How Georgia and Florida State Met in the 2003 Sugar Bowl
Mark Richt was speaking of Bobby Bowden: “He taught me all I know about football,” the Georgia coach said of the Florida State coach – and lovingly isn’t too strong a description for his tone and obvious emotions.
This was an intriguing storyline: the old master going against his most devoted student.
Through a series of twists and turns, and in a year in which the Sugar Bowl would not be the site of the game for No. 1, the Superdome became the playing field for the matching of wits between Bowden and his former long-time assistant, Richt.
Georgia was the hot team in the Southeastern Conference, revitalized under the hand of Richt, who was persuaded to leave FSU two years before after 14 seasons of serving as Bowden’s quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator. The fourth-ranked Bulldogs went 12-1 in 2002, won the SEC for the first time since 1982, and earned a Sugar Bowl berth for the first time in two decades.
For a while it appeared the Sugar would have a glamour game with its first Pac-10 school, Southern California, against the Bulldogs. The Orange Bowl, however, used a one-time option to snatch the Trojans from New Orleans, one granted because at the birth of the Bowl Championship Series the Miami game put up more money (approximately $200,000) than the Sugar.
That put the familiar face of Bowden and 16th-ranked Florida State, which played in five Sugar Bowls in the previous 14 years, back in New Orleans – but this time against Richt, who was like a son to Bowden. “I sort of feel like I raised Mark,” Bowden said in just thinking of being on opposite sides of the field.
As Bowden’s chief offensive assistant, in 14 years Richt developed two Heisman Trophy recipients, one runner-up, and five quarterbacks who went on to the NFL. In that same span, Florida State had a 169-26-2 record, won nine Atlantic Coast Conference titles and two national championships.
“There’s a direct line connecting the good things that have happened at Georgia to Florida State,” Richt said. “Bobby Bowden was my mentor. Just about everything I learned about coaching, learned about handling people, and about people in general, I learned from him and from being at Florida State.”
“I was blessed just to be around him.”
This was not one of Bowden’s most memorable teams, having lost four games and his top two quarterbacks. Starter Chris Rix overslept for a final exam, rendering him ineligible. Backup Adrian McPherson was dismissed from school after running afoul of the law.
That put third-stringer Fabian Walker, a sophomore who was in on only 13 plays all season, behind center for the Sugar Bowl.
Walker may have been the least experienced quarterback to start in a major bowl since Steve Sloan replaced the suspended Joe Namath for the 1964 Sugar.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a quarterback in this situation before,” Bowden reflected while prepping receiver Anquan Boldin, who would be Walkers backup and who last played quarterback in high school. “It’s certainly going to be an adventure for him.”
Still, outwardly at least, Georgia was preparing for a battle royal. “First of all,” Richt said, “Florida State is a quality team. They beat an opponent we couldn’t (Florida, 31-14) and they made (No. 1-ranked) Miami (in a 28-21 Hurricane victory) look like just another team.
“And I always thought Coach Bowden is at his best when his back is against the wall, after something has jolted him or the team. I’ve always admired how he handles these situations, and how he is able to get everyone focused at the task at hand. I remember well when we lost (Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback) Chris Weinke before the 1998 Florida game. Everybody wrote us off, but Florida State followed Coach Bowden’s game plan to near perfection and we beat the Gators (23-12). “Bobby Bowden is a coach who can find a way to get his team to rise to the occasion. I know that from experience.”
Richt also knew, though, that a football team with an inexperienced quarterback could face some obstacles that not even Bowden could overcome.
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.