The End of a Sarah

So, Sarah Patterson retired. That happened today. Everyone wear a houndstooth blouse and talk about how winning the SEC title is harder than winning the national title as a tribute.

I was completely caught off guard by this one, and it comes with more of a sour note and less of a celebratory one than we’d usually have for the retirement of a member of the coaching Mount Olympus because it’s clear she’s not retiring of her own choice. As outlined in the announcement, a series of knee replacement surgeries will take her out of action for the next year, so she has decided to give herself a medical retirement rather than redshirt the season.

We know her health issues must be serious and urgent for her to make this kind of immediate and dramatic decision. When I first saw the headline about Sarah’s retirement, I assumed she was announcing a retirement plan, like she would leave at the end of the 2015 season so she could do a whole farewell tour where all the other coaches give her flowers and say nice things about her and create tribute videos. Obviously, that would have happened if she were leaving on chosen terms.

The head coaching legends are abandoning us. We do have Marsden now and forever, and D-D Breaux signed a new contract, so they’re still flying the flag for the 3-decade team. You know D-D will be coaching until she’s 295 years old, just to prove a point. She’ll be nothing but a brain in a jar off to the side of the gym, yet no one will doubt who’s in charge. But with neither Suzanne nor Sarah around anymore, there’s a major void on the acidic rivalry, dramatic personality, and controversial gossip fronts. Let this be a memo to all our Rhondas, KJs, and Dannas to pick it up. Yes, you’re all very pleasant and professional and good at your jobs. Snore.

It’s helpful that ESPN made the Sarah and Suzanne documentary recently because that effectively covers the legacy portion of Sarah’s career. Even if I’ve never been rah-rah Sarah or rah-rah Alabama, the sport would be so much weaker without her and David’s work at Alabama. College gymnastics wouldn’t be remotely as healthy or interesting. 

And now we have so much more to talk about when it comes to Alabama and 2015. All eyes on the Tide.
There was already a workable chain of succession in place at Alabama, and assistant Dana Duckworth will now take over as the head coach. Because Dana is already such a crucial part of the program and has been there for a while, there’s a tendency to think that things will just carry on pretty much as usual, but . . . see Clark, Jay. We all lived through the trauma and know it’s not that simple.

Just like Georgia in 2009 with that hugely talented and influential class that graduated the same year Suzanne retired, Alabama also has a significant group that left after the 2014 season in the Jacob, Milliner, DeMeo crew. The Tide will be a very different team next year in every way. It has to be. Expect some growing pains, especially early on, as happens when an assistant coach must become a head coach and suddenly have her fingers in all the different pies. Some adapt better than others, as we know. 

The world won’t be expected of Dana right away. She’ll have some leeway, and if Alabama is able to keep this string of top finishes going in the 2015 season, that will be seen as a bonus. If the attendance, boosting, etc. continues at the same rate, that will certainly help. But I would imagine the leash will still be fairly short when it comes to performance. As we know, for a program where the stakes are higher than they are at most schools, consecutive years of results below expectations are tough to endure for a coach who doesn’t have the legacy and reputation. That’s especially true if this decision had to be rushed or if this was something Sarah specifically fought for and advocated rather than a decision made over time by people sitting around and saying things like “do our due diligence” and other verbal catastrophes.

I can’t help but keep comparing this to Jay taking over at Georgia for 2010, but in a number of ways I do expect a smoother transition than we saw at Georgia. The cult of Alabama gymnastics has always been less about Sarah than the cult of Georgia gymnastics was about Suzanne. It’s just the nature of their personalities. Alabama fans love and respect Sarah, but I don’t think we’ll hear as many “Well, she’s certainly no Sarah” complaints about Dana. Unless the results plummet. Then we’ll hear it.

We know Alabama won’t be the same without their legend of a coach, but the core identity of the team shouldn’t change all that much. Obviously, the choreography will stay exactly the same. And because Dana and Bryan Raschilla are sticking around, I also wouldn’t expect the kind of exodus of verbal commitments that we recently saw at Georgia and often see when there is a total coaching upheaval. My guess is that they’ll predominately stay with Bama. But that will be something to watch over the next year or so, as will the level of Sarah’s involvement. Will she still advise and linger, or will she remove herself entirely? I think she would have to remove herself, otherwise there would be way too many head coaches banging around, which is trouble.

The problem is that a huge bombshell transition like this makes me excited to see how it plays out next season. And it’s only July. Now we need an elite bombshell to help us refocus on the present again, at least for the moment. I have some nominees.

2 thoughts on “The End of a Sarah”

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