LOUISVILLE — Howard Schnellenberger was a visionary. He saw possibilities where others could only see problems. His life was a testament to dreams and audacity, to beliefs so brazen as to invite skepticism and inspire laughter.
Schnellenberger, who rebuilt programs at Miami and Louisville and led the Hurricanes to a national title in 1983, died Saturday at 87.
His coaching career spanned six decades and included stops at Alabama, where he was an assistant under Bear Bryant and helped recruit Joe Namath, to assistant gigs in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins to a short-lived stint as the Baltimore Colts coach.
That winding path brought him to Coral Gables, Florida, where he put the Hurricanes on the map and kick-started the college game as we know it today — putting an emphasis on speed, fitness and recruiting.
Schnellenberger attracted attention with bold pronouncements, and backed them up with unprecedented results
With or without his trademark pipe, Schnellenberger was famous for blowing smoke. He declared Louisville to be on a “collision course” with a national championship not long after former athletics director Bill Olsen feared “we were on a collision course to dropping football.”
“He brought some sort of big-time feel to it, like the Music Man,” WHAS’ Terry Meiners said. “There was a definite mood swing. We didn’t quite get a swagger, but I think everybody held their heads higher after being a laughingstock.”
Louisville football was at a low ebb when Schnellenberger returned to his hometown to coach the Cardinals in 1985. Stuck playing before sparse crowds in a decrepit minor-league baseball stadium, mired in a streak that would ultimately extend to nine consecutive losing seasons, the outlook was so grim former Board of Trustees chairman A. Wallace “Skip” Grafton had recommended the board take a hard look at football “to see if it’s worth it.”
But just as he had done at the University of Miami, Schnellenberger turned the program around. He led Louisville to its first 10-win season, its first New Year’s Day bowl game and blowout victories over brand names including Alabama and Texas.
“I think without question he resurrected the program,” said former Cardinals quarterback Jeff Brohm, now the head coach at Purdue. “He provided hope, optimism at a time where there was talk of possibly shutting things down. He not only kept it going but took it to a point when he dropped it off, it was at its highest level.”
Louisville has yet to complete the championship “collision course” Schnellenberger envisioned — as his Miami Hurricanes had done in 1983 — but its competitive profile, campus stadium and Atlantic Coast Conference affiliation can all be traced to strides made during Schnellenberger’s 10-year tenure.
“He just has a presence about him that makes you believe that whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish that you can accomplish it,” said Craig Swabek, who played and coached for Schnellenberger at Louisville. “You really think you’re going to do whatever it is he’s trying to accomplish: win a game, start a business, build a stadium. He just had a way of strong leadership.
“He was almost like this crazy snake-oil salesman (and) an easy target for pundits. But when you were with him day to day, you started to see his plan. He had a master plan.”
A football, basketball and baseball teammate of Paul Hornung’s at Louisville’s Flaget High School, Schnellenberger went to Kentucky to play for Bryant and would become a first-team All-America end under Bryant’s successor, Blanton Collier.
He later served as an assistant coach on three of Bryant’s national championship teams at Alabama, was entrusted with the high-stakes recruitment of Joe Namath, and went so far as to hide the quarterback from rival coaches by stashing him at a relative’s home.
His success at Alabama led to NFL opportunities under Hall of Famers George Allen (Los Angeles Rams) and Don Shula (Miami Dolphins). Coordinating the Dolphins’ offense during their 17-0 season in 1972 led to a brief, turbulent stint as head coach of the Baltimore Colts, which began with the New York Times declaring Schnellenberger was “regarded as a certain success in this precarious business,” and ended three games into his second season when Colts’ owner Robert Irsay demanded a mid-game quarterback change that Schnellenberger refused.
He returned to the Dolphins, assisting Shula for another four years, before bringing his gravelly bluster and an NFL-style offense to the college campus in Coral Gables.
“At Miami, the first thing he did was say, ‘a bowl is the goal,’ “ said Karl Schmitt, then a graduate assistant on Miami’s sports information staff, now president of the Louisville Sports Commission. ”That was back in a time when there weren’t so many bowls. You could go 8-3 and not go anywhere.
“I went to the preseason football luncheon in 1980 and I had no idea what he was going to say. I was sitting back there with the local TV guys and they were laughing; ‘He’s smoking something.’ ”
But with elite quarterbacks in Jim Kelly and then Bernie Kosar, a punishing practice regimen borrowed from Bryant, and an attention to detail that included scouting the angle of the sun’s rays before road games, Schnellenberger quickly changed both expectations and results.
“We were up at 6 o’clock in the morning till 10 o’clock at night doing nothing but football,’’ said Art Kehoe, a Miami captain and assistant coach under Schnellenberger. “That discipline right away turned into wins.
“Practices were unbelievably tough. You either wanted it bad or you left. We had a lot of people who left. He told us, ‘You stay, we’ll win.’ ”
Schnellenberger realized his bowl goal in his second season at Miami, and built a sturdy recruiting base by drawing an imaginary line across Florida and declaring the southern portion, “The State of Miami.” By 1983, his master plan culminated with an upset of No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and a national championship.
Had he remained at Miami, Kehoe says Schnellenberger might have won as many as 10 national championships. “If anybody would have done it, it would have been him,” Kehoe said. “He was something else, man.”
University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger holds the 1981 Peach Bowl trophy aloft after his team defeated Virginia Tech. (AP Photo/Joe Sebo)
Instead, Schnellenberger left for a job that never materialized, agreeing to run a USFL franchise expected to relocate from Washington to Miami. The deal collapsed after the USFL announced a shift to a fall schedule and Schnellenberger chose not to follow new ownership to Orlando.
This left him available as Louisville looked for a coach who could pump life into its flatlining football program.
Despite Schnellenberger’s conspicuous credentials – the national championship at Miami, three more as an Alabama assistant, the Dolphins’ perfect season – Cardinals fans were not immediately inclined to suspend their disbelief.
Obstacles were numerous and systemic. Without Miami’s teeming talent pool, Schnellenberger’s Louisville foundation work went slowly. His first three seasons showed only incremental progress, from 2-9 to 3-8 to 3-7-1. The Cardinals were shut out five times in those 33 games, and 21 of their 24 losses were by double digits.
What the scoreboard didn’t show was a system taking shape. Before the NCAA instituted a 20-hour-per-week limit on supervised activities in 1991 — and likely long afterward — Schnellenberger pushed his players to extraordinary limits. Brohm remembers meeting a referee on an airplane who saw Louisville scrimmaging as he left to officiate a spring game at Pittsburgh, flew there and back, worked the game, and found Louisville still scrimmaging upon his return.
“We were known for all six quarterbacks to get about 50 attempts in every scrimmage,” Brohm said. “We had a lot of reps. (Schnellenberger) wasn’t scared to take his whole Saturday and play football all day long.”
Schnellenberger would win all six of his bowl games between Miami, Louisville and his last stop, Florida Atlantic. That his overall record in college football is a more modest 158-151-3 is most easily attributable to the sorry state of those three programs at the time he took over.
Efforts to elevate him to the College Football Hall of Fame, endorsed by both Alabama’s Nick Saban and the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick, have been frustrated by criteria that include a .600 winning percentage for coaches.
Perhaps Schnellenberger’s best chance to pad his numbers was when he left Louisville for the University of Oklahoma in 1995. His exit was prompted, at least in part, by U of L President Donald Swain’s decision to join Conference USA. And, of course, because of Oklahoma’s considerable cachet in college football.
“Maybe it’s time I got on the elevator halfway up the mountain,” he said. “Now, I can focus in on the summit.”
But instead of embracing the history and traditions of one of the game’s great powers, Schnellenberger succeeded mainly in alienating administrators and fans.
Watching the Sooners stumble in the Copper Bowl before he took charge, he declared the players to be “out of shape, unorganized and unmotivated.” After boasting about books being written and movies made about his time in Norman, he resigned after a single 5-5-1 season.
“We came out of there not as revered and respected as when we came in,” he said later.
In Louisville, however, Schnellenberger’s reputation is largely intact. U of L’s football complex bears his name and its football program bears the stamp of the huckster who delivered hope.
Contact Tim Sullivan at 502-582-4650, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TimSullivan714
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Howard Schnellenberger, legendary college football coach, dies at 87
Published: 2021-03-27 14:44:28
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