As the time approached 4:00 pm, I popped the cap off an ice-cold Coors Light, walked back to the table on my patio at my old house in Tampa, kicked my feet up, and waited. It was the fall of 2012, and I had been a reporter covering the Buccaneers for a few years by that point, but I hadn’t yet really spoken with a college football coach as accomplished as Howard Schnellenberger before, not to mention the founder of my alma mater’s football feast in the 1980’s. So, I was kind of nervous.
The clock struck 4:00, so I picked up my cell phone and called the number he had given me by email. A gruff, baritone voice answered the phone, and I introduced myself. After expressing my thanks and a brief description of my project (I was working on a book on the Canes and Gators football rivalry), it didn’t take long before the voice on the other end of the phone had transitioned from an introduction to the beginning of what would become an hour of football anecdotes told to me in the smoothest deep voice you’ll ever hear in your life. I couldn’t help but grin as coach delved into tales about his recruitment by Bear Bryant at Kentucky, his time as an assistant coach with Alabama and the Miami Dolphins, and his path to Miami. He told me about UM vs. Florida in Gainesville in 1980, about his thinking when he called time out and sent the field goal team out with one second left up 28-7 – a response to Florida students who had lobbed frozen oranges down on the UM sideline from the stands. I was in my own college football heaven.
The shame is that Coach Schnellenberger has not reached the actual heaven - or pinnacle - of college football.
This month, the list of candidates will be revealed for the next class of the College Football Hall of Fame. The hall of fame’s stated requirements for admission are very specific, yet very different between players and coaches. For a player, he must have been recognized as a first team All-American be 10 years removed from playing, have played in the last 50 years, and have “proven himself worthy as a citizen” (extent of relations with his community and academic honors are listed as possible considerations). That’s a pretty wide-open field for consideration.
The stated criteria for coaches is not so open. A coach becomes eligible three years after retirement (or immediately upon retirement of 70+ years old). The catch is that he must have been a head coach for a minimum of 10 years and coached at least 100 games with a .600 winning percentage. With a 141-133-3 career record (.514), that last criterion would normally leave Schnellenberger out in the cold.
However, there are a number of other coaches who have been inducted who do not meet the whimsical .600 number the hall cites as a requirement. Just doing a quick search, I discovered in not even five minutes that William Anderson Alexander, John Woodworth Wilce, and Jerry Claiborne are all south of that number. I imagine I would’ve found several more, had I put in the time. And to the extent the hall has imposed that requirement after their inductions, well, that shows that the rules were changed once and thus can be again. Also, sticking to such a hard line winning percentage creates the odd paradox where their own inductees don’t even match the perceived level of excellence that their capricious line of greatness is supposed to measure.
What they should be measuring instead is what each coach (or player) has done for the game of college football itself. What mark they’ve left on the game of football and on their players and fellow coaches. In that regard, there can be no greater example of success than Coach Schnellenberger. As we all know, he’s the godfather of the University of Miami football program as we know it today. He came to town in 1979 and immediately proclaimed his team would win the national championship within five seasons. He instilled a belief among his players that they could become champions. And he ran a strict and tight ship, demanding respect from his players, which in turn kept players in line and out of trouble.
And in year five, he delivered on his championship promise after pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the decade by toppling Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, Tom Osborne, and the #1 Cornhuskers for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. It’s a true shame he left Miami for the USFL, but he left completing what he fulfilled and having built what he said he would. The Miami program that has produced so much top-notch talent, so many championship memories – and so much money for the NCAA – would not have done so without Coach Schnellenberger.
And that was obviously just the first step in his restorative tour. He took over as head coach at Louisville in 1985, which had been a moribund program with a massive hill for any would-be savior to climb. Perhaps even worse than what he inherited at UM, if that was possible. The Cardinals had 10 losing seasons over the last 12 years and were playing in front of sparse crowds in a minor league baseball stadium. The first three years were lean, but the breakthrough came in 1988, when the Cardinals went 8-3. In 1990, they finished 10-1-1 (it’s best record ever at that time), defeating Alabama 34-7 in the Fiesta Bowl.
After a single unsuccessful season at Oklahoma in 1995, Schnellenberger returned to the coaching ranks in 1998 as the director of football operations and head coach of new program FAU. He helped raise money to build the $15 million Tom Oxley Athletic Center. He signed his first recruiting class in February 2000, and, on September 1, 2001, he led the Owls in their first-ever game against Slippery Rock at Pro Player Stadium. In 2003, in just their third season of organized football, FAU went 11-3 and advanced to the Division I-AA semifinals. They ascended to I-A and joined the Sun Belt the following season, where they went 9-3. Three seasons later, they won their first Sun Belt conference title and the New Orleans Bowl over Memphis. In his final season of 2011, the school’s new $70 million FAU Stadium opened, and the field surface was named Howard Schnellenberger Field in 2014. A new major program and a beautiful new stadium stood where nothing existed just over a decade prior.
And that last sentence is what Howard Schnellenberger was all about – building, both literally and figuratively. College football preaches plenty about providing opportunities for young men to mold their lives. That’s what Coach Schnellenberger has done better than anyone else in the history of college football. That’s what has made him so special and his career so unique. If anyone deserves to be given entrance for a unique case or career, it’s him.
If anyone at the hall wants to hear more about Coach Schnellenberger’s case, reach out to any one of his former players or coaches. Or give me a call. I have an hour to spare and some beer to drink.