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The Legend of Howard Schnellenberger

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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For all that Howard Schnellenberger has experienced, part of what he long ago saw was the future.

It took me a long time to stop kicking myself in the ass for taking the job.
~Howard Schnellenberger

There is no place like the University of Miami in all of college football. More than known for just its confidence and creed, the program was, quite literally, built on such a belief. Now with nine conference championships, five national titles and two Heisman Trophy winners, all since 1983,  the Hurricanes have a recent timeline that looks down upon traditional history and looks up at very few. Miami, as it matured, blew right by the competition. Before there was a dynasty, however, there was destiny.

In the late 1970s, the Hurricanes were far from a football factory; in fact, the closest they were to a championship was the one day of the week that separated their Orange Bowl home games from the NFL's Miami Dolphins', winners of Super Bowls VII and VIII. When hotshot coach Howard Schnellenberger took over in 1979, the Hurricanes had not made a bowl game in over a decade, had floundering interest, recent controversy and a Board of Trustees vote on whether to drop or eliminate football all together. The school, instead, turned to the man who called the plays for the team next door. 

Schnellenberger came to Coral Gables with a mustache and a mission.

The offensive coordinator for the Dolphins from 1975-1978, Schnellenberger was much more than just a notable local assistant. He, prior to coming to Miami, was the head coach of the Baltimore Colts for two seasons. Schnellenberger also had an earlier stint, and an instrumental role, with the undefeated Dolphins and the LA Rams and had coached collegiately at Alabama, where he recruited Joe Namath and won three national titles, and Kentucky. Schnellenberger also had quite the resume as a player as an All-American defensive end for the Wildcats.  

In addition to his innovative schematics and bold conviction, Schnellenberger was groomed by absolute giants of the game; George Allen, Bear Bryant and Don Shula were among his coaching mentors. Schnellenberger was taught by some of the greatest football minds ever, later, with 158 college coaching wins, joining their proud fraternity. From to Miami to Louisville and, most recently, Florida Atlantic, Schnellenberger is largely credited as being a key catalyst for growth for three separate programs. The sidelines were home to the now-83 year old for seven different decades.       

What Schnellenberger did with the Hurricanes was nothing short of remarkable. The fact that he predicted it, makes the narrative part of college football lore.

Though the Hurricanes are now a recognized gridiron brand with a very real persona, that, decades ago, simply was not the case. They weren't just average prior to Schnellenberger's arrival, they struggled, largely, for relevancy. Miami, all-time, has 35 consensus All-Americans; 32 of them have come in the last 35 years. Before Schnellenger could compete nationally, he had to solidify his base first.

"It was a school that had six coaches and seven athletic directors in the thirteen years before I got there, and they had not had but one winning season in that period of time. They couldn't get anybody to the games, couldn't get any coaches to stay. So I was destitute. I had to do a magic act to get people interested in helping to take us to the promised land."

When Schnellenberger took the Miami job in 1979, he proudly proclaimed that the Hurricanes would win a national championship within the first five years; in the 1984 Orange Bowl following the 1983 season, Miami made history by outlasting Nebraska 31-30, in one of the greatest games ever played, to claim the program's first of five national titles. Kenny Calhoun broke up a potential game-winning two-point conversion in a ground-breaking victory that both put the Hurricanes on the map and put the rest of the nation on notice.   

Even for Schnellenberger, there were doubts along the way. His own goals pushed him, but also, at times, drove him mad. The process, for Schnellenberger, was a personal one.

"It took me a long time to stop kicking myself in the ass for taking the job. I got to thinking, 'my God, this is impossible'," he continued. "I sucked my thumb for a couple of months and I said, 'shoot, coach Paul Bryant, when he went to Alabama, he faced the same kind of thing and he won a national championship in four years'."

If bravado was the basis for Miami's rise, what came next was a stirring of passion and planning that proved to be, for lack of a better phrase, the perfect storm.

"I said 'all I got to do is get enough coaches to come in here and believe that we are going to be able to recruit well'. We already had a great schedule, we were playing in the Orange Bowl, we were in the middle of paradise, we had a sub-tropical climate and we had more good football players within fifty miles of our campus, so I put that all together, ground it up and put it in a package and went to the mountain tops and the spires on the top of churches and spread the world that we were going to win the national championship in five years," Schnellenberger recalled.

From there, a miracle happened. The masses weren't just listening, they were captivated. 

"People bought into that," Schnellenberger added. "The players bought into it, the coaches bought into it, the students bought into it, the faculty and staff. The gentry we were out hawking everyday, making three or four speaking engagements a day and spreading the word that we were going to be good quickly and to get on board and be a part of the exodus of getting out of hell and getting into heaven."

Schnellenberger's second season with the Hurricanes, they went 9-3. Miami topped ranked Houston, Florida State and Florida, beating Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl; the mark stood as the program's best year since 1950. The Hurricanes were even better the next fall, with wins over the in-state Gators and Seminoles, once again, and a famed triumph over top-ranked Penn State. Miami overwhelmed Notre Dame 37-15 in the Orange Bowl, finishing the season ranked eighth in the AP poll. Profile clearly on the rise, the Hurricanes were suddenly a national phenomenon.    

Miami's progression, through Schnellenberger, was years in the making. Influences from his past indirectly guided the Hurricanes' future.

"We were able to do it because I had the great tutelage from Don Shula, Paul Bryant, George Allen, my high school coach Paul Miller and my college coach Blanton Collier. That's five Hall of Famers who taught me how to coach football, so it gave me strength to go out and say some impossible things like we're going to win the national championship in five years," Schnellenberger reflected. "That was heresy, that was a crazy man talking." 

Bringing the Pygmalion effect to the pigskin, Schnellenberger spoke a movement into existence. Motivation was one of his best skills. 

The foundation, for a modern-day dynasty, was officially laid. After Schnellenberger made history, Miami made either the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange or Sugar Bowl a remarkable eleven seasons in a row; the Hurricanes finished ranked in the national top eight ten times and won three more national titles in that span. Miami was in an all-out sprint and the rest of the country could not keep up. The man who introduced the Hurricanes to college football, though, was no longer out in front.  

Part of what makes Schnellenberger's story unique is what happened next.

Atop the game, ring on finger, he opted for a new opportunity. Schnellenberger, displeased with some of the school's budget limitations, stepped down at UM to position himself to become the highly-paid head coach, and more, of a USFL franchise that was reportedly moving to Miami. After taking a leap of faith to take over a college program with seemingly-little promise, he, in a twist of fate, left to lead a budding professional franchise that never actually took its first south Florida steps; the move fell through and Orlando became the team's new home, Lee Corso the team's new head coach.         

Head on a swivel, Schnellenberger headed back home, returning to where he grew up in taking the head coaching job at struggling Louisville. He inherited a program, in 1985, that had not had a winning season since 1978, had little support, and, in a bluegrass recreation of what he did in the Sunshine State, ultimately went 10-1-1 with the Cardinals in 1990, throttling Alabama 34-7 in the Fiesta Bowl. Schnellenberger helped develop the infrastructure of a now powerful Louisville program, where the football complex bears his name.

As circumstances changed, and Schnellenberger was not fond of new conference restrictions, he left the Cardinals and was hired at Oklahoma. Though he entered with high hopes, Schnellenberger's stint in Norman was brief, chaotic and largely disappointing. He resigned after one year, citing an outlook change. 

The veteran coach re-emerged, perhaps most fascinatingly, as the director of football operations at new Division I member Florida Atlantic. A figurative builder of programs in the past, Schnellenberger was a hands-on creator with the Owls; he helped oversee the transition of Florida Atlantic football from idea to implementation and, correspondingly, become the school's first head coach. When the Owls debuted in 2001, Schnellenberger was on the sidelines less than an hour from where he led the Hurricanes to prominence nearly 20 years prior.           

Florida Atlantic beat a ranked foe in its second-ever game. The Owls made it to the FCS semifinals in year three. As was his goal, Schnellenberger led Florida Atlantic to the FBS level, with the Owls, in 2007, becoming the youngest program ever to receive a bowl invitation. That fall, Florida Atlantic beat Big Ten member Minnesota, won the Sun Belt Conference championship and Schnellenberger, at 73, was named league coach of the year. The field at FAU Stadium is now titled in his honor. 

For all that Schnellenberger has experienced, part of what he long ago saw, on many fronts, was the future. In addition to the likes of Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar, one of Schnellenberger's quarterbacks during his tenure at Miami was the Hurricanes' current head coach. After serving in the same role at Georgia from 2001-2015, Mark Richt won nine games in his first season with his alma mater. From the top down, the program now has a throwback feel, a revitalization Schnellenberger has a full-circle perspective on.

"They've got the right coach back down there," he acknowledged. "Mark Richt did such a wonderful job up there at Georgia. He was one of my coaches and played for me so he knew what it would take to get it done. I thought that was a marriage made in heaven and that he was a perfect guy for the job. With the great job that he did in his first year, now he's in the driver's seat to take this airplane out into the stratosphere and start honing in on the national championship."

Richt's Hurricanes currently have the nation's number one recruiting class for next spring, with a heavy focus on south Florida prospects. Years ago, Schnellenberger was the first coach to identify and prioritize that talent, a big reason for his unprecedented success. The area is now a proverbial feeder system for many top-tier national powers. In terms of college football, It was Schnellenberger who first made "The State of Miami" matter.  

Schnellenberger sounds like a hallowed book reads. His voice is deep and dauntless, his words don't cling to qualifiers. Throughout his career, Schnellenberger's message challenged the status quo, but also pushed those around him and, maybe most-importantly, himself. The expectations, with Schnellenberger, were unrelenting. Some might have called it hubris, but, in 1983, they had to call him champion.

With over 150 career losses, Schnellenberger didn't win every game, but he damn sure tried. Somewhere, in the heart of every competitor, that legacy still stakes its claim.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports