Three weeks ago, in the wake of the University of Wisconsin football team's win in the Big Ten Conference title game, players and coaches were ushered into a banquet room at Camp Randall Stadium decked out like the set of "The Price is Right."
Inside there was an array of items such as tablet computers, flat-screen televisions, recliners and Rose Bowl-themed items such as custom bar stools. Everyone was allowed to choose one of the more expensive pieces or a hodgepodge of smaller items.
This shopping spree, known as the "gift suite," is offered annually to all 10 schools participating in Bowl Championship Series games. It is paid for by those five bowls, which are allowed by the NCAA to lavish merchandise valued up to $550 on 125 players and coaches per team.
Given the NCAA's restrictions on the benefits permissible to college athletes — one can't accept a car ride from a booster on a rainy day, or so much as a sub sandwich — the practice strikes some as hypocritical.
But for the Badgers, they are simply the spoils of a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
"When I walked into the gift suite, I was so excited," UW freshman cornerback Peniel Jean said. "I picked up the TV. I have a smaller one in my room, but I upgraded — about 15 inches."
The gift suite is the granddaddy of all the swag handed out by the 35 bowls.
This year, players at various bowls are bestowed everything from the predictable (Best Buy gift cards at several games) to the hip (iBeats earbuds from Dr. Dre for the BBVA Compass Bowl) to the climate-appropriate (winter coat and gloves for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, towels for the Hawaii Bowl).
In addition to the gift suite, players from this year's Rose Bowl participants, UW and Oregon, also received a watch, a baseball cap and a backpack. And they were eligible to receive an additional $400 in merchandise from their schools.
Players are not allowed to sell their presents or redeem their gift cards for money.
The largesse does not go unappreciated by players.
"Every bowl that we've ever been to has really taken care of us," Badgers defensive lineman Patrick Butrym said, "but the BCS does a great job and the Rose Bowl does a great job. Honestly, there's really no better bowl you can be in."
All of this is pocket change compared to the money being generated by the BCS bowls; for instance, the Big Ten receives $22.3 million from the Rose Bowl, of which $2.3 million is given to UW to cover the expenses of the trip. The rest is divided among the 12 conference members from a pot that includes all revenues from postseason bowl games.
Still, thanks to an education process that begins in the recruiting letters players receive while still in high school – with reminders like the memorabilia scandal at Ohio State -- they are conditioned to be skeptical of activities that may bring unintended consequences.
As such, even though the practice of bowl gifts bears the NCAA's stamp of approval, some Badgers players grew uneasy when asked whether scoring swag seemed at all unusual against that backdrop.
"I'm not sure I'm allowed to answer that," UW All-American center Peter Konz said, breaking into his signature belly laugh.
"The first year it was (odd)," said senior running back Bradie Ewing, a former Richland Center athlete. "You're just playing football, just out of high school, and you go into bowl prep and you get a really nice bowl gift.
"Obviously, they're following NCAA rules along the way, but it was weird to have something really nice like that given to you. Now, you get used to it and you feel like you've earned it after a long season, I guess."
Bowls traditionally have given athletes gifts of varying degree. A 2010 Sports Illustrated article noted that the Cotton Bowl gave out Rolex watches before the NCAA first imposed a $100 limit on the value of gifts in 1971. That cap was increased through the years, to $550 this year, up $50 from 2010.
"We've encouraged that they have some kind of memento," Dennis Pope, the NCAA's director of championships, told Sports Illustrated. "These are all key mementos; it's not cash ... There's a distinction between an outright dollar value given to them and a redeemable gift certificate."
The nature of gifts has changed considerably since the Badgers' trip to the 1994 Rose Bowl, when the chief handout was an adventurously colored jacket bearing the bowl logo "that most guys gave to their girlfriends," according to Phil Chavez, a walk-on linebacker on that team.
Two years ago, when the Badgers played in the Champs Sports Bowl, every player received a $500 gift card to Best Buy. Konz's face lit up when he recounted that experience, which he summed up in one word: "Awesome."
He bought for his brother a Modern Warfare video game with night vision goggles, "which may have been the best gift ever," according to Konz, and grabbed a guitar for himself.
"It was unbelievable what you could buy," he said.
To players such as the Badgers' Jean, the biggest gift is a chance to compete on such a hallowed stage as the Rose Bowl. Still, the gifts are a nice perk. And should the opportunity present itself again, he's already set his mind on landing a tablet computer.
"Next year," he said, "definitely."