PASADENA _ In Alabama, winning a national championship is akin to immediately becoming a football deity.
For the rest of your life you're welcomed back to the university, no questions asked. Halftime shows are held in your honor. Children who have heard your name throughout their entire lives will do anything for autographs. Your image might end up on scores of household walls in a painting, print or picture.
It's bigger than big, we're talking life-changing kind of stuff that makes the lucrative bowl gifts seem like peanuts in comparison. The players got to choose between a custom Trek 820 model mountain bike, a Garmin GPS unit, assorted Sony electronic products and a recliner, in addition to receiving a Fossil watch, New Era 59Fifty hat and an Ogio Politan laptop pack, but could take home so much more.
"It would mean a lot," All-American senior nose tackle Terrence Cody said. "I've won a national championship in junior college so to win one in D-1 would mean a lot to me.
"I'd be in the history books."
Similarly, Nick Saban, who's vying to become the first coach in major college football history to lead two different schools to a national title, would have his legacy, and Alabama has an open spot among the giant statutes of the championship coaches outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. There's also room to expand the Walk of Champions.
The school's first national title in 17 years would make a lasting impression on fans as well. With the Crimson Tide faithful having poured into California this week, seemingly leaving their Auburn counterparts behind to deal with a winter storm and cold weather, they thirst to see Thursday's title game against Texas at the Rose Bowl firsthand and possibly never again say something like "Alabama didn't win a title when I was enrolled."
There's a reason why no one questions the statement during the pregame video: "At some places they play football … at Alabama we live it."
"The Alabama nation, the Alabama family is a prideful place," senior linebacker Cory Reamer said. "It's been a while since we've had this kind of success. Even the SEC Championship it's been a while for that, you could tell how excited everyone was for that and now I think everyone realizes what kind opportunity we have.
"We don't have an NFL team, we don't' have anything else. This is what everybody circles around. I think it'll bring a lot of pride and a lot of joy across the nation because there are Alabama fans everywhere. It would be special."
Just how special? Well, that depends on what level you're referring. From the Southeastern Conference on down, there's a lot at stake and to be won.
For simply having a team in the BCS National Championship Game, the SEC receives $18.5 million, which will be compounded by Florida also being invited to a BCS game, the Sugar Bowl, and all but two teams playing in the postseason.
The conference already has 15-year broadcast agreements for roughly $3 billion, or $205 million annually. ESPN is paying $2.25 billion and CBS more than $800 million through 2025.
Last summer, the 12 schools split approximately $132.5 million from the league's revenue sharing plan for the 2008-09 fiscal year, the most ever. The breakdown included $52 million from football television agreements, $25.4 million from bowls, $14.3 million from the SEC Football Championship, $13.6 million from basketball television agreements, $4.1 million from the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament and $23.1 million from NCAA Championships.
What's more is that the SEC is going for its fourth straight national championship (no conference had ever won three consecutive before), and is undefeated in BCS title games, further cementing its claim to being the best football conference in the nation.
"I think the league is the way it is because of the top to bottom sort of strength in the league," Saban said. "Where most leagues have two or three or four good teams, our league seems to have seven, eight or nine or 10 sometimes, so therefore each game that you play, if you're not bringing your 'A' game you have a good shot of not being able to have success. That's what makes the league better."
The competition leads to more exposure, better recruiting and thus high-quality teams. It's also why coaches like Phillip Fulmer get fired even after notching a national championship or Tommy Tuberville despite having an undefeated season. The pressure to succeed has never been greater.
So when Alabama players say playing Texas is like facing an SEC team, they mean it as a compliment.
"We're all like rivals, but we all beat up on each other, and we hand each other so many losses sometimes," sophomore running back Mark Ingram said. "The SEC, we all don't like each other, but we take pride in each other. Like in the bowl games, teams that I hate during the season, I root for them in the bowl season because you've got to take pride in your conference. It's such a tough conference and so many great teams, playing in the SEC, you've got to take pride in it."
Although some have mistakenly touted Thursday as a sort of David vs. Goliath matchup due to Alabama's impressive victory against defending national champion Florida for the SEC Championship, according to numbers accumulated by Forbes this is actually a Goliath vs. Goliath game (or maybe Godzilla vs. Mothra if you prefer that genre) financially.
By generating $82 million last season, Texas is college football's most valuable program. The Longhorns made $30 million from alumni and fan donations, $33 million from ticket sales to newly expanded Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium (100,119 capacity), $1 million from a sponsorship deal with Nike and $842,000 from Coca-Cola and Gatorade.
The magazine estimated the program cleared $59 million, with a capitalized value of $119 million.
Alabama was fifth on the list with a value of $92 million, 31 percent greater than before Saban was hired three years ago. U.S. Department of Education records show that it made $38.2 million last year, while Bryant-Denny Stadium is again being expanded and there's a waiting list for season tickets exceeding 10,000 names even though the jobless rate in the state still exceeds 10 percent.
However, the coach has made out pretty well too. In addition to his original eight-year, $32 million deal, which has already been extended, this season he was slated for a base salary of $3.9 million and has already earned $350,000 in bonuses.
They include $200,000 for taking Alabama to a BCS bowl, $125,000 for winning the SEC Championship Game and $25,000 for being named SEC Coach of the Year. He'll get another $200,000 with a win here and $50,000 more if he lands one of the national coach of the year awards.
More than $1 million in bonuses will be distributed elsewhere. The assistant coaches will land 20 percent of their salaries along with select members of the support staff including strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran and Associate Athletic Director of Football Mike Vollmar. Athletics director Mal Moore will get $35,000 and executive athletics director Dave Hart more than $27,000 as stipulated by their contracts.
The Tide's nine assistant coaches made $2.7 million in 2009, led by Joe Pendry's $390,000. In comparison, the Texas staff netted nearly $2.95 million, with defensive coordinator and head coach in waiting Will Muschamp making just under $1 million, according to USA Today.
Alabama is also in prime position to set school merchandise records, already boosted by Ingram winning the school's first Heisman Trophy and the SEC Championship. The 32-13 victory over Florida was more than a month ago, but the subsequent break timely, both in Christmas sales and giving the team a chance to recover from such an emotional victory. After all, this is still football.
"After Florida, I'm so glad we didn't have a game the next week because we had to have kind of a pinch-me moment there for about a week, week and a half, two weeks at the most. It was very surreal as players because this is what you sign up for," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "This is why you come to Alabama. This is the game you want to be a part of, and these are the games you want to prepare for and these are the games that are fun playing in."
So this is it. The teams are here and set, the fan invasion complete (because where else would they be?) and the hype will finally ebb away as the sun sets. Josh Groban and Audra McDonald will perform, legendary football announcer Keith Jackson will toss the coin and then a few hours later one side will take home a lot more than the Waterford crystal football trophy with an estimated value exceeding $30,000.
What's really at stake is football immortality.