Less than 16 months after winning a second SEC Gymnastics Championship, and on the heels of another NCAA Semis / Super 6 berth, Sarah Patterson’s handpicked protege, Dana Duckworth, is hanging up the leotard.
For almost 30 years Duckworth has been a mainstay of the Tide Gymnastics program. She was a standout on the Pattersons’ teams that vaulted Alabama from elite status to “annual championship contender.”
If one can such a thing about such a decidedly feminine sport, Duckworth was an absolute stud. She was a four-time All-American and four-time All-SEC all-arounder. She led the Tide to a 1990 SEC Championship, picked up two individual SEC titles in Beam, and won two National titles on the Beam (1992-1993) and was an All-American on the Floor. To cap off such a decorated career, Duckworth (then Dana Dobransky), helmed a National Championship run for the Crimson Tide in 1991.
While not the Tide’s most powerful gymnast, Duckworth earned a reputation for her artistry and graceful lines on the beam, and throwing in quite a few dance moves to go with her highly technical tumbling passes on the floor.
She used her “retirement” from collegiate and elites well — Dana picked up an MBA and postgrad degrees at Alabama’s Business school, then ventured into coaching in 1999. For almost a decade, Duckworth was a volunteer coach for Patterson’s squads, before joining the staff full-time in 2008.
And there Duckworth would stay for the better part of a decade, until legendary Sarah Patterson stepped down in 2014. As with other luminaries before her, Patterson pretty much got to name her own successor, and there was little doubt that the job would stay in-house. Dana Duckworth assumed the head coaching responsibilities following the 2014 season.
The cupboard was hardly empty either: Duckworth inherited a team that had one previous All-American (Lauren Beers, Floor 2013), and another who would go on to claim two national crowns of her own (Katie Bailey: Vault 2016, Uneven Bars 2017). It would be hard for anyone fail to win with that lineup, and fail she did not: Duckworth won an SEC title her first season on campus. She would add eight more straight regional appearances for the Tide. In 2021, riding a class of super freshmen and an outstanding pair of veterans, Alabama would claim another, and far more improbable, SEC title.
Duckworth finishes up her coaching career with a 52-26-1 (.650) record and two SEC Titles. During her her eight seasons, three gymnasts would claim individual national titles: Louisa Blanco (Beam 2021), Lexi Graber (Floor 2021), and Katie Bailey.
However, there began to be some slippage in the consistency of the team — and this of course must be graded on the curve of Alabama as an elite program. Because, even as ‘Bama was consistently scoring well enough to keep itself ranked highly, even as the Tide were doing enough to advance out of Regionals, one rarely got the sense that the Crimson Tide were a true threat to win it all. The gap between whoever was No. 1 and wherever Alabama happened to be that year, seemingly grew and grew.
There were several reasons for this, if you ask knowledgeable observers. Talent is not the problem and has never been the problem. Getting the most out of them has; it has been the little things that have cost ‘Bama points on the board and seen them fall behind their contemporaries — even as the rest of the SEC has rapidly caught up: hand checks, bobbles, landings, and a mindblowing inability to field a consistently elite vaulting lineup commensurate with the rest of the squad.
Particularly criticized has been the floor routine. Alabama has generally favored powerful athletes, which is necessarily going to change the style of choreography. But, even then, critics lay the claim that Alabama’s floor is very much stuck in the past, with little variation from year to year, and with little opportunity for the ladies’ personality to shine; that Alabama has relied on powerful, dominant floor athletes for scoring, and has not kept up with modern high-energy floor routines that squads like UCLA have made famous.
It is perhaps telling that in 2021, one of Alabama’s least powerful athletes, the lithe Lexi Graber, won her national title on the floor shying away from vertical, muscular tumbling passes, and instead emphasized her artistry, grace and dancing abilities.
In short, in a sport that demands perfection and high energy, Alabama not only seems a few years behind the times, its imperfections have become noticeable.
That begs the obvious question then, where does the Tide turn to now? This is an opportunity for Greg Byrne to make another legacy-type hire for a proud program. I, and others, are of the opinion, that you go younger, you go exciting, and you go with promise over experience. If Alabama’s problem is that it is stuck in 2010, then Alabama needs to look to what the program will resemble in 2030, not 2023.
For that reason, we have arrived at one name: Arkansas’s Jordyn Wieber. Oh, for sure, Wieber has the performance pedigree. She won the US Nationals gold medal, and was on the US National team for six years as a member of the 2012 Olympic-champion Fierce Five. She has also claimed an individual bronze on beam and an individual national title.
After her retirement, she became an Assistant Coach for the UCLA Bruins where she specialized in those exciting Floor routines that have captivated the nation, including coaching viral sensation Katelyn Ohashi. After just three seasons, she was snatched up by the Razorbacks, and has done a remarkable job building that program into some degree of respectability. She inherited a Hogs squad that had won just four SEC meets in the previous four seasons, and slowly started turning them around: winning two meets her first season, and three her next.
Program scoring went up almost .850 points in her tenure. And Arkansas has finished in the top half of floor every season in the SEC. Wieber’s program simply does not have talent, but it does have a potentially great young coach. And, at just 26 years-old, she is a perfect fit for a program that needs to modern-up.
Still, those hiring decisions are in the future, much as they are fun to speculate upon. For now, we assess Dana Duckworth’s legacy with the Crimson Tide. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who loves the university or the program more; someone as invested in the success of the team. And, Coach Duckworth did see success, even as she also saw backsliding compared to her peers in the sport’s national elite.
Much like softball, the question is: did she do enough with what she had? It is perhaps impossible to answer that now. The sport is evolving; the conference is improving around us. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” goes the old saying — the legacy of very few people can be fully written until the story is fully told.
The worst you can say about Dana, is that she ran a clean and talented program with genuine passion; that she did so under the most difficult situations imaginable: following in the footsteps of living legend. Yet, she still tried to forge her own path, succeeded more than she failed, and even had a few enviable high points.
If that’s the worst you can say about someone who gave almost 30 years to Alabama, then you’d be hard-pressed to say that it wasn’t a success.