anything,” said senior Aja Sims, who was a sophomore when Duckworth took over. “I just did my gymnastics. If a different coach was coaching me at the time, they knew what to say and how to respond.”
The coaching switch was made a few months after the Crimson Tide won the 2014 SEC championship and finished fourth in the nation. That marked the end of Sarah Patterson’s long-time coaching career, one that rivals any in the nation.
It was time for a new regime.
“We knew we were under pressure,” said associate head coach Bryan Raschilla, who has worked with Duckworth for almost 18 years. “There were some examples out there of what happens to a staff when they take over for a legacy and they don’t do well. They update the resume.”
Duckworth’s first season ended the same as Patteron’s last one, with a conference title and top-four finish. The following year Alabama finished third nationally.
The legacy was protected.
After this season, dynamics are about to change. The current senior class was the last bunch Patterson personally coached.
“I don’t ever want to look like I don’t appreciate what Sarah and David built here and did,” Duckworth said. “But I do believe that every class that comes in here that has not experienced being coached under them, it’s part of the progression.”
Comparing the shoes
Thirty-six years is quite a feat. Except, Duckworth already has 21 years to her name. It’s just in a different way.
Before Duckworth became the head coach, she was an assistant for six years, and before that, a volunteer coach for nine. Way before that, she was an athlete at Alabama for four years.
“That’s really amazing to see that Sarah and David molded Dana,” sophomore Ari Guerra said.
This is why a lot of the same values and ideas Patterson had remain today. Duckworth is a product of the program, a product of Patterson. The only difference now is Duckworth has full reign to add in her own twist.
She has full permission to do so, too.
“You wouldn’t want her to be the way I was,” Patterson said, “and I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable in her shoes.”
More than one gymnast has acknowledged Patterson and Duckworth’s coaching styles are very similar, but also very different. Even the two coaches would say so.
In the gym and competition, Patterson believes while she was more subdued, Duckworth is much more outgoing. That’s due to their personalities.
“Sarah was more step-offish and would kind of just be like, ’Go ahead. Do your thing,’” Sims said. “So having Dana and just knowing she’s right there with me, almost on the beam with me, it’s kind of nice to have that, too.”
If there ever were any doubts about the change, Duckworth’s positivity negated them. The current team always raves about how much it loves her optimism. It keeps the morale high.
So there was an adjustment to be made with leadership styles. The philosophies, however, stayed the same. There has always been an emphasis on community involvement (Patterson’s Power of Pink, Duckworth’s ReadBAMARead) and academics (UA gymnastics has averaged more than 10 Scholastic All-America honors per season over the past 15 years).
The betterment of the gymnasts always comes first. It wasn’t just about their athletics abilities, it was about was about their character.
“I’m leaving college a completely different person than I came,” senior Katie Bailey said. “I’ve just matured in a lot of different ways, and I can only thank both of them for that.”
Filling the shoes
To address the elephant in the room: No, the Crimson Tide has not won an NCAA championship since Duckworth took over – Patterson won six. But, it has been only three years.
Even Patterson knows Alabama wasn’t always perfect with her in charge.
“I remember vividly there was a period of time we finished second three years in a row,” Patterson said. “I received sympathy cards in the mail.”
The next year, in 1996, Alabama won its third national title. It took six years to win its fourth, then another nine years for the fifth and sixth.
When it comes down to it, Patterson thinks fans expect the Crimson Tide to compete for a championship every year. It’s the nature of fandom and having a history of success.
In reality, it’s one day at a time, one meet a time and one year at a time.
“Every team is different; there will be pros and cons to everything,” Duckworth said. “But tradition never graduates.”
Duckworth was actually a part of the 1991 national championship team. The next two years, she individually won a pair of NCAA balance beam titles, the latter coming from a perfect 10 to close out her competitive career. At the end of it all, Duckworth was named the 1993 NCAA Woman of the Year for the state of Alabama.
Sometimes when Patterson sees Duckworth, she is reminded of the young gymnast she coached back in the early 1990s.
“Her excitement is the same,” Patterson said. “But the way she has matured as a young woman – there are some things that will always be the same – I couldn’t be more proud of her growth and the person that she has become.”
It’s not over yet either. Patterson expects Duckworth to have a long, successful career, and Duckworth isn’t giving up anytime soon.
Every now and then, the notion still comes back up that Duckworth has big shoes to fill. It’s like a flashback to three years ago.
“My answer would be, ‘Yes, I do. I wear a 9 1/2, and I gladly fill them,’” Duckworth said. “Sarah would say, ‘Yes, she does. She has her very own shoes, and she will wear them proudly.’”