Dec. 4, 2003
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun)
Let historians decide if Juan Ponce de Leon ever discovered the mystical Fountain of Youth. As far as we know, Floridians have recently discovered their own youthful elixir — on the baseball diamond and the football gridiron.
Jack McKeon, the Florida Marlins’ 72-year-old manager, came out of retirement and led his ballclub to a World Series title in October. Two months later, Howard Schnellenberger, a 69-year-old head coach, guided the upstart Florida Atlantic University football team to a 9-2 regular season record and a berth in the Division I-AA playoffs.
Coming off a 32-24 win over Bethune-Cookman last week, Schnellenberger’s 13th-ranked Owls will face No. 16 Northern Arizona (9-3) in Saturday’s quarterfinals. Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m. at the Skydome.
On second thought, Schnellenberger’s age probably has nothing to do with his success. After all, he’s been a coaching legend for decades.
“Coach is a true believer,” FAU offensive line coach John Bock told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “He does a great job of getting people to embrace his vision.”
Schnellenberger’s storied career began in the mid-1950s, when he played at the University of Kentucky under head coaches Paul “Bear” Bryant and Blanton Collier. After graduating from college, Schnellenberger quickly found his niche as an assistant coach. In 1959-60, he worked at Kentucky for Collier, who won an NFL title in 1964 while serving as the Cleveland Browns’ second head coach (Paul Brown, who also founded the Cincinnati Bengals, was the first).
Then Schnellenberger probably made the best coaching move any talented, young assistant could’ve made in the early 60s: He decided to work for Bear Bryant at Alabama. …And the rest is history.
While serving as the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator, ‘Bama won national titles in 1961, ’64 and ’65. Over the next several years, Schnellenberger continued to learn the tricks of the trade while coaching under George Allen (from 1966-69 with the Los Angeles Rams), under Don Shula (from ’70-’72 with the Miami Dolphins — yes, those Dolphins, who went 17-0 in ’72 and remain the only unbeaten team in NFL history).
Schnellenberger held his first and only NFL head coaching job from ’73-’74 with the Baltimore Colts before returning to the Dolphins to work as Shula’s assistant from 1975-79.
Since then, Schnellenberger has built a legacy that few college coaches will ever match, one that includes leading Miami to the 1983 national championship and revitalizing a moribund University of Louisville program, his hometown school, a half-decade later.
“I’ve enjoyed all my coaching experiences, even the ones that didn’t turn out as well as they could have,” Schnellenberger said. “Forty-five years of coaching … it’s been a lifelong happy experience for me. It was something I wanted to do from the outset. I look at this as a vocation and not a job. It’s been a most rewarding experience, and continues to be so.”
NAU coach Jerome Souers this week expressed the sentiments of many in the Lumberjacks’ program by saying how excited he is for the Jacks to face a team coached by a legend.
“There’s no question he’s one of the all-time greats,” Souers said of Schnellenberger. “The guy’s won national championships at the Division I-A level. (His team) played in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska. He worked for Bear Bryant, for crying out loud. These are legends we are talking about here.
“I think having a matchup of this magnitude in Flagstaff is a great opportunity for our program.”
BUILDING A DYNASTY
Jim Kelly, who was the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills when they played in four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s, was a cornerstone of Schnellenberger’s first recruiting class at Miami in 1979. In his first career start, Kelly led the ‘Canes to an upset of then-No. 1 Penn State.
In 1980, Schnellenberger’s squad went 9-3, capped by a 20-10 victory over Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl. What many might not recall is how critical Schnellenberger’s persistence and dedication were in order for Miami to get into postseason play that year. Although the Hurricanes had an 8-3 record, Schnellenberger and his team played the waiting game as many other clubs with fewer wins were receiving postseason berths.
“Then came the Sunday morning that all the last bids were supposed to come out and I called the chairman of the selection committee and asked him to hold it off for a couple of hours, long enough for me and the Miami contingent to come up to Atlanta to plea our case,” Schnellenberger told the Palm Beach Post. “We brought every press clipping, every roster, every stat book, every anything we had.”
Eventually, the committee was convinced and Schnellenberger was able to earn the first of his college bowl victories. Three years later, the Hurricanes beat Nebraska 31-30 to win the Orange Bowl and the national championship, the first in UM history.
During Schnellenberger’s five years in Miami, the Hurricanes only lost two home games. It was a sign of things to come for a program that racked up national titles in ’87, ’89, ’91 and 2001, and established itself as a force to be reckoned with in terms of recruiting top-notch Florida and nationwide talent. Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin, to name a few, were among the future pro stars Schnellenberger’s staff recruited when he was at Miami.
Schnellenberger credited Bryant, Collier, Shula and Allen for helping him become the coach he is today.
“I think we all learn from those who mentor us and from those we watch their every moment while we’re working on their behalf,” he said. “So by the process of osmosis and not really writing down, ‘I like this about this guy, I like that about that guy,’ it’s really a strength and an understanding that through osmosis you assimilate in your mind, your heart and your body and come out with your own philosophy and do the best you can.
“There’s four guys that I worked for, and each one was a genius in their own right. All of them won national, if not world championships.”
By the time Schnellenberger left Miami in ’84, the Hurricanes were a perennial power. Then he settled for a new challenge: rebuilding Louisville.
It wasn’t an easy task. The Cardinals were 7-26 in the three previous seasons and lacked the foundation to be a successful team.
“When I got to Louisville (in 1985) there were only four (legitimate) Division I (-A) players on the team,” Schnellenberger recalled. “The rest of them should have been at some Division I-AA team.”
But Schnellenberger and his players endured, and after a two-win season followed by a pair of three-win seasons they started to see the fruits of their labor. Louisville went 8-3 in 1988. Two years later, the team went 10-1-1 and topped Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.
Schnellenberger remained at Louisville through 1994. Then he served a one-year stint as Gary Gibbs’ replacement at Oklahoma in ’95, going 5-5-1. It didn’t work out, he said.
He retired to Florida. But that didn’t last for long. On May 1, 1998, he was hired by Florida Atlantic, a school roughly 40 miles north of Miami in Boca Raton, to be the school’s director of football operations and build a brand-new Division I-AA program from scratch.
Since being hired, Schnellenberger has made over 600 public appearances on behalf of the school. He has raised more than $10 million in private donations.
“Being given the opportunity to start this football program at Florida Atlantic has been a most pleasant experience for me and my family,” said Schnellenberger, who makes weekly visits to the campus cafeteria to encourage students to attend games.
One-hundred and sixty students attended the team’s first tryout in August 2000. The team began play the following year and finished with a 4-6 record. Last year, the Owls went 2-9. When they defeated Gardner-Webb 31-26 on Nov. 1, the Owls had exceeded their win total from the previous two seasons combined.
“The big thing is these kids were very special in selecting to come to Florida Atlantic University when they could have gone to other more established programs,” said Schnellenberger, whose recruiting budget is less than $50,000 per year but covers the cost of visiting 400-plus high schools in Florida.
“They had to believe in what we were preaching to them about coming in and being the startup program, being the guys that have the distinction of being the first graduating class … to establish a winning tradition.”
Schnellenberger said he’ll continue coaching as long as he’s healthy and his family agrees with that assessment. In the meantime, he’s actively building support for the program’s transition to be a full-fledged I-A program by 2006.
Don’t be surprised if the Owls succeed at college football’s premier level, too. The old coach’s track record suggests that’s just what they’ll do.