After Alabama’s athletic director suggested last month that if college athletes were paid, many would spend the money on “tattoos and rims,” he clarified the statement as a “frivolous” reference to a recent scandal at another university. “We hope to educate our student-athletes,” he said, “that those are not wise investments.”
But should Alabama defeat Clemson in the college football national championship game on Monday night, it is the university itself that will shell out for ostentatious hunks of jewelry.
Greg McElroy, a television analyst who was the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback during their 2009 national title season, said there was a simple reason he rarely wears his championship ring: “It’s uncomfortable.”
It is not only Alabama that has experienced ring inflation. Super Bowl rings have grown substantially since 2000. Ditto for World Series rings.
“The very, very general trend,” according to Tom Shieber, a senior curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “is they’re getting bigger and bigger.”
Southern California’s national championship rings grew markedly in size from the John McKay era to Pete Carroll’s more recent teams. Ohio State’s N.C.A.A. championship ring from the 2014 season — one of three presented to each player on that team — makes the one from the Buckeyes’ 1968 season look child-size.
Chris Poitras, a vice president at the ring maker Jostens, said the trend began about a decade ago. It started at the professional level, he said, and has funneled down into the college ranks and, now, to high schools.
“They were smaller in stature,” Poitras said of early rings, “whereas now, the school wants their brand. They want to tell the entire story of that season through logos, through scores on the side of the ring, through unique sayings.”
Alabama’s championship rings provide particularly telling points of comparison because there are so many of them. The university claims 15 football national championships — many neutral rankers would set the figure a little lower — including at least one each in the 1920s, the ’30s, ’40s, ’60s, ’70s and ’90s, the 2000s and the 2010s.
Before the 1950s and ’60s, the most distinctive college football awards included watches and blankets from bowl games. The first ring Alabama bought for its players, coaches and staff at the time of a championship was after the 1961 season. That was the Tide’s first title under Bear Bryant and the first for the program, even by its own accounting, in 20 years.
Mary Harmon Hilburn has her Alabama championship rings in the form of lavaliers — pendants that are what you would get if you sliced off the meaty face of the ring like popping off the top of a muffin. They are the real thing, though, a perk Hilburn enjoys partly from being the oldest granddaughter of Bryant, the legendary coach who presided over six Crimson Tide national championships in the 1960s and ’70s.
The lavalier for the 1965 title team — the spoils of a 9-1-1 season that included a victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl — is on a bracelet that also contains various charms given out for bowl games. But when Hilburn wears the ones commemorating Alabama’s three most recent national titles — from the 2009, 2011 and 2012 seasons — they hang at the bottom of a necklace, separated more out of necessity than sentimentality.
“They would dominate all the bowl charms,” she said.
Which is a polite way of saying that the rings of recent vintage are a little too big for a bracelet. Or, for that matter, a finger.
The six Bryant rings all look roughly alike: gold, with a diamond set in the middle and the year on top. (jewelry)
In size, Alabama’s 1992 ring — the one owned by Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, who was a senior wide receiver on that team — more closely resembles the 1961 ring than the one from 2009. But it also represents a design shift, probably prompted by Coach Gene Stallings’s previous time in the N.F.L. There are more words, and there is a logo on the face — albeit a block “A” that looks nothing like the more familiar script “A” for which the Crimson Tide are known.
By contrast, the three most recent rings — all won during the Bowl Championship Series, all under Coach Nick Saban — are about the size of table tennis balls. Their bodies contain words (like “champions”) and other information (typically the score of the championship game), and faces studded with shiny stones and the script “A.”
They look like a million bucks. But they are not worth anything approaching that. (jewelry)
The N.C.A.A. caps national championship awards bought by the school at $415. (Bowls may spend up to $550 on player gifts, which was why every Alabama and Michigan State player participating in last week’s Cotton Bowl received an Apple Watch, an Amazon TV media player and the traditional commemorative watch.)
“That’s our challenge,” said Poitras, whose company made Alabama’s 2009 and 2011 rings as well as its ring last season for winning the Southeastern Conference title. (The value of that ring could not exceed $315, also per N.C.A.A. rules. Crimson Tide players can also expect another ring if they win the College Football Playoff.)
The goal, Poitras said, is “that when you pick that ring up, you say, ‘Wow, this is a spectacular ring that looks like it’s worth thousands and thousands of dollars.’ ”
For example, Alabama’s 2009 national championship ring uses a nonprecious metal alloy for the golden body, a synthetic garnet for the crimson backdrop and cubic zirconia to simulate a diamond-studded face. By contrast, rings for professional franchises typically use the real thing.
But, of course, the rings’ value ultimately derives from something else. Unlike most jewelry, a championship ring has a purpose that is not primarily aesthetic. Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland, a senior, said last week that his mother did not let him take his 2012 ring out of a safe-deposit box. But he also seemed almost to disown the championship ring, saying, “I wouldn’t call it that; I didn’t get to play that much.”
Of his ring, McElroy said, “I’d rather have it in my dresser at home, safe and sound, or my safe, as opposed to having it on my hand.”
He added, “That doesn’t mean I’m any less proud of it.”