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January 16, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ This is what happens when you win the national championship, days like Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
It featured fireworks, tributes, speeches and hardware ... a whole lot of hardware.
The University of Alabama football team enjoyed that and a whole lot more while celebrating the 2009 season with an estimated 38,000 fans who took home a free championship poster along with some final memories. In addition to being a thank you for everyone involved it was also a final goodbye to more than 20 players.
"I want everyone here to know this is not the end," Coach Nick Saban said. "This is the beginning."
The coach then set a new goal, for the Crimson Tide to have the most consistent winning program in the country.
"This team, Coach Saban and his staff, epitomized what a world class program should be," university president Dr. Robert E. Witt said.
"What an unbelievable year," athletics director Mal Moore added. "Thanks to every one of you and what you've done."
With a stage at midfield lined with trophies and the first 3,000 fans in line allowed on the sideline, the festivities included everything from a new intro video that included Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus and Greg McElroy wearing a No. 13 jersey to symbolize the number of national titles, to a special playing of "Rammer Jammer."
The loudest cheers came when Saban asked for fans to stand and give the team its loudest ovation yet, which they gratefully obliged.
"At one point I was sitting next to Preston Dial and Greg McElroy and I turned to them and said, 'This is a moment you remember for the rest of your life,'" senior tight end Colin Peek said. "It almost had that awe moment where you realize that this is the last time I'll be on that field as a player here at the University of Alabama, in this program, and it was something I wanted to take full advantage of and soak it in because when it's all said and done 20 years from now I'm still going to remember those fans cheering. It was a blast. I'm so thankful."
Among the video tributes were to the major award winners, Ingram for the Heisman, Rolando McClain for the Butkus, and the six All-Americans: Javier Arenas, Terrence Cody, Ingram, McClain, Mike Johnson and Leigh Tiffin.
Moore also took time to list many of the team's accomplishments, which took quite a while. He mentioned everything from the 22nd Southeastern Conference title to being the first team in history to beat 10 opponents that finished with a winning record.
"It just shows that when you put in so much hard work and effort that things really do pay off for you," Johnson said. "I really honestly feel like we worked harder than any other team this year and that's why we came out on top."
Each member of the coaching staff also took a brief turn at the microphone, with strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran giving his trademark "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!" and most of the others yelling a loud, "Roll Tide!"
"We didn't lose a home game in this stadium the last two years," said McClain, who along with junior cornerback Kareem Jackson has declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft.
However, they and the senior class also depart feeling that the program's future has never been brighter, and even with up to nine starting defensive spots to be filled there could be another celebration like this one in the near future. Alabama is already an odds-on favorite to be the preseason No. 1 team when the initial 2010 polls are conducted.
"I think it's going to be outstanding, a lot of young great guys," Arenas said. "You have the Heisman Trophy winner coming back, more importantly coming back as a team leader and more than likely a team captain. You mention him because of the influence he has on the team. The quarterback, such an influence. You have guys stepping up at major positions, like the position Ro played, I think it's full of leaders.
"They can do it as long as they maintain the characteristic and hard work that we did this year, which they will, it'll happen again."
Actually, even though the Tide will now turn its attention to the future, there will be more. Moore promised that the Walk of Champions will be quickly be updated and include a statue of Saban alongside the other championship coaches, Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Gene Stallings and Paul W. "Bear" Bryant.
Players will also eventually receive some very large rings.
"I don't know (when), I'm not on the team any more so I'm not in the loop like I used to be," Johnson said. "But when they do come I'll be here.
"We were already sized for them. I'm just excited man to get that thing on my finger."