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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. The debacle came up so often that Bowden made a note to himself to cut mentions of it 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 Easy—and 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.
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. 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 suffered—literally and figuratively—with 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 neck injury. 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 sports. 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 for 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 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, referring to the coach's days as offensive coordinator at East Carolina, "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 Bowden, 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."