That had begun to change, though, on Monday, Oct. 18, when, following a sluggish 33-10 win over Wake Forest, the Seminoles' captains—Dugans, defensive tackle Jerry Johnson, linebacker Bobby Rhodes, noseguard Corey Simon and Whitaker—called a players-only meeting. "We'd never had a real, big-time, big-city meeting before," says senior cornerback Mario Edwards. "We needed it." Senior safety Sean Key cried as he begged his teammates to come together. Dugans raised the NFL issue. "Too many guys are worrying about how much money they're going to be making next year," he said. He pointed out that according to many of Florida's veteran players, the 1998 Gators stars had spent last season planning their futures, and it had cost their team, which finished with a loss to Florida State, eliminating it from a possible Fiesta Bowl berth. The meeting gave the Seminoles a purpose. "It went right to the heart of the team," says junior defensive end Roland Seymour.
Bowden was thrilled. "I've had players call meetings before because I told them to," he says. "This one, I didn't tell them anything. That means they care. They want to do something to keep their season alive."
It couldn't be more alive. The Seminoles will rest for five weeks before playing for the national title in the Sugar Bowl, trying to win it all for only the second time (the first was in 1993) despite 12 consecutive seasons ranked no lower than No. 4 in the final polls. Bowden stood on the sideline late in Saturday's win and watched Florida draw within a touchdown with 3:33 to play. He watched the Gators force a three-and-out and get one last chance, on a pass heaved into the end zone on the final play. In his mind Bowden saw the season-killing losses to Florida in '97, to Miami in '91 and '92. "I thought about those games," Bowden said. "I thought about all of them."
He watched, and his ancient quarterback stood nearby, watching too, as the ball fell to the grass and the clock died.