Dana Duckworth on Becoming the New Gymnastics Coach
During the heat of summer 2014, Dana Duckworth walked into Alabama gymnastics' suite of office at the top of Coleman Coliseum on July 14 prepared for a typical staff meeting. What followed was anything but typical and began a 36-hour whirlwind that would end with the 1993 Alabama graduate being introduced as the Crimson Tide's sixth head coach on July 15th.
Sarah Patterson walked into the staff meeting with her husband and career-long assistant coach David and -- to stunned silence of the gathered staff -- broke the news that they both would be retiring, effective immediately.
"No one saw it coming, so there was no way to prepare for that moment," Duckworth said. "We all just looked at each other, and there were some tears."
The roller coaster of that day was just beginning. Sarah Patterson, stepping down to have doctor-mandated surgery to replace both knees in the fall, said that not only would she be announcing her retirement at a press conference the next day, but in order to have a seamless transition, Alabama Director of Athletics Bill Battle would announce the new head coach at the same time. With just a few hours to prepare, Duckworth interviewed with Battle late in the afternoon on July 14 and he called her at 10:30 p.m. that night with the news.
"A friend of mine once told me that life is a full-time interview," Duckworth said. "And I am living proof of how true that is."
The next morning at 9 a.m., as the Pattersons and Duckworth met with the current gymnasts who were on campus to tell them the news, a pair of press releases were sent out, one announcing the Pattersons' retirement and the second announcing Duckworth's hiring. At 5:30 p.m. on July 15, Duckworth was introduced to the world during a press conference packed with media, gymnasts past and present and the families of both the current and former head coaches.
"I embrace the legacy of success that Sarah and David have built here at the University of Alabama," Duckworth told all those assembled at the press conference. "Our goal remains the same; a family environment which will continue to develop scholars, leaders and champions. I have learned so much from Sarah and David over the years. I know they influenced me as a student-athlete to strive for excellence, as a coach to always lead by example and the importance of balance as a wife and mother. Like Sarah, I could not do this without the support of my husband, my children and my family. I also couldn't do this without the support and love of the Alabama gymnastics family. Being an Alabama gymnast is so much more than a four-year commitment. It's building a bond that lasts a lifetime. The outpouring of love and support from our alumni, friends and fans has been amazing."
And so for the first time in 36 years, there was a new head coach leading the way for Alabama gymnastics. That being said, Duckworth's first year as head coach was her 20th season as a part of the program.
The team's mantra in her first season as head coach was "protect the legacy" and that's just what they did. Duckworth became the first in league history to lead a team to an SEC gymnastics championship as a first-year head coach. Under her direction, the Tide extended its streak of top-four NCAA finishes to seven, by far the best in the nation. The Tide also won its NCAA-best 30th regional title under her direction.
As she went through her first season, it is hard to imagine anyone who better emulates the phrase "Built by Bama" or anyone with more of a love for Crimson Tide gymnastics and everything it stands for than Duckworth. That love and appreciation began on her recruiting trip to the University of Alabama in 1989, and carries on to today.
"I took recruiting trips to the top five schools -- schools that are still in the top five today -- and I felt something here," Duckworth said. "I felt a connection with the coaches and with the team, a chemistry that I knew, even then, that I would not find at a different school. I went on four other trips and they just solidified what I felt here at Alabama. I love our environment, I love our culture, I love our tradition and I love the fact that when you go out as an Alabama gymnast you represent all those things."
It was those same elements that made her decision to leave a lucrative career with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to join the Alabama coaching staff on a full-time basis in the fall of 2008 after nine years as a volunteer coach with the Crimson Tide such an easy one.
"I really enjoyed what I was doing at Pfizer and it's a tremendous company but my heart and my passion have always been here at the Capstone with our program," Duckworth said. "I felt like this was an opportunity for me to do what I love and everyone I have ever talked to has said, if you love what you do, you'll never go to another day of work in your life."
Part of the Alabama gymnastics program as a gymnast and coach for 19 seasons, Duckworth has seen a national team championship from both sides. She was part of the Tide's 1991 NCAA title as a sophomore and the 2002, 2011 and 2012 NCAA championships as a coach. She has also won conference titles as an athlete (1990) and a coach (2003, 2009 and 2011).
As much as Duckworth appreciates the championship tradition she has been a part of for so long, what she holds most dear is the overall atmosphere created by the people who live, work and go to school at Alabama.
"The people at the University of Alabama make everything unique and special," Duckworth said. "I love the fact that the University of Alabama is about tradition and culture. I tell people all the time that Tuscaloosa is the best-kept secret because we have it all here and everyone approaches things with a great deal of passion. It makes people's experience very special."
In addition to her infectious enthusiasm for the Crimson Tide and her skills as a technical coach, Duckworth also brings her standing as one of the nation's premier choreographers to the gym. Nothing drives that point home quite like the consistent success the athletes she has worked with have enjoyed.
When Geralen Stack-Eaton won the 2011 NCAA floor exercise championship to cap off an extraordinary junior season, it marked the fifth time that a Duckworth-choreographed routine won the NCAA floor title, including one each by Alabama's Morgan Dennis and Ashley Miles plus a pair by North Carolina's Courtney Bumpers. During her storied Tide career, Miles earned four top-three national finishes on the floor, including the 2004 NCAA floor exercise championship. Duckworth also helped Miles win four consecutive Southeastern Conference and NCAA Regional floor exercise titles. Miles became the first gymnast in SEC history to win the same event all four years of her career.
"It's such a wonderful experience to be able to help these athletes bring out their personality and perform routines that shine," Duckworth said.
As a gymnast, the former Dana Dobransky earned eight All-America accolades and finished her career in 1993 by winning her second consecutive NCAA balance beam title with a perfect 10.0. She was named NCAA Woman of the Year for the State of Alabama in 1993.
As a student, Duckworth was a three-year Scholastic All-American and a two-time CoSIDA at-large Academic All-American, an award that spans several sports. She was inducted into Mortar Board as an undergraduate and earned both an NCAA and SEC Postgraduate Scholarship, utilizing them to attend graduate school at Alabama and obtain her master's of business administration in 1998.
"I could have gone anywhere in the country to get my MBA," Duckworth said. "But I chose to come back to Alabama because our business school is one of the best in the country and I loved the size of the campus, I loved the MBA program and more than all that, it was a chance to come back to a place I consider home."
After graduating with her bachelor's degree, Duckworth moved up the corporate ladder quickly at AMX Corporation, a high tech firm based in Dallas. She finished her tenure there as manager of AMX's training programs. After receiving her master's degree, Duckworth served as director of marketing for a Trussville-based automotive company followed by a stint as Vice President of Corporate Solutions for a Birmingham company before returning to Tuscaloosa for a highly successful run with Pfizer.
Duckworth's return to Tuscaloosa also saw her start a family. She and her husband Joe, a Tuscaloosa native and co-owner of Duckworth-Morris Real Estate, married in 2000. The couple has a daughter Camryn born in 2004 and a son Jace born in 2006.