The Daily Nole

Sunday Centerpiece: Remembering FSU’s 1999 National Title 20 Years Later

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It began its 73rd season of football on Saturday and as most are aware, Florida State has reached college football’s pinnacle three times.

The Seminoles first hoisted a national championship trophy in 1993 and did so most recently in 2013. The first and only perfect season under head coach Bobby Bowden came in 1999 as FSU became the first team to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the AP Poll.

“That was a goal at the start of the season,” said Atrews Bell, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver on the 1999 team. “We wanted to be the first wire-to-wire No. 1. We didn’t talk about it to the media much, but we did in the locker room. We wanted to go undefeated.”

That championship season turns 20 this fall. The Seminoles completed the 12-0 season with a 46-29 victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, 2000.

“It doesn’t seem like 20 years ago,” said Tarlos Thomas, a first-team All-ACC tackle for the Seminoles in 1999. “Honestly, it seems like it was just a couple years ago.”

Florida State had come close to claiming a national championship in the years before. In 1996, FSU had a perfect regular season before falling to Florida in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. In 1997, FSU started 10-0 before losing to Florida in the regular season finale in Gainesville. In 1998, FSU lost to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship.

“That loss to Tennessee really hurt us as a team,” Thomas said. “To get a taste of playing in the first BCS national championship was amazing, but not coming through hurt. That loss carried us through the offseason. Back then, our only goal at Florida State was winning a national championship.”

Thomas was part of an offensive line that had two first-team All-ACC selections in himself and Consensus All-American guard Jason Whitaker. Center Eric Thomas and tackle Brett Williams were second-team selections.

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Headlining the offense for FSU was wide receiver Peter Warrick, who was the most electric player for the Seminoles and perhaps in the entire nation. The versatile Warrick finished the regular season with 1,030 yards from scrimmage, 1,227 all-purpose yards and 13 total touchdowns. Warrick headlined a deep receiving corps that included Laveranues Coles, Ron Dugans, Marvin Minnis, Talman Gardner, Robert Morgan, Anquan Boldin, Germaine Stringer and Atrews Bell.

“The competitive practices were sometimes more competitive than the games,” Bell said. “There were some egos. We had some backups who thought they were better than the starters and they really pushed the starters that much harder and the whole team benefited.”

After watching his redshirt sophomore season end to a neck injury, Chris Weinke returned as the Florida State quarterback for 1999. Joining him in the backfield was the rushing duo of Travis Minor and Jeff Chaney, who combined for nearly 1,000 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. Dan Kendra, who was projected to be the team’s starting quarterback in 1998 before a season-ending injury in the preseason, made his way back to ease into a new role as the team’s fullback.

“In 1998, we didn’t have a full arsenal,” Bell said. “At Florida State, you’re always working for a championship. We had to roll back the playbook a little bit, because Marcus (Outzen) hadn’t played much that year. We had our signal caller (Weinke) back, which was huge.”

Throughout the season, FSU averaged more than 38 points per game. Defensively, opponents scored less than 17 points per game against a deep group of Seminoles that had seven different players record at least 50 tackles.

Corey Simon, a Consensus All-American defensive tackle, was perhaps the face of the defense with 21 tackles for loss in 1999. Fellow defensive tackle Jerry Johnson was a first-team All-ACC selection while defensive end Jamal Reynolds led the Seminoles with seven sacks en route to being named second-team All-ACC.

“We felt like our games were in practice,” Thomas said. “We felt like if we could block those All-Americans in practice, we could block anyone. It was a family atmosphere. We lived together, we prayed together, we hung out together, we went to church together. You can thank Coach Bowden for that.”

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FSU’s starting three linebackers — Tommy Polley, Brian Allen and Bradley Jennings — combined for 302 tackles during the regular season and nine sacks. Polley was a first-team All-ACC selection while Allen was named to the second team. Adding depth to that position were Bobby Rhodes and Theon Rackley.

Safety Derrick Gibson, a second-team All-ACC performer, led a deep and talented secondary with 83 tackles and four interceptions. Fellow safety Chris Hope also had four interceptions for the Seminoles. Other very notable contributors included cornerback Tay Cody, a future Consensus All-American, first-team All-ACC cornerback Mario Edwards, Clevan Thomas, Todd Frier, Reggie Durden and Sean Key.

Although placekicking had cost FSU national championships in years past, the Seminoles were strong there too as well in 1999. Returning was kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who would claim a second Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker in 1999, making a nation-leading 23 field goals and eight from 40 yards and beyond.

Through five games, a hard-fought 41-35 win over No. 10 Georgia Tech served as the all the resistance the Seminoles would face early on. Warrick would account for 165 yards of offense and two touchdowns in the win over Georgia Tech. The Seminoles also rattled off a 42-11 win over NC State, a 42-10 victory over North Carolina and a 51-23 triumph over Duke in Jacksonville. The year started with a 41-7 victory over Louisiana Tech in which Warrick broke an early 7-7 tie with an electrifying 20-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter.

“I think Peter ran probably 100 yards total on that play,” Bell said. “That play kind of defined our year. It was a microcosm of the season. We had some close games, some dismissals, some adversity, but I remember not ever flinching.”

At 5-0, FSU was rolling along as it prepared for rival Miami. That’s when the program would make national headlines for all the wrong reasons. After receiving heavily discounted merchandise at a Tallahassee Dillard’s and being charged with grand theft, Warrick received a 2-game suspension and fellow wide receiver Laveranues Coles was dismissed from the program.

“For it to happen the week of the Miami game, the timing of it couldn’t have been much worse,” Thomas said. “We worried about our teammates first, but after that, we got to focusing on Miami and playing for each other. The heart we had for each other really helped us through that season.”

The Seminoles would fall behind to the Hurricanes 21-14 early in the second quarter, but the FSU defense wouldn’t allow another point in a 31-21 victory. Weinke passed for 332 yards with touchdown tosses to Stringer and tight end Ryan Sprague. A late interception by Gibson helped seal the victory. In Warrick’s absence, 11 different players caught a pass for FSU.

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“The adversity we overcame that year with Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles really stands out,” Bell said. “We were sad about the incident, but at the same, it was an opportunity for us. It really gave some of us a lot of confidence moving forward.”

Following a 33-10 victory over Wake Forest, FSU headed to Clemson for a college football first. Bowden’s top-ranked Seminoles were tasked with beating a Tigers’ team coached by his son, Tommy Bowden. For most of the night, the younger Bowden had the upper hand.

Clemson raced to a 14-3 halftime lead before the Seminoles drew even late in the third quarter on a touchdown run by Minor and a 2-point conversion pass from Weinke to Kendra. With less than six minutes to go, Janikowski put FSU ahead for good with a 39-yard field goal. With less than two minutes to play, Clemson’s Tony Lazzara missed from 41 yards out as FSU escaped, 17-14.

After easy victories over Virginia and Maryland, FSU returned to the place where it had its only loss two years prior — Gainesville. Although Florida State had won the year before, Florida ruined FSU’s perfect season in 1997 with a 32-29 victory. In 1996, FSU topped the Gators during the regular season in Tallahassee, but were embarrassed 52-20 in a Sugar Bowl rematch for the national championship.

“There were a lot of guys on the ’99 team that were on the team that got blew out in the Sugar Bowl,” Bell said. “There were some heartbreaking losses to Florida and I think we thought about that and really used it to our advantage.”

Against No. 3 Florida, the Seminoles led by 10 early, but Bennie Alexander’s 43-yard touchdown return of a Weinke touchdown midway through the third quarter gave Florida a 16-13 lead.

“The moment that stands out to me is at Florida when we went down,” Thomas said. “The field was literally shaking. Weinke had just threw a pick, but in the huddle, he was calm and making a jokes. No matter what happened to us that season, we never got flustered.”

Before the quarter was over, the Seminoles had regained the lead with a 54-yard field goal by Janikowski and a 2-yard touchdown run by Chaney — a player Thomas called one of the overshadowed leaders on the 1999 squad.

“It may surprise some people, but on the offensive side and maybe the team as a whole, Jeff Chaney was that guy,” Thomas said. “Ron Dugans did his thing, but Jeff Chaney — when he touched the ball, that was a grown man.”

Weinke would add a touchdown pass to Minnis and the defense would hold late in a 30-23 victory. At 11-0, FSU would begin making reservations for New Orleans where it would face No. 2 Virginia Tech, coached by Frank Beamer and quarterbacked by the talented Michael Vick.

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In the Sugar Bowl, the first half would be the Chris Weinke and Peter Warrick show. Warrick returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdowns and was on the receiving end of a 64-yard touchdown pass from Weinke. Weinke would also add a 63-yard scoring strike to Dugans and Chaney found the end zone on a blocked punt.

The Seminoles led 28-7 early and 28-14 at half, but after 22 straight points for the Hokies, FSU trailed 29-28 entering the final quarter. A 14-yard scoring strike from Weinke to Dugans two minutes into the final period put FSU back in front. After a Janikowski field goal pushed the lead to 10, Warrick helped put Virginia Tech away with an incredible juggling touchdown 43-yard reception in a 46-29 victory.

“There was a lot of relief,” Bell said. “It was joy, relief and everything in between. We wanted to do it for Coach Bowden.”

Warrick accounted for 220 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. Weinke passed for 329 yards and four touchdowns in the win. On the defensive side of the ball, Jennings and Reynolds combined for five sacks while Simon came up with a big fumble recovery in the end zone to thwart an early scoring drive.

“Looking back, it means everything,” Bell said. “The further we are away from it, the more appreciative I get of what we accomplished. When (members of the 1999 team) get together, we still laugh and tell the same stories we told at Burt Reynolds Hall. Every year when football season comes around, I think about that team and we get those feelings all over again.”

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FSU would play for the national championship in the Orange Bowl the following season, but lost to Oklahoma, 13-2. It would be 14 years later before the Seminoles would win another national title as Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the highest scoring offense in FBS history under head coach Jimbo Fisher rallied to beat Auburn for the 2013 title. 20 years later, Thomas said the accomplishments are something that he still holds dear.

“It means the world to me to give Coach Bowden that undefeated season,” Thomas said. “I remember seeing that undefeated picture in his office. To get that for Coach Bowden and for Florida State, words can’t describe it.”

Mike Ferguson is the editor of The Daily Nole. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson. Like The Daily Nole on Facebook. To pitch an idea, author a post or to learn more about The Daily Nole, email Mike Ferguson at Mike@TheDailyNole.com.

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