From bold man comes bold plan; Football: Howard Schnellenberger brings confidence and the idea of competing for the 2008 national title to his job as Florida Atlantic's first football coach.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Howard Schnellenberger takes his trademark pipe out of his mouth, looks straight ahead and says the following with all the confidence that building two schools into national football powerhouses gives a coach:

"The seventh year after kickoff, in 2008, Florida Atlantic University should be able to play with the best teams in America with a chance to win. With that being a true statement, we can then compete for a national championship."

He says this knowing FAU cannot officially sign players until Feb. 2, and cannot play its first game until 2001.

But Schnellenberger, 65, has a plan -- and a track record. He is 100-77-3 as a college coach and won a national title with Miami in 1983.

"I say that because it took us six years in Louisville," Schnellenberger said.

"We drew 17 players from Florida to Louisville every year. We went from a team that was 103rd in the nation out of 106 teams and had beaten only one major football team in its entire existence to a team that was 9-1-1 during the regular season. We beat Texas, West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia. Then we qualified for the Fiesta Bowl, where we beat Alabama, 34-7, the worst they've ever been beaten."

That was in 1990 at Louisville, which at least already had a nationally prominent basketball program. FAU's athletic department, meanwhile, is best-known for making Schnellenberger its first football coach and director of football operations this past summer.

Other than that, FAU -- with about 17,000 students, located 45 minutes north of Miami -- has not done much in college sports.

For now, Schnellenberger is busy trying to raise money to pay for a $100 million, 42,000-seat on-campus stadium for the Owls by 2003. Considering that FAU has been around since 1963 and does not have a wide alumni base, that may be his toughest task.

Associate athletic director Bob Vanatta said Schnellenberger is using every friend and supporter he has to bring financial support to the program. Schnellenberger was instrumental in obtaining a $4 million donation from FAU graduate Tom Oxley.

"Howard has been outstanding at fund raising," Vanatta said. "He has opened doors for us that others could not unlock. He has these contacts, and people really came through for him."

Schnellenberger is balancing his fund raising with stirring interest in the program among talented players still in the early years of high school.

One of his selling points is a 61,000-square-foot athletic field house. The Owls broke ground on the $8 million facility last month, and Schnellenberger said it will be the biggest and best facility in the country.

Schnellenberger will use the facility as much as he can to lure recruits, but that alone will not get him top-notch players.

His whole premise on fielding a competitive team depends on what he views as a bottomless talent pool of high school football players in Florida, which basically has year-round football.

"You have to understand that last year 300 kids [in Florida] signed Division I scholarships to play football," he said. "The seven state universities could only take 80. That means 220 were forced to leave the state if they wanted to play football on scholarship. That is the reason why we were able to get 17 in Louisville.

"There is a vast number of players here that would prefer to stay in the state. That is going to be the causal effect of us becoming great in a short period of time. Mom and dad, teammates and classmates can see them play each weekend. I don't have any doubt that we can attract great players. I expect 200 kids to walk on in our first practice."

Walk-ons are an advantage Schnellenberger may have at FAU that he did not have when he coached Miami to its first national title. Because Miami is a $17,000-a-semester private school, Schnellenberger said he hardly had any walk-ons his entire time there.

With the walk-ons comes the chance of landing a talent others missed, such as former Florida State star and Arizona Cardinals No. 1 draft pick Andre Wadsworth. Florida's Chris Doering, who set numerous school receiving records, was also a walk-on. Both played high school football in Florida.

Schnellenberger said such players will help the Owls defeat Cornell in their inaugural game, Sept. 8, 2001, at Lockhart Stadium -- a 22,000-seat facility in Fort Lauderdale.

The Owls will play a Division I-AA schedule for two years, the shortest time period allowed by the NCAA. Although the schedule has not been set, other than the opener, the team will probably face in-state Division I-AA powers Florida A&M;, South Florida and Bethune-Cookman immediately. After the two seasons, Schnellenberger wants to join the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast or Big East conference, thereby avoiding the pitfall of not being affiliated with a major conference, which has hampered Division I-A Central Florida.

A big name

Schnellenberger's name is as recognizable as most in college football, ranking with in-state coaches Bobby Bowden (Florida State) and Steve Spurrier (Florida). He went to the Hurricanes in 1979, and, in four years, won a national title and laid the foundation for three more titles to follow. Therein lies FAU's other advantage.

"On paper, and with much respect to Butch [Davis, coach at Miami] and everyone else, but you can match Howard's accomplishments up against anyone in the state," said FAU assistant coach Alfredo Roberts, who played under Schnellenberger at Miami and was one of the first coaches signed to his staff. "Has Spurrier won more than one national title? Has Bowden? Butch has yet to get his. On paper, Schnellenberger is up there with the best."

He was the guy FAU wanted from the beginning. Vanatta said Schnellenberger brings instant credibility to the start-up program.

"He is a pretty famous guy around here," Vanatta said. "Howard is still a hero after what he did with Miami. People have great memories of him. We needed someone like that."

However, Schnellenberger does not point to his accomplishments at Miami or anywhere else as giving him the confidence to build a program from scratch. He looks at his experience 25 years ago in Baltimore that made him who he is.

Schnellenberger coached the Colts in 1973 and part of 1974, going 4-13, before owner Bob Irsay fired him in the all-too-familiar story he is still quick to tell.

"He [Irsay] came down out of the press box and told me to change quarterbacks [from Marty Domres to Bert Jones] in front of my team," Schnellenberger said. "I politely asked him to go back upstairs in the press box. That would be my last game as head coach.

"That was a learning experience. It is part of my history, part of my makeup now. It has helped me to become a better coach. Every coach ought to be fired once."

At the time, the firing made Schnellenberger so mad that only long walks through the parks of Baltimore could calm him.

"I was very angry," he said. "I walked a lot around the reservoirs. Took long hikes with my son. Went fishing. I watched Towson play Maryland in lacrosse. I watched Maryland and Johns Hopkins play."

Although he was not officially fired, something similar happened when he took over at Oklahoma in 1995. The Sooners went 5-5-1, and Schnellenberger was gone.

"When I went out there, I made the mistake of not interviewing with the president long enough," Schnellenberger said. "I didn't know him well enough. I didn't know he and [former Oklahoma coach] Barry Switzer were so close."

Switzer wanted John Blake to be the head coach, not Schnellenberger, and pressured the president to hire Blake. Athletic director Donnie Duncan wanted Schnellenberger, but after the mediocre season, Duncan was out-gunned.

"It has worked out," Schnellenberger said. "I ended up back in Miami when FAU wanted to put a team together. I will have a lot more fun here putting together a good team and beating Florida, Miami and Florida State here one day than taking an Oklahoma team who had won many championships and taking them to one."

The motivation

The question is: Why does he want to do this?

Schnellenberger is married with three children and three grandchildren and at an age when most people are getting ready to retire. Before FAU came calling, he was about to take a job as a municipal bonds broker.

So to start a program at this stage in his life seems just as outrageous as predicting FAU will be competing for the national title in 2008, when Schnellenberger is 74.

All because FAU president Anthony Catanese presented Schnellenberger with what he calls the biggest challenge of his career, one he says was too exciting to turn down.

When Catanese took over as president of FAU, building a football program was one of the first items on his agenda.

"As a 35-year-old university, we want to join the great tradition [of college football]," Catanese said. "It is something our students, faculty, alumni and community have been asking me to do for several years. Besides, this is South Florida, the capital of high school and college football in America."

"I made a statement when I was appointed coach that the old warhorse has risen again," Schnellenberger said. "My family feels good that I'm back at it. I've set a time line that is consistent with another coach out there. [Penn State coach] Joe Paterno is 72. I'm 65. So when he retires, I have seven more years to go."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°