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When you get the chance to talk to Howard Schnellenberger, you don't turn that down. The man is a legend in the college football game and the "godfather" of Miami football. State Of The U got the chance to chat with him and ask him a few questions about his thoughts on the Miami Hurricanes.
He went 41-16 at a Miami program that was on its death bed. He is an all-time 6-0 in bowl games with three different teams. He, more than many others, should be in the college football Hall Of Fame, but may not ever be due to an arbitrary rule concerning lifetime winning percentage.
He is the main inspiration behind our humble blog's name, with his recruiting tactic of "building a fence around Miami" and keeping the majority of his recruiting efforts in the South Florida area. Coupled with his passing playbook that, literally, almost no one else was using at the time, he revitalized the Miami program and turned it into the decades long powerhouse that it was. Miami football would be nothing without Coach Schnellenberger. Sure, they may have hired someone else to run the program, and who knows how it would have turned out. I, for one, choose to think that without Howard, there is no Jimmy. Without Jimmy, there is no Dennis, and so on.
Sure, he didn't ONLY coach at Miami. He went on to win at Louisville, rebuilding that program from the ashes. He then left Louisville to go to Oklahoma after UL announced a move to Conference USA. He cited the reason he left Louisville as simply not wanting to coach in a conference where he didn't have a chance to compete for the national championship.
He arrived at Oklahoma with his usual pomp and circumstance that had worked for him so well in his previous two jobs. The situation started out well, but deteriorated due to numerous factors. He resigned after one year, saying that a change was needed for the program to right itself. That whole situation will ellicit different reasoning depending on who you talk to, but it is clear that it was a relationship that was not meant to be.
After a short time outside the world of coaching, Schnellenberger chose to give his rebuilding prowess another shot by taking the job at Florida Atlantic University. He was tasked with basically building a program from the ground up, and in the span of about 6 years, had taken what was once non-existent to the Sun belt Conference. Two years later FAU won the Sun Belt conference title.
What "Schnelly" has been able to do in his career is nothing short of legendary. His matter-of-fact speech and disciplined style were gleaned from his days under fellow legend Bear Bryant. What he means to the city of Miami and the university itself cannot be understated. Without him, there quite possibly is no Miami football. As far as the HOF, I am on record as stating that Howard Schnellenberger does not need the Hall Of Fame, the Hall Of Fame needs Howard Schnellenberger. It is a flat out joke that, because he chose to build a program from scratch, he does not qualify for entry.
Even in the face of the monument that Coach has built in the college football world, I took a flyer and sent an email to the address on his official webpage, inquiring about a possible Q&A. Never did I dream that our humble blog would even end up on his radar, let alone warrant an emailed response containing his contact information and an invitation to chat on the phone. As a life-long Miami fan, no stranger to the program's history, and a CFB fan in general, receiving this email and seeing those 10 digits staring back at me almost made me lose it. I felt like a freshman in high school wondering what will happen when I dial the number and the girl on the other end actually answers. WHAT WOULD I EVEN SAY?! So, I called...and left a voice mail. I was a bit saddened at that, until his number popped back onto my phone screen not 2 minutes later. This moment was quite possibly one of the most unbelievable in my short lifetime. Aside from getting engaged, then married, and then buying my first house, Coach Howard Schnellenberger was calling ME. I'm just a dude sitting in a law office in downtown Nashville, and one of the legends of the game is calling my cell phone.
Once I answered his call, and heard his immediately recognizable voice on the other end, I felt sort of silly for working myself up about it. He asked about my childhood, how I became a Miami fan. I explained that the earliest memory I could recall was watching Miami crush Nebraska in the Rose Bowl in 2002 (there are certainly other memories besides that, but the issue that has party erased those is a story for another day). He heard this and immediately asked how old I was. I told him that I had just turned 29, and his response was to curse, then laugh about how old I must have been at the time. He asked about my current profession, wanted to know what paid the bills. He wanted to know about the site, what we wrote about, who we worked with. It is still sinking in that I sat in a vacant office at my day job, having a casual conversation with this giant of a man, and my biggest worry at the time was whether to call him "sir" or "coach."
He asked me when I would like to do the interview, and I told him that I was on his time. Whenever he was available would be good for me. He told me what time to call him, made sure that I had the correct number to his cell phone, and that he would be looking forward to my call. I gathered the questions, prepared myself, and here are the verbatim, unedited results.
What are your thoughts on Al Golden and the job he has done so far at Miami?
Well, I'm really impressed with Al. I got to know him when he first came down there, and was impressed with him when I saw him. What impressed me the most was that before he even coached a down of football down here I knew they had made the right choice. Because anyone that can go into Temple University and take them from total obscurity to national prominence in such a short period of time, and take them to a bowl game with the lack of tradition they have and renewable recruits, he did a magnificent job. And then as I got to watch him down here for his first year, first of all seeing that first recruiting year, which was better than it had been in previous years, and then to play respectable football that first year, I thought that he had the capacity to be special.
What really took me over the top with him was last summer, the off season of last year, he invited me to come down and speak to his squad. I've been in a position to have other coaches at Miami ask me to do that, but none of them did. Johnson and Erickson, and Davis, none of them were confident enough to want me to come in and talk to the team and give them a historical understanding of where the University of Miami was before 1979, and what it did from 1980 on, and how major of an impact that it had on the team, the university, Coral Gables, South Florida, and the nation. Today, with their new coach, Golden, they have the capacity to repeat what was done by those kids from '79 to '83.
As I looked at them in their locker room, and they were in their workout clothes, they appeared to me to be one of the finest looking squads on the hoof that I have ever seen. They had about 35 guys that were over 6'4" and weighed close to 200 pounds, they had a quarterback who at the time was a junior who was ready to win, and I picked them high this year, and even though they stubbed their toe a time or two midway through the season, they finished strong. the beauty of it is is that it looks like all the potential early draft choices have not materialized, they're going to keep them all intact, and all that being said, they should be a very strong team next year, and I believe they have the capacity to make it a very successful year and continue to rise towards a national championship.
I don't remember the last time Miami returned all of their starters. The only two they aren't getting back are graduating. You spoke about the job that Golden did at Temple, and spoke about any coach that can take a program from obscurity and bring it to prominence has what it takes to be a good coach. You did that same thing with Miami and then with Louisville, what sort of characteristics do you think a coach needs to have in order to be able to do that to a program.
Well, first of all he has to have a terrific work ethic, he has to be an honest, sincere, straightforward person, he has to have charisma, and he has to have that art of getting the best out of people and particularly his athletes. He needs to have been schooled by top of the line people, his head coaches that he worked for and studied under need to have instilled in him the characteristics and the know-how to develop a player first, and then a team of players into a team. I think (Al) has those qualities.
You touched on Golden bringing in a good class his first year after coming into the job halfway through the cycle. As far as getting back to recruiting mainly in Florida as you established with your State Of Miami mentality, do you think the key for the Florida schools and Miami in particular is to continue to get the majority of their classes from that area and fill in the rest with out of state talent?
Well you get the best you can, and if you can get the best south of I-4, which is the upper border of the State Of Miami, then that's wonderful. But most likely you need to get about two thirds of them from there and then for those isolated positions when you can find somebody better from outside the State Of Miami, then you need to have the ability to go ahead and recruit them. There's an awful lot to be said about the allegiance that the kids from the State Of Miami have for the South Florida region, the great experience they get going against the greatest high school players in America that prepares them for playing at the division 1 level, then those things are keys to success in recruiting.
It's no secret that Miami football has been down the last decade or so...
Yeah well they're the most spoiled fans. They're the fans that have had the best dynasty in American college football, ever. When you look at the way the team played from 1980 when we went to the Peach Bowl until after the Coker period of time, I think it was what 5 national championships? Playing in another 5 to 7 last games of the year that were for the national championship, no other school including Oklahoma under Wilkinson and Alabama under Bryant, they've never done anything like that.
So obviously the fans come to expect to win like that. It doesn't make them any better of fans than other places, it doesn't make them any worse when it tails off, because there's a direct correlation between winning and great fans. There are some fanatical people that will stay with the teams even into a dreadful losing season, but 98% of the fans are gonna demonstrate their fansmanship by the winning of the teams.
I agree, that has definitely been something we have had to deal with at least over the last couple of years is declining attendance at the games...
Well that's because of that friggin stadium that they're playing in.
I actually wanted to touch on that with you. There's been a lot of push lately, especially with the Marlins getting their new stadium and now renovations being talked about at Sun Life with the Dolphins in mind, do you think that is a major hindrance when it comes to the football program?
Well it's too big a stadium for almost any state school. It's what, over 65, 75 thousand? And the other drawback is that the seats are so far removed from the stadium, it's not like the Orange Bowl where the sidelines were tight, the sidelines were great and elevated, and you were right on top of the fans. You could see the whites of their eyeballs. You could see emotion, and you go to Joe Robbie stadium you can hear any of that stuff or see any of that stuff. Surely you have a harder time having any of the interplay between cheerleaders and the fans because they're so far away.
Do you think that Miami will ever get something akin to the Orange Bowl experience?
Well I'm hopeful they'll get one right in the middle of their campus, and that's still doable.
There's a lot of people pushing for that, with petitions and former players like Alonzo Highsmith being vocal about the need for a Miami-only stadium.
College football was meant to be played on campus, that's the reason why the game was invented. When you take the kinship of the stadium right there where the students go to class and the faculty go to work, they could walk out of their classrooms and walk 5 minutes to the stadium. And alumni who come from near and far, come back to not only see the football team, but to reminisce with their spouses about what they were doing 20 years ago when they went to school, and even bring their children back to look at the school on that Saturday, so they could evaluate whether they want to go to school where their mom and dad went to school.
That generational thing you will see if from Rutgers, or Harvard who started this game of football, then spread through the Big 10 and Michigan and Ohio State, and then down into the Southeastern Conference, then jumped across the country to the West Coast, all of those schools have stadiums in the middle. And they used them to develop a relationship between the people that come to the stadium and the ones that went to school there, and they come back to that stadium with their children and grand children, so then it becomes a part of the family, and their tradition and heritage.
There's no stronger relationship that people have than to a stadium that is on the campus where many of them met their sweethearts, and got their first kiss on homecoming night, behind the bleachers, and sometimes even conceived their first born. So it's a very nostalgic, a very traditional part of college football.
Aside from the stadium issue during the last decade or so, what would you say has been the major contributors to them being down and not playing as well?
The inability to maintain control over unsavory characters and their athletes. The interdiction of the NCAA and it's effort to control unsportsmanlike conduct that has been pervasive down there. That's the only thing has kept them from continuing the ongoing dynasty that they had.
Editor's Note: At this point, Coach Schnellenberger had the courtesy to make sure I was recording this interview, because otherwise he was afraid that he was talking faster than I could type.
What are your thoughts on the current BCS system, the upcoming playoff system, and how it compares to when you coached?
It's such an antiquated system, I don't know what's going to happen. Again this year, I haven't heard much dissatisfaction with it, but I was dissatisfied when the number 1 team in America came down to play the number 2 team in America. That one two punch was the fuel that made this the most attended, most viewed, and most bet on game, and had the earmarks of being a generational kind of event, and it turned out to be a charade. That only happened because the number 1 team had not gone through the trials and the tough times of playing a very good football schedule.
For us to have a lackluster, non-interesting, non-entertaining game for the national championship, indicates there's something missing. If there's some sort of playoff system that includes more than 8 teams, 16, maybe more than that, where there's an opportunity for 16 to 18 teams to mature at the end of the year, play their best football games in the playoffs, and when those final two teams get together to play for the championship, they're salty, they're rock hard, they're mature, they're ready to face the adversity. Neither one of the teams is gonna think the other team is better or that the other team is worse, they've been through five games to get to that point, and that last game will be a knock down, drag out game that's won by the play of each individual.
The final question that I have for you Coach may be a hard one. I'd like to know what your favorite memory is from your time spent with the University of Miami.
Well, there would be a big long memory of going into a place that had dropped to Division 1-AA in 1979 when I took the job, and then was able to put together a group of coaches, a group of players, a group of students and fans, and lay out a goal, and to accomplish it. that whole 5 year period is a wonderful memory.
But obviously if you had to crystallize it down into one memory, into one game, into one play, it would have to go to Kenny Calhoun's deflection of the going for two play that Doctor Osborne so rightly decided to do, and for us to win the game against a team that nobody in the world thought had a chance to lose. To do something that everybody though inconceivable on the 50th anniversary of the Orange Bowl game, the University of Miami played in the first one, and was playing in the 50th one, they won that game with Kenny Calhoun breaking up the pass that would have won the game. For that game to be recognized by virtually everybody in the nation that's a football fan as the best football games ever played, and certainly the best Orange Bowl game that's ever played, and the game that was seen by more people and was covered by television like no other game had been covered.
I personally would like to thank Coach Schnellenberger for not only making one of my dreams as a Miami lifer come true, but taking time out of his evening to enjoy a cigar and chat with me about the school we both love. You can find Coach on twitter at @Schnellenberger, and also at his official website.