CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mark Stoops shuffled through the crowd like a politician, a broad smile plastered across the Seminoles defensive coordinator's face as he shook hands and posed for pictures with anyone who looked remotely familiar.
His clothes were soaked from the ice-water bath his players had delivered along the sideline after Karlos Williams' interception sealed a 21-15 Florida State win, a berth in the Discover Orange Bowl and the Seminoles' first conference championship in seven years, but Stoops lingered on the field, taking in every last moment.
After nearly every member of the team had retreated to the locker room, Stoops stood on the edge of the far end zone as Florida State's band saluted him with a cheer of "Thank you, Coach."
This was the final time Stoops would coach a Florida State game before taking over as head coach at Kentucky, a job he has coveted for his entire career. But Saturday wasn't about his future. It was about scripting the perfect ending to this chapter in his career.
"I was much more nervous for this game than I've ever been," Stoops said. "I don't get too nervous or worked up before games, but I really did feel the pressure of this game, because it would've been hard to live with myself if we'd have went out of here without a win."
Those worries evaporated in the postgame euphoria as Stoops' defense ended Georgia Tech's last charge when Williams, the safety-turned-emergency linebacker tipped a Tevin Washington pass for an interception to seal the game. But for the majority of a stagnant second half, the storybook ending seemed destined for a rewrite.
Florida State led 21-6 at the half, but the offense went into a second-half slumber -- just as it did two months ago in a loss to NC State -- and an EJ Manuel fumble midway through the fourth quarter put the defense on its heels.
Stoops' unit, working without two of its starters, held Georgia Tech to just 183 yards rushing -- nearly half its season average -- and frustrated the Yellow Jackets on third down, but with 2:17 left to play, Tech took over with a chance to drive 90 yards for the win.
The Yellow Jackets converted two first downs, but Washington's final throw was off the mark, and Williams, who was in the game only after senior Nick Moody went down with a concussion, made the biggest play of his career.
"That's why we recruit guys like Karlos," safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "You never see those plays coming. You only hope for them."
But Stoops saw it coming.
He might not have imagined the specifics, understood the moment or predicted the emotion that would overwhelm him in the aftermath, but Stoops had spent the week preparing Williams for the moment.
A safety throughout the season, Williams spent the past week -- Stoops' last with FSU -- working behind Moody at strongside linebacker, and when the senior left the game in the first quarter, the sophomore was handed a key role in FSU's biggest game.
"It's an unbelievable story," Stoops said. "I just loved it. Karlos is a wonderful kid, and he's going to have a bright future. It was just fitting."
If the interception was the beginning of a bright future for Williams, it was the end of a whirlwind three years for Stoops, who inherited one of the worst defenses in the country in 2010 and turned it into a unit that has finished in the top five in the nation each of the past two seasons.
"We were babies in this system when he first came here, and everything with this defense was built from the ground up by Coach Stoops," senior linebacker Vince Williams said. "It was tremendous to watch Coach Stoops as the defense sealed the game in the end."
Those final moments were a blur, but Stoops did his best to savor each second.
He sat quietly on the bench next to his two young cornerbacks, Ronald Darby and Nick Waisome, and hugged them both. Fall camp began with the dismissal of star corner Greg Reid, but Waisome and Darby filled the void.
He took pictures with Joyner and Terrence Brooks, watched proudly as confetti showered his players in the aftermath of a championship, then stood on stage with seniors as they celebrated a berth in the Orange Bowl.
Stoops won't coach that game, he said. He'll be in Kentucky on Sunday to be introduced as the Wildcats new head coach, and he'll reluctantly say goodbye to his players at Florida State soon after.
"It'll be hard to do it, and I don't want to be a distraction," he said.
On Saturday, he was no distraction. He was inspiration. And as he stood in the shadow of the podium where his team had just accepted an ACC championship trophy with the band chanting in unison, he tipped his cap and said one final farewell.
"That's joy," Joyner said. "To send him off on that note, with Karlos making that play for the defense, and to see Coach Stoops with those tears coming down his eyes, that's awesome."