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Fresh from 1,000th win, Sarah Patterson has built Alabama gymnastics into perennial contender

Alabama gymnastics was a fledgling program with a tiny fan base when Sarah Patterson took over as a 22-year-old in 1978.

The bleachers at Foster Auditorium were sprinkled with a few dozen fans. NCAA championships were but a dream for Patterson, then Sarah Campbell.

Some 36 years later, Patterson, along with husband and assistant David, has led Alabama to six NCAA titles, 1,000 victories and a 32nd consecutive berth in the national championships April 18-20 an hour away from campus in Birmingham.

Through success and energetic marketing, Patterson has made her program one of the biggest draws in women's college sports, bringing an NCAA-best average of 9,695 fans to home and away meets in 2013-14 and outdrawing the Crimson Tide men's basketball team at Coleman Coliseum. They've averaged 10,000-plus fans for home meets for 11 consecutive years.

The program has come a long way since Patterson recalls having "50 people in the stands," many of them family members of gymnast Ann Wood.

"I have pictures of us back then when there was nobody in Foster Auditorium," she said.

Those days are long gone.

With the Tide's regional title in Seattle, Patterson joined Utah's Greg Marsden as the only coaches to reach 1,000 wins. He got No. 1,000 in February in the fourth meet of his 39th season; Patterson did it in the 12th meet of year 36.

"We found out after the meet from something on Twitter," Tide senior Kim Jacob said. "Someone in the locker room was like, 'Sarah, did you know this was your 1,000th win?' And she was like, 'I thought I heard something about it.'"

In college gymnastics, the victory totals count wins over each team competing at regular-season invitationals, SEC championships, NCAA regionals and national championships individually along with dual meets.

The latest regional title was the NCAA-record 29th for Alabama, which has had a nearly four-decade run of success at a university known for football icons Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Nick Saban. As athletic director, Bryant hired Patterson out of Slippery Rock State College as the Tide's fifth coach in as many years since the program started.

Now, if football is king at 'Bama, then gymnastics has long been the queen.

The Tide's non-football national champs are honored at the "Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza" outside Coleman Coliseum.

Alabama will be one of the favorites to win another one in Birmingham after five straight finishes among the top three teams, including titles in 2011 and 2012.

"Not many coaches can stay in one place in the coaching community their entire career, and have such a successful career," Patterson said. "The support that the university and the community have given us to build a championship program, and then to win in multiple decades, I think that says a lot.

"A lot of coaches, I think they enjoy getting to the top. I think staying at the top is harder."

Filling arenas has become much easier for Patterson.

Utah gymnastics was the only women's team to outdraw the Tide's average of 12,826 fans at home competitions, which even topped Tennessee women's basketball.

The Alabama men's basketball team's average announced attendance was 10,754.

The fan support comes with success but also with a little extra effort. Patterson is helping arrange bus rides and free tickets and T-shirts to get students to the NCAA championships.

She keeps posters, schedule cards — and, of course, tape — in her car to post around town.

"Sarah and David have had one of the top programs forever," said Penn State coach Jeff Thompson, formerly at in-state rival Auburn. "It's one of the places that the elite kids want to go. If you're in the Olympic trials, if you're in the world championships, the next thing you're looking to do is go to college, and Alabama has always been one of those choices for those kids.

"They do a great job of making sure those girls go to class, that they graduate with great grades and go on and become important people in the community for the rest of their lives."

Chances are they enjoyed some success in gymnastics along the way.

The Tide made it to the NCAA championships in Patterson's fifth season and haven't missed one since.

"This program is built on tradition," gymnast Kaitlyn Clark said, "and Sarah Patterson is the tradition."