BOCA RATON Usually Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger avoids making predictions about games.
But Thursday, before the biggest crowd to ever attend a pep rally at FAU, Schnellenberger veered off his usual script.
The students then started chanting "Schnelly, Schnelly," as the 77-year-old coach smiled and waved.
Schnellenberger is in his final season at FAU, the program he created and is in its 11th season.
"What a wonderful day for Florida Atlantic University. Thank you all of you who have created this groundswell of enthusiasm that I have never seen at any school I have been," Schnellenberger said.
This week is special because in view across the street from where the pep rally was held was FAU Stadium, the new $70 million, 30,000-seat stadium that hosts its first game Saturday when the Owls host Western Kentucky.
The pep rally was followed by a bonfire that attracted several thousand more students, who watched and cheered as a large effigy of the Western Kentucky Hilltopper's mascot went up in flames.
Brandon Shepard was one of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity members that build the effigy.
"It was nice chilling after class and getting together to work on it," he said of the likeness of Big Red, which is essentially a big red blob with eyes and mouth. "A ton of chicken wire," was the key to construction, covered by sheets and then spray-painted.
Saturday will be the first time that FAU players won't have to get on a bus to play a home game, as the Owls rented Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens for their first two seasons and then moved to Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale for the last eight.
And it is not just the players and fans who are grateful they don't have to travel south on I-95.
"I am probably going to be so emotional," said FAU cheerleader coach Heather Henderson. "I have 11 seniors and am so glad they will get to cheer in the new stadium."
Henderson said she has seen the spirit and support grow in her eight years. "FAU is going to take off from this point," she said.
FAU President Mary Jane Saunders helped Schnellenberger light the bonfire.
"Howard has really done a tremendous job at this university and this just the beginning of a wonderful era of school spirit and winning football games and having a lot of kids choose FAU," Saunders said.
Friday's events include a breakfast hosted by Schnellenberger that begins at 8 a.m. at the stadium, with a ribbon cutting ceremony at 5:30 p.m.
In the evening there is an event for former FAU players, hosted by former FAU quarterback Rusty Smith, the first FAU player ever drafted and now on the roster of the Tennessee Titans.
"I am so excited to come onto the campus and see coach Schnellenberger's dream," Smith said on his radio show that was on the air just before the pep rally. "It has something he has talked about nonstop every time I have talked to him."
Pep rally, bonfire draw thousands of FAU students
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