Work in Sports
Unbeaten Florida State made up for past missteps -- and won a national title -- with a storybook finish against feisty Virginia Tech
Posted: Wednesday January 05, 2000 12:00 AM
By Tim Layden
As half the Superdome crowd continued to celebrate the surreal, juggling, 43-yard scoring reception by Peter Warrick that had given Florida State a 17-point lead in the Sugar Bowl Tuesday night and clinched the Seminoles' second national title of the decade, Warrick knelt on one knee and cried. The touchdown had been his third of the night, a catch in the middle of the end zone while being interfered with by a Virginia Tech defender, and it had iced Florida State's 46-29 victory over the relentless Hokies. Warrick had found a lonely patch of artificial turf near the Seminoles' bench, genuflected and put his head on team chaplain Clint Purvis's shoulder. "This is the way I wanted it to end," he said, as tears streaked his cheeks. "This is why I came back."
In a sense, all the Seminoles came back: Warrick, not just for his senior year, when it seemed so obvious he was going to leave last winter for the NFL, but also from an embarrassing midseason arrest that followed him all the way to New Orleans like a dark shadow; Florida State junior quarterback Chris Weinke, from a painful neck injury that had prematurely ended his season a year ago; the whole team, from a listless, humiliating loss to Tennessee in last year's Fiesta Bowl national title game, and once again, on Tuesday night, when it seemed that Virginia Tech and its gifted redshirt freshman quarterback, Michael Vick, would beat the Seminoles.
Instead the Seminoles' offense drove 85 yards in 11 plays to regain the lead. Weinke, the 27-year-old former minor league baseball player who may not return to Florida State for his senior season, completed all seven of his passes on the drive, including a 14-yarder to Ron Dugans for the touchdown. "We were a little shaken up, but we got together on the bench and said, 'Never die, never die,'" said Weinke. Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt said, "Weinke is the reason we didn't faint. He was the guy. He has just unbelievable self-belief."
Weinke also had Warrick, who displayed all the wares that made him the best college player in the country, though he was deprived of the Heisman Trophy for his infamous Dillard's department store discounts. Warrick scored the game's first touchdown on a 64-yard pass from Weinke, later went all the way on a 59-yard punt return and then got the game's final touchdown after asking his teammates, "Y'all want me to finish them?" Even the Florida State defense recovered, holding Virginia Tech to just 39 yards on the three possessions after the Hokies had taken the lead. "We worked all winter and all summer," said Seminoles All-America noseguard Corey Simon. "No way we could quit."
The Seminoles' victory tacked a second national championship (the first was in 1993) onto coach Bobby Bowden's résumé and added to a remarkable run in which Florida State has won 10 or more games and finished no worse than No. 4 in the nation for 13 consecutive seasons. "The way they did it tonight makes me proud to say I'm a Seminole," said former Florida State All-America defensive end Peter Boulware of the Baltimore Ravens, who watched from the sideline. It also completed a 12-0 season for the team and gave Bowden the first perfect season of his 34-year career.
The Seminoles won because they never put the embarrassment of last year's 23-16 loss to Tennessee behind them. Florida State's appearance in that game had been a gift, delivered only when the BCS rankings imploded after losses by Kansas State and UCLA on the final weekend of the season. Once the Seminoles were invited, however, they sized up Tennessee as an overachieving, beatable opponent and brought unwarranted arrogance to the desert. They also brought untested Marcus Outzen as their starting quarterback, replacing Weinke, who had suffered a ruptured disk in his neck in the 11th game of the season. This combination of overconfidence and inexperience proved costly.
To outside observers Florida State's performance was ugly: only 253 yards of offense, just one pass reception by Warrick, two killing mistakes in the Seminoles' secondary and 12 penalties for 110 yards. The team's postgame locker room that night was funereal. "I remember the sound of people crying," says senior safety Sean Key. "Nobody was yelling or throwing anything. You could just hear all this crying." Bowden said he had never seen a team more emotionally crushed. It was Florida State's third appearance in a game to decide the national championship since the 1993 season and the Seminoles' second consecutive defeat, following a 52-20 pasting by Florida in the Sugar Bowl after the '96 season. Not long afterward, the phrase "Atlanta Braves of college football" began to circulate.
The players talked about the Tennessee loss in the weight room last winter. "You could hear them between sets," says strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger. They talked about it during spring practice. They talked about it during squad meetings throughout the season. They even talked about it upon arrival in Louisiana this year. After the Seminoles' first practice in New Orleans, Simon told his teammates to think about what had happened last time. The Tennessee debacle came up so often that Bowden made a note to himself to cut mentions of the game from his pregame repertoire. "It's too negative a thing to bring up too close to the game," Bowden said two days before kickoff. "It's time to start getting them thinking about playing the very best they can."
In more practical ways Florida State made changes to its bowl routine, based on what it learned a year ago. Convinced that his team got to the desert with too much rest (44 days between games, one fewer than this year) and too few tough practices, Bowden put the Seminoles through one full-on scrimmage in Tallahassee in mid-December and two other practices that included full contact. "The last one, right before Christmas, the boys got so rough, we had to cut it short," said Bowden.
Florida State worked out with speakers pumping out earsplitting crowd noise, as if the upcoming opponent were Florida in the Swamp. "We practiced harder than ever on our old hand signals and added new ones," said Outzen two days before the game. "We got to where we could run our offense without saying a word at the line of scrimmage."
Upon arriving in New Orleans on Dec. 28, Bowden imposed a 1 a.m. curfew for his team's first three nights in New Orleans"Sodom and Gomorrah," Bowden called the Big Easyand put bars and casinos off-limits. The curfew time was similar to Florida State's 1997 and '98 appearances, and casinos have always been forbidden turf, but not bars. Yet the Seminoles seniors went beyond Bowden's rules, telling first- and second-team players to put themselves in lockdown. During a players-only meeting, "we told the guys who weren't going to be playing in the game to have a good time, do whatever they wanted to do," Key said last week. "We told everybody else to stay in the hotel and sleep."
Not everyone listened. On Dec. 30 starting defensive end Roland Seymour and second-team defensive back Reggie Durden missed curfew by what a team source called "just a few minutes." On New Year's Eve, however, All-America kicker Sebastian Janikowski, an unreconstructed party boy for whom Bourbon Street is a little bit of heaven, missed the Seminoles' Y2K curfew of 11:30 p.m. by at least 90 minutes. There were no suspensions, but all three players had to run extra wind sprints when the team practiced on Sunday. "It was like soccer practice all over again," said Janikowski, once a member of the national under-17 team in his native Poland.
Weinke, on the other hand, wasn't a threat to break the rules. More than any other Seminole, he had sufferedliterally and figurativelywith the Fiesta Bowl loss. As a 26-year-old sophomore in 1998 he had bounced back from a horrendous six-interception day in a September loss to North Carolina State to become one of the most effective passers in the nation, only to see his season end with the ruptured disk in his neck. He went to Tempe with his teammates, racked by piercing headaches caused by the leakage of spinal fluid ("Three months of hell, when I didn't care anything about football," Weinke said), but he couldn't bear to watch the game from the sideline. "He went up and hid in a luxury suite," says Weinke's older brother, Derek, a probation officer and high school football and hockey coach in Minnesota, where Weinke grew up.
Weinke's recovery and superb junior season gave him a fresh perspective on sport. At Cretin-Derham High in St. Paul in the late '80s, he had been a consummate athlete. He was offered a football scholarship to Florida State, was drafted in the second round by the Toronto Blue Jays and was even a decent hockey player. Weinke spent six years with the Blue Jays' organization before enrolling at Florida State in the spring of 1997. Failure had never been more than a bump in the road to Weinke, and when he topped out in baseball as a light-hitting Triple A first baseman, he went back to football. The neck injury changed his outlook, and his extended rehab and strong comeback this fall (25 touchdown passes) have left him humbled. "He's looked at this as his third chance, after baseball and after the injury, and he knows that three is way more than most people get," says Derek. "Everything this year has been a bonus."
It was Weinke who directed a crucial fourth-quarter scoring drive in the 30-23 victory over Florida on Nov. 20 in Gainesville and who several times in that hostile environment silenced the Florida State huddle with withering rebukes. Weinke also refused to let his teammates or the coaching staff know before the Sugar Bowl if he would return for another year. Five days before the game offensive coordinator Richt chided Weinke, the team's media spokesman, about his plans for next year, asking, "How many third-string quarterbacks in the NFL are going to have this kind of attention?"
Weinke barked back at Richt, "Who's going to be third string? A few years ago you were trying to talk me out of coming to Florida State, and now you're trying to get me to stick around."
On Tuesday, in the midst of a swirling, boisterous celebration on the floor of the Superdome, Ann, Bobby's wife of 50 years, stood quietly in the end zone and smiled. She'd heard her husband claim that the perfect season wasn't important to him, that he didn't need another national title. She'd also heard him suddenly mutter, while sitting quietly on the couch in their house in mid-December, "We should have beaten Tennessee, you know that? We should have beaten those boys." She knew what was in his soul. "Don't ever let him tell you he didn't want this championship," she said. "He wanted this very badly. He wanted the undefeated season, too."
Now her husband sat in a small room near the Florida State dressing room, wiping his custom-made wraparound glasses. He'd just finished talking by phone to President Clinton, in his own inimitable way. "How come you're not working tonight?" he had asked the president at the start. And then at the very finish, he'd signed off with, "See you, buddy."
He's told of Ann's confession and throws his head back in laughter. What was it Bowden had told his players before the game? "Think about all you did to get here; think about what this means." It was fine for Bowden, himself, to be honest now. "I didn't want to put pressure on my team to win for me," he said in the postgame quiet. "But Ann was telling the truth. The dadgum truth."
Issue date: January 10, 2000