Sending off Schnellenberger
This past Saturday in Boca Raton, ‘Canes fans gathered to send off a football legend into retirement. After more than five decades of coaching, Howard Schnellenberger graced a south Florida sideline for the last time. While any fan of college and/or pro football can appreciate the contribution Schnellenberger had on the game, for ‘Canes fans, Howard Schnellenberger is so much more than a coach. He is truly the architect of Miami’s football program, and without discounting the efforts and hard work of players and coaches that have come and gone in the past three decades since Howard was in Coral Gables, without Howard, none of us would be here bleeding orange and green for a program we know can one day return to the type of greatness he promised. For that, I feel forever indebted to Coach Schnellenberger. We all should. This weekend I spoke to some people who were less familiar with Schnellenberger’s lifetime of experience, thus, I thought this was the perfect occasion for a tribute.
Howard Schnellenberger was born on March 16, 1934 in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He graduated from Flaget High School in Louisville, Kentucky, where he played football, basketball and baseball before earning a scholarship to the University of Kentucky. At Kentucky, Schnellenberger was an All-American tight end, a member of Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity, and worked as an assistant coach under head coach Blanton Collier in 1959 and 1960. In 1961-65, Schnellenberger served as offensive coordinator under his college coach Bear Bryant at Alabama, recruited Joe Namath to the Crimson Tide, and helped Alabama to win three national championships in 1961, 1964 and 1965 before leaving in 1966 to take a job in the NFL as receivers coach of the Los Angeles Rams under George Allen. In 1970, Don Shula hired Schnellenberger as offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins.
After the Dolphins’ perfect season in 1972, Schnellenberger left Miami to become the head coach of the Baltimore Colts. Although Schnellenberger’s Colts went 4-10 in his one full season, they managed to pull an upset on the defending Super Bowl Champion Dolphins towards the end of the 1973 season. After the Colts started the 1974 season 0-3, Schnellenberger was fired and replaced by Joe Thomas. He returned to the Dolphins coaching staff the following year and remained there until he was offered the head coaching job at the University of Miami.
In 1979, Schnellenberger arrived in Coral Gables to find a football program in shambles, from its fan base to its facilities. Yet, Howard promised recruits and the city that Miami would win a national championship within 4 years. While many must have wondered what Howard was smoking in his trademark pipe, his actions backed up his big talk. Drawing from the boot camp methodology learned from mentors Bryant and Shula and a pro-style pass-oriented playbook not yet the norm in Division I college football, Miami developed an aerial attack never seen before in college football. By his third season, the ‘Canes had finished the season in the AP Poll top 25 twice—something that had not happened since 1966.
Coaching and play calling was not the end of Howard’s talents. Indeed, he completely revolutionized college football recruiting and left a blueprint that not only Miami still follows, but that almost every other successful college football team has emulated. It was Schnellenberger who built the metaphorical “fence around Miami,” recruiting only the “State of South Florida.” His eye for talent in this area led to many programs around the nation paying greater attention to south Florida high school prospects. Under his “State of Miami” plan, Schnellenberger’s teams took the best from the three-county area around the city, went after the state’s best, then aimed at targets among the nation’s elite recruits. Sound familiar?
Schnellenberger led Miami to their first national championships in 1983, defeating Nebraska in the 50th Orange Bowl. Following the season, Schnellenberger departed for the USFL where he was to become the head coach of a Miami-based team—a relocated Washington Federals franchise. Not long after that announcement, however, the USFL announced that it would shift to a fall schedule. The owner-to-be for the Federals backed out of the deal, knowing he could not hope to compete head-to-head with the Miami Dolphins. A new backer moved the team to Orlando as the Renegades and decided not to retain Schnellenberger.
While we all could wonder what could have been had Howard stayed, he perservered, as did Miami football. Howard’s journey led him back to his hometown in 1985, to coach another struggling program, the University of Louisville Cardinals. The situation in Louisville at the time almost made the ‘Canes job look easy. The Cardinals had not had a winning season since 1978, and only two winning records in the previous 12 years. They played at Cardinal Stadium, a minor-league baseball stadium, and often hosted crowds so small that the school was forced to give tickets away. The situation was so grave at Louisville that officials were considering dropping the football program down to I-AA. Nonetheless, at his opening press conference, he stunned reporters and fans by proclaiming the program “is on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.” After going 8–24–1 in his first three years, Schnellenberger was able to turn the program around and go 24–9–1 the next three seasons. In 10 years, he led the Cardinals to their fourth and fifth bowl games in school history. They won them both, including an unprecedented 34–7 thrashing of the Crimson Tide in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl, capping a 10–1–1 season and the school’s first-ever appearance in a final poll (11th). The Fiesta Bowl appearance was the school’s first-ever New Year’s Day bowl game. The Howard L. Schnellenberger Football Complex at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is named after him; Schnellenberger initially proposed building the on-campus stadium during his tenure at Louisville and is credited with keeping the project alive.
Late in the 1994 season, Oklahoma head coach Gary Gibbs was forced to resign, but was allowed to finish out the season. Schnellenberger was hired to replace him on December 16, 1994. After a 3–0 start that had the Sooners ranked in the top 10, it quickly came unraveled after a 38–17 loss to Colorado on ESPN. That was the start of a stretch where the Sooners only went 2–5–1 the rest of the way, including a 2–5 record in conference play—Oklahoma’s first losing record in conference play in 31 years, and only the second since World War II. They were also defeated 12–0 by Oklahoma State—the Sooners’ first loss to their in-state rival in 20 years. En route, the Sooners were penalized nine times per game, which is very unusual since Schnellenberger has traditionally coached very disciplined teams. The Sooners closed out the season with their second-straight shutout, a 37-0 loss at No. 1 1995 Nebraska, which prevented Oklahoma from attaining a winning season or a bowl venue. On December 19, 1995, Schnellenberger resigned unexpectedly after one season, stating that “in recent months a climate has developed toward the program, understandably in some cases and perhaps unfairly in others, that has changed my outlook on the situation. A change could help improve that climate.”
In 1998, at age 64, Schnellenberger was named director of football operations for Florida Atlantic University, with the task of building a football program from scratch: coming up with a strategic plan, raising funds and selecting a coach. He was able to raise $13 million in pledges, lobbied the state legislature, and by the time then-FAU President, Anthony Catanese, asked him to find a coach in 1999, Schnellenberger selected himself. Schnellenberger described his interest in FAU by noting “This one is so different. The others, we were working with adopted kids. These were our kids.”
For the next two years, Schnellenberger led the fledgling team through fund-raising, recruiting and practice. For their first practice in 2000, the Owls had 160 walk-ons and 22 scholarship players. FAU football played their first game on September 1, 2001, losing to Slippery Rock 40–7 after the FAU administration failed to certify 13 Owls starters in time to play. The very next game the Owls upset the No. 22 team in I-AA, Bethune–Cookman, finishing their first season 4–6. They regressed to 2–9 the following season, but went 11–3 and made the I-AA semifinals in their third. During their fourth season, the Owls posted a 9–3 record while transitioning to Division I-A, but were ineligible for both a bowl game and the I-AA playoffs because of their transitioning status.
After playing four years at the Division I-AA level, FAU moved to the Sun Belt Conference and Division I-A level in 2005. This goal had been one of Schnellenberger’s primary objectives upon creation of the program. After two seasons in the Sun Belt, FAU football won the 2007 Conference title and secured its first ever bowl invitation, defeating Memphis 44–27 in the New Orleans Bowl. In just the seventh year of the football program’s history, and the third year playing in Division I-A, Florida Atlantic set an NCAA record by becoming the youngest program ever to receive an invitation to a bowl game. For his success in 2007, Coach Schnellenberger was awarded the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
In 2008, Coach Schnellenberger led his 6-6 FAU Owls to a post-season bid at the Motor City Bowl against the Central Michigan Chippewas. This marked the first time a 6-6 Sun Belt Conference team that had not won the Conference Championship was invited to a post-season bowl. Although the Owls were underdogs, Coach Schnellenberger extended his post-season bowl record to 6-0, the most of any coach without a loss, with a 24-21 win.
During his FAU career, he regularly pushed for a new on-campus football stadium; that goal was realized with the 2010 groundbreaking for the new FAU Stadium. He led the Owls out for their first home game in the new facility on October 15. Schnellenberger coached his last game on Saturday, December 3, 2011, but he is not giving up his work for FAU. He plans to remain there as a university ambassador.
Schnelly, your ‘Canes family loves you and wishes you a happy and healthy retirement. Thank you for all that you have done for the University of Miami and the game of football.