Texas, Tide grasp for prize

Storied programs enter with identical 13-0 marks

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 Wednesday, and it goes to the winner of today’s BCS championship game.

The undefeated Crimson Tide and Longhorns, both 13-0, will each try to add another championship to their considerable pedigrees in a meeting that will pit All-America 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 ballgames, 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 insisted.

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.

Brown described growing up in a small town in Tennessee and being as big a Bryant fan as anyone could be.

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 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 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.

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