1997 – How Florida and Florida State Met for the National Championship in the Sugar Bowl
A startling whoop went up behind the party dining at the Commander’s Palace. In the middle of the world-famous restaurant, Paul Hoolahan and Jon Litner yelled and gave each other high-fives.
The last piece of a four-month-long puzzle had just fallen into place.
Hoolahan, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, and Litner, vice president of ABC programming, headed a group into Commander’s on New Year’s evening, and caught sight of a diner with a miniature television viewing the last seconds of the Rose Bowl. Peeking over the man’s shoulder, the pair saw Ohio State’s Joe Germaine throw a five-yard touchdown pass to David Boston to give the Buckeyes a 20-17 lead over undefeated and second-ranked Arizona State – a lead that would stand up for the remaining 19 seconds of play.
“It was an exhilarating moment,” Hoolahan, overseeing his first Sugar Bowl, said. “That play put us back in the driver’s seat.”
It set up a match for all the football marbles – a head-to-head game for the right to plant the No. 1 pennant on the 1996 season – the next night at the Superdome. Florida State, perched atop the polls, and third-ranked Florida were scheduled for a rematch of their regular-season blood-letting – and a rematch of their 1991 rematch in the same setting.
Somebody up there must have been looking out for the Sugar Bowl this time. Divine Providence is the only way to explain the rejuvenation of what could have been a Sugar Bowl disaster.
The Sugar was one of three postseason games in the Bowl Alliance, designed to bring together the best teams, and hopefully a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national title game. In the ’96 game there was very little interest in Virginia Tech and Texas. But in ’97 the Sugar had the first two picks.
Coach Steve Spurrier’s Gators, at their best, clearly were the nation’s finest overall team and were ranked No. 1 most of the season. Ohio State seemed to be a worthy contender to the throne, and was ranked No. 2 most of the season – a regular season finish that would hurt the Sugar Bowl since the Big Ten and Pac-10 were not part of the Alliance and, as Big Ten champions, the Buckeyes were tied to the Rose Bowl, precluding a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in New Orleans.
On top of that, upstart Arizona State shocked defending national champion Nebraska early in ’96, then rolled merrily undefeated through its regular season. Nebraska righted itself after the loss to the Sun Devils and at the end of the season was an impressive football team, as good as the Cornhuskers who manhandled Florida 62-24 the year before in the national championship game at the Fiesta Bowl.
Florida State was unbeaten and untied as the season wound down, so there were plenty of challengers when the banged-up Gators started gimping in the home stretch. The Seminoles drove what seemed to be a stake in Florida’s No. 1 asperations when, on Nov. 30, Warrick Dunn – the Baton Rouge native who was MVP in the 1995 Sugar Bowl – was unleashed for 185 yards, and the FSU defensive front either sacked or threw quarterback Danny Wuerffel for losses 27 times, literally beating the eventual Heisman Trophy recipient to a pulp in a 24-21 Seminole victory.
FSU assumed the top spot, but, if things fell right, it was the Rose Bowl, with undefeated Ohio State and unbeaten Arizona State, that could have college football’s showcase game. Nebraska, with that one defeat, appeared a likely opponent for the ‘Noles in New Orleans, but the Huskers were a very long shot for No. 1 consideration.
Someone must have heard the Sugar Bowl’s prayers. Michigan upset Ohio State 13-9 in the regular-season finale, and Texas stunned Nebraska 37-27 in the Big 12 championship game.
That scenario eliminated Nebraska from Sugar consideration and put Florida back in the national title picture at No. 3. Despite Seminole coach Bobby Bowden’s reluctance, the Sugar exercised its right for the best game possible and invited FSU and the Gators – hoping against hope Ohio State could prevail in the Rose over the No. 2 Sun Devils, which would, in essence, make the Sugar a showdown for the championship.
That’s exactly what happened, though the Gators feigned disinterest in what was happening in California. Playing the Seminoles was motivation enough, they tried to make everyone believe. After a workout on New Year’s Day, as the Buckeyes and Sun Devils prepared to kickoff in Pasadena, the Gators boarded buses in New Orleans and traveled to Gonzales, La., 50 miles west, to rest up and get away from the distraction.
But at the end of the Rose Bowl, screaming players and laughing coaches streamed out of their rooms, whooping it up and high-fiving each other in the motel courtyard.
Technically, it wasn’t the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game the Bowl Alliance had tried to achiever; but, in effect, it was. The Rose Bowl outcome put Florida and Florida State in a head-to-head battle for the national championship.
At the same instant the Gators were euphorically hugging each other in Gonzales, Hoolahan and Litner, whose network was the Sugar’s broadcast partner, were in the midst of their own boisterous moment – though they did their howling in the middle of a staid, normally quiet and reserved Old World restaurant.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.