As the clock was winding down on Alabama’s 32-13 win over Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta Saturday, Terrence Cody grabbed a 15-gallon cooler of Gatorade with the plan of giving Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban a celebratory drenching.
“I told the guys, it’s a big win, but it’s not the biggest win for this year,” said junior linebacker Rolando McClain. “I told them that if we win the national championship, put whatever you want to put on him. But until then, we’re not going to drench Coach with Gatorade.”
McClain said he dumped out the water and he dumped out the Gatorade. “It wasn’t the right time for it,” he said. “I didn’t want those guys to feel like the SEC Championship was it for us. I didn’t want them to feel like that was the last game and the most important game, because it’s not. We have the biggest game of our life out there.
“After we win it, you can dunk Coach then.”
Alabama will be playing for the national championship on January 7 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena against Texas. Bama, number one in the nation, and the Longhorns, number two, are both 13-0.
McClain will be playing in the game as the Butkus Award winner. A day after winning the Jack Lambert Award as the nation’s best linebacker, McClain made it a sweep with Dick Butkus himself making a surprise visit to Tuscaloosa to present the award.
And McClain was surprised.
“They said we were doing something for the national championship,” he said. McClain was told to wear slacks and a collared shirt and to be in Coach Nick Saban’s office at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
McClain said he couldn’t figure out why he needed to dress up to meet the media. He also thought it was a little odd that he was sitting in Saban’s office chatting about the national championship game a month before it’s to be played.
Then things got really strange.
Dick Butkus walked into Saban’s office.
McClain said, “I’m sitting here like, ‘Am I supposed to stop the interview and talk to Dick or am I supposed to act like he’s not there?’ I had no idea what to do. So when I saw coach get up and shake his hand, naturally, I just got up.
“I was kind of frozen. I was like ‘Man, Dick Butkus.’ It was a good feeling. That was my first time ever meeting him. It was kind of humbling. You think you’re a pretty good linebacker. Then Dick Butkus is in the room.
“He was a fierce linebacker, and he played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s one of the greatest ever.”
McClain said winning the Butkus Award “means a lot. He’s arguably the best linebacker to ever play the game. I mean, I’m just excited I get to carry the name of a Dick Butkus Award winner. It’s huge. I just give credit to my coaches, my mom and my teammates. I have a very good defensive line and a very good secondary. Without those guys, I don’t think I’d be up here accepting this award.”
One of those teammates, cornerback Javier Arenas, was on hand for the public presentation a few moments later.
“Javy knew and he didn’t tell me, so I’m kind of disappointed in him,” McClain said.
McClain added, “Obviously, I’m excited for the award. I’m thrilled to have it. I’m sure my mom will be proud.”
McClain was officially presented the award in the Mal M. Moore Athletic Complex on Tuesday morning by NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus at a news conference. He is the second player in Alabama history to win the award, joining former All-America and Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas in 1988.
“Ro had an outstanding year and the voting was pretty darn close,” Butkus said upon presenting McClain with the 2009 Butkus Award. “I am very proud of the selection committee that we have and the job they did. What can I say? His play really speaks for itself.
“It’s not only his playing ability, which is quite obvious, but it also entails people in his situation, people look up to him. You should never flinch in the old American tradition of giving back and he has a wonderful opportunity to help other people and I think the selection committee did a great job. This is the right guy.”
The 2009 SEC Defensive Player of the Year leads the Crimson Tide with 101 tackles this season, including 12.5 tackles for loss (-58 yards) and four sacks (-36 yards). He also added 14 quarterback pressures, three pass breakups, two interceptions (21 return yards) and forced one fumble.
“This is a surprise,” McClain said upon receiving the award. “They did a good job with it. I’d like to say thank you to Mr. Butkus. Two of my teammates (Javier Arenas and Mike Johnson) are here. I’d like to say thank you to my whole team and Coach Saban. When I first got here, I was just an 18-year-old kid running around, trying to learn the system. Thanks to him and a lot of hard work by the other assistant coaches, I guess I turned out to be a pretty good linebacker.
“It means a lot to me, but I think it’s bigger than me, it’s for my team. Without them I would not get this award. These guys have played hard all year and I am thankful for them. I love the individual award, but I would like nothing more than to see my teammates with a national championship ring. That would be huge. I am sure my mom would be proud. I just want to say thank you again. I am at a loss for words. I never expected this.”
A 2009 team captain, McClain anchors an Alabama defense that leads the nation in scoring defense (11.0 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (88.81 rating) and ranks second in rushing defense (77.9 ypg) and total defense (241.69 ypg). The Tide is also seventh nationally in pass defense (177.82 ypg). The Crimson Tide led the SEC in rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, and ranks second in passing defense.
“I’d like to thank Dick Butkus for having the award,” Saban said. “I think this is a great award. I think what the award represents in terms of playing clean is a great format for making an emphasis of getting people to do things right and setting a good example and setting a good example for young people.
“I think the committee made a great selection in Rolando McClain, not only because he had a great year on the field, but he did a fantastic job for his team and also influenced his teammates in a very positive way by his performance and his production individually was off the charts. So, in every way, from a production performance standpoint, to a leadership standpoint and his contributions to this team’s success was as much as anybody on our team. We are really proud of him for that.
“I have every confidence the committee selected the right guy to that as well. This is fine young man, who has represented The University of Alabama in a first-class way, not only as football player on the field, but as a person and as student here at The University and is somebody that always projected a real positive image for young people.”
A three-time national defensive player of the week, McClain recorded double figure tackles against Florida International (10), Kentucky (12), Mississippi State (11) and Auburn (12). In addition to his 12 tackles in a 38-20 win at Kentucky on Oct. 3, McClain was also responsible for three of the Crimson Tide’s four takeaways in the game, which resulted in 17 points.
The Butkus Award is in its 25th season and is part of the “I Play Clean” campaign that warns against the dangers of steroids. The Butkus Award will present a 30-minute television program to be aired on Fox Sports Net at a date to be announced in January, featuring McClain and the 2009 high school and professional linebackers of the year.
Since McClain thought he was going to meet with the media regarding the national championship game, he was asked about it.
“Texas is a great team,” he said. “Like Coach Saban said, the media doesn’t need to make it David and Goliath. They’re a great team, and we’re a great team, and it’s going to be a great game. They have a lot of offensive weapons. They have a Heisman candidate. It’s going to be a tough game.”
McClain said he is not concerned that former Saban assistants, Will Muschamp and Major Applewhite, are now coaching for Texas.
McClain said, “The motto around here is we control our own destiny. We’re going to do things the way we do it, and I think we’re going to go about it the same way. Other than having a couple of weeks off for rest and going home and working out on your own, we’re going to do things the same way we do it. We’re going to prepare the same way, and we’re just going to try to get ready to beat a very good team.”
He was also asked about the Heisman candidacy of Bama tailback Mark Ingram.
“Saturday, he played great,” McClain said. “He did everything that we asked him to do. He provided that spark we needed in the running game. You have to give credit to the offensive line and the entire offense. They all did a great job, not only Mark. Everybody played well. Everybody just came out as a team with the right enthusiasm and the right energy, and we were able to beat a very good team.”