Showtime arrives for Alabama, Texas
By EDDIE PELLS
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Nick Saban gave Mack Brown a cooler full of Alabama's favorite, Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Brown presented Saban with a pair of genuine Texas spurs.
A quaint gesture, and a great photo op.
But the big prize — the one they really want — is that crystal trophy Brown and Saban posed with yesterday, and it goes to the winner of the BCS national title game.
The undefeated Crimson Tide and Longhorns will each try to add another championship to their considerable pedigrees today, a meeting that will pit All-American quarterback Colt McCoy of Texas against the player who beat him for the Heisman Trophy, running back Mark Ingram of Alabama.
"When you start with 120 teams and it's down to two, that's about 12,000 players," Brown said. "It's a great honor for your players and your coaches to be in this game."
This is a matchup of two old-line programs from Southern states — Roll Tide vs. Hook 'em Horns — where football, on many days, is bigger than life.
Saban, in his third year in Tuscaloosa, is aiming to bring the first championship to Alabama since 1992, when Gene Stallings — a protege of the late, great Bear Bryant — roamed the sidelines.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for the tradition and the passion that our fans have," Saban said.
But, he said, tradition doesn't win ball games, and early in his tenure Saban even bristled against the so-called "culture of expectations" that surrounds most everything involved with Alabama football.
Since then, he has tried to ignore the hype and has gone about doing what he did six years ago when he led LSU to the BCS title: recruiting top prospects, coaching them up, trying to turn them into good players, students and citizens.
"The rest of it really doesn't affect that," Saban said.
In keeping with the tenor of the week, Brown was much more chit-chatty and loose than his counterpart during his portion of a coaches news conference sandwiched around the photo session. He described growing up in a small town in Tennessee and being as big a Bryant fan as anyone.
Now, he's at Texas. Once derisively known as "Coach February" — the guy who could recruit all the talent in February but never cash in on it come January — Brown has won seven of his last eight bowl games, led the Longhorns (13-0) to one national title and can easily be mentioned in the same breath as their legendary coach, Darrell Royal.
Royal, 85, and the Bear, who died in 1983, were good friends — in fact, Royal showed Bryant how to run the wishbone — though the two rarely met on opposite sidelines. Texas is 7-0-1 all-time against Alabama, with the last meeting a 14-12 win in the 1982 Cotton Bowl, five years after Royal had retired with 184 wins.
"Coach Royal is still alive and has things named after him," Brown said. "I think Coach Bryant still walks the halls at Tuscaloosa, and he has things named after him. But everyone that sees that 'A' and sees the Longhorn knows the programs, and that's what makes this game so special."
Brown continued with a theme he's been building on all month — that the two best teams are meeting at the Rose Bowl and a true national champion will come out of the game.
It was a legitimate debate five weeks ago when the BCS pairings came out and there were five undefeated teams — Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State. Since then, Cincinnati got blown out 51-24 by Florida in the Sugar Bowl and TCU lost 17-10 to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. It leaves the Broncos as the only team with an argument — one they undoubtedly will not win.
Alabama (13-0) comes into the game as a 3 1/2-point favorite, in part because the Tide was so much more impressive than Texas in its last game.
Led by Ingram on offense and a stifling defense anchored by 350-pound defensive lineman Terrence Cody, the Tide shut down Tim Tebow of Florida, 32-13, in the Southeastern Conference title game.
Texas, meanwhile, beat Nebraska 13-12 in the Big 12 championship game, and only after officials put 1 second back on the clock following a pass McCoy threw out of bounds. That allowed Hunter Lawrence to kick the winning field goal, even though McCoy's sloppy game management at the end nearly cost Texas.
"I was sitting there, shocked, because Colt was clearly letting it get down too far," said ABC's Brent Musburger, who called the Big 12 game and is in the booth again tonight. "That's a big part of this game, obviously, because if he doesn't get that second put back on there, they're not here."
That game — and that day — essentially sealed the Heisman race. McCoy threw for 184 yards and three interceptions and got sacked nine times. Ingram ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns to become Alabama's first Heisman winner.
Which sets up a very similar scenario as the last time Texas played at the Rose Bowl.
Back then, it was the Longhorns against Southern California in the weeks after Texas quarterback Vince Young lost the Heisman to USC's Reggie Bush.
Young had one of the best performances in college football history in a 41-38 win over USC — passing for 267 yards, running for 200 more and transforming himself into something more than just another great player to Texas fans, who have seen their share.
That's the kind of thing that can happen to a player who leads his team to a national title in Texas or Alabama.
"They tend to maybe idolize people who play football here, even though we're just regular people," said Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin, whose dad, Van, kicked for Alabama in the '80s.
In Texas, too.
"You're under the microscope," said Longhorns left tackle Adam Ulatoski, who played at high school powerhouse Southlake Carroll near Fort Worth. "But it's a little different when it's a town watching you and the state of Texas watching you. It's a little bit of pressure, but it's a whole lot of fun."