Bowden’s Legendary Career Highlighted by Thrilling 2000 Sugar Bowl
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
Story submitted Fall, 2008, for the Sugar Bowl’s 75th Anniversary Celebration
The 2000 Sugar Bowl was the first of four New Orleans bowl games I’ve covered, and it remains by far the most memorable. It was a dizzying back-and-forth shootout in which two of the nation’s most talented players that season – Florida State receiver Peter Warrick and Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick — spent most of the night one-upping each other with one big play after another.
The Seminoles and Hokies both finished the 1999 regular season 11-0, creating a rare, controversy-free BCS championship matchup. FSU, which was in the midst of a dynastic run under coach Bobby Bowden (14 straight top-four finishes from 1987-2000) and had been the No. 1 team in the country since the start of the season. Frank Beamer’s Hokies had become increasingly respectable throughout the mid-to-late ’90s, but the ’99 season marked their ascendance to the national stage.
They did it in large part because of an exceptionally gifted redshirt freshman quarterback.
While the sport had seen its share of “mobile” quarterbacks over the years — mostly those who ran the old wishbone offense — Vick was unlike any before him. With blazing 4.3 speed, he routinely blew by defenders, often turning busted plays into long gains. He finished third in the Heisman voting that season, incredibly rare for a freshman, and saved the Hokies’ season when, against West Virginia, he dashed 26 yards down the sideline to set up a game-winning field goal.
Because of Virginia Tech’s relatively low profile, the Sugar Bowl marked many fans’ first time seeing Vick play. They would not be disappointed. But first, they would be treated to a dazzling display from Warrick, Florida State’s dynamic receiver who many felt would have won the Heisman that season if not for his two-game suspension mid-season. In the first half against Virginia Tech, Warrick caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Weinke and returned a punt 59 yards for another score to stake the Seminoles to a 28-7 lead.
That’s when Vick went to work, breaking a 46-yard run en route to his own 3-yard touchdown run that cut the score to 28-14 just before halftime. Vick would wind up leading his team to 22 unanswered points, repeatedly mystifying Seminoles defenders with his feet. He would finish with a game-high 97 rushing yards to go with 225 passing yards. Two FSU defenders, Roland Seymour and Tommy Polley, suffered game-ending knee strains trying to tackle him. “I’ve never seen a better one,” Bowden said of Vick’s performance. “I knew he was good, but I didn’t know he was that good.”
Fortunately for Bowden, he had a talented quarterback of his own, 27-year-old former baseball player Chris Weinke, who would go on to win the Heisman the following season. With Virginia Tech leading 29-28 at the start of the fourth quarter, Weinke led the Seminoles 85 yards in 11 plays, capped with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Ron Dugans. An ensuing Vick fumble set up a Sebastian Janikowski field goal to go up 39-29.
With Florida State waiting to come back on the field during a long time out with 7:42 left, a loud cheer began to spread among the Seminoles fans in the Superdome: “Pet-er Warr-ick.” At that same moment, on the sideline, the FSU star asked his teammates: “Y’all want me to finish them right here?” He did just that, catching a juggling, 43-yard touchdown despite a Virginia Tech defender draped all over him. The play capped an MVP performance in which Warrick finished with six catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
“Coming into the game, I was so concerned about Vick making big plays,” said Bowden, “so I said, ‘Pete, you’re gonna have to make plays to counter his.'”
While the 46-29 final score may have indicated a blowout, I, like the rest of the 79,280 in attendance that night, will forever remember the game as a suspenseful affair in which the Hokies actually outgained the Seminoles 503 yards to 359. Most of all, I’ll remember the big plays, particularly from Vick, whose transcendent performance greatly belied the fact he was just 19 at the time. “He didn’t seem like a kid out there,” Bowden said. “He played like a man all the way. He was super. He nearly beat us by himself.”
The 2000 Sugar Bowl was an important moment for college football on several fronts. For one thing, it marked the crowning achievement of Bowden’s Hall of Fame tenure at Florida State. While he’d won one previous national championship (the 1993 season) and played in three straight BCS championship games from 1999-2001, the 1999 team produced the only undefeated season of his career. And while the ‘Noles returned to the Sugar Bowl once more in 2002, their recent teams have failed to replicate the rabid success of the ’90s, in large part because they’ve lacked elite playmakers like Warrick.
Meanwhile, the game served as a national showcase for Virginia Tech, which had been an afterthought for most of its history prior to Beamer taking over at his alma mater in 1987. “It looked like a Florida State team playing another Florida State team out there,” Seminoles linebacker Brian Allen said that night. “The way they get after people, it’s like they were taking a play out of our book. They’re a great team.” Starting with that 1999 team, the Hokies have produced seven 10-win seasons. Since joining Florida State in the ACC in 2004, Virginia Tech has won that league’s championship twice.
Finally, the most indelible image from that game remains that of Vick dashing through Florida State’s defense. A little more than a year later, he became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That night unofficially ushered in a new era of dual-threat QBs that have been wreaking havoc on defenses ever since, stars like Texas Heisman runner-up Vince Young, Indiana record-breaker Antwaan Randle El and West Virginia standout Pat White.
“I don’t know that you can ever measure how much that helped us in recruiting, that the best player in college football was at Virginia Tech,” Beamer said years later. “It’s gigantic what that game meant even though we didn’t get the win that night.”
Stewart Mandel is a senior writer for SI.com and a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated. He has covered the national college football beat since 1998.