I flipped through my Twitter feed Saturday morning, and no sooner than seeing RIP Coach Schnellenberger did my heart drop and my gut tighten up. Couldn’t be. Not Coach. I was not ready for this news.
I had no idea he was ailing, and for all I know perhaps he wasn’t. Sure, he was 87 years old, but the gruff old ball coach has plowed ahead and seemed to make Father Time’s field his personal playground. Smoking a pipe? Pfft. Coach had seemed to make that seem like as much of a part of him as my ear is attached to my own head.
It’s as sad a news as I had read in quite a while. As I thought about him, the thing that really struck me is how much coach cared about other people.
I had the opportunity to speak with him years ago when I was a new writer working on a book, and he graciously agreed to an interview with me. As I sat on the back deck of my house, recorder in hand and a beer in the other (for my own nerves), I thumbed out the number he’d emailed me. “Hello?” came the gruff voice on the other end of the line. I introduced myself and we exchanged some small talk.
What started as minutes stretched out well over an hour, as Coach shared his experiences from Bear Bryant, the Dolphins, and turning around the Canes. He told me about the game at Florida in 1980, when his son got pelted with a frozen orange from the stands, so he sent his kicker out to tack on a field goal in a 31-7 UM romp.
Regarding the resulting criticism he got, he told me: “I should have sent the field goal team out. I should have had the center snap it to the holder and turned sideways towards the student section, and we should have kicked it up into the student section. It would have been better, and I wouldn’t have been such an a##h***.”
Helping me out was just a tiny microcosm of what coach was all about. He helped out his players, universities, and the general public. Coach knew how to build a program. No other Coach brought three programs from nothing to relevant D-1 programs the way he has with Miami, Louisville, and FAU. In the case of “from nothing”, he did that literally with FAU, helping start up the program.
For some reason, his unquestioned accomplishments to the game of football have gone unrewarded by the College Football Hall of Fame. There’s certainly more to the game than wins and losses, and Coach proved that by taking on jobs at programs that few wanted and leaving them in a better place than they were. That speaks volumes to a true winner...even more so than the total number of wins in the record book.
He also was a motivational speaker, using his experiences in life to help people in different aspects of the business world understand what it takes to become (as he put it) warriors, heroes, and then champions.
I also had the occasion to also speak with former UM stars Tony Fitzpatrick, Jim Burt, Alonzo Highsmith, and Glenn Dennison. Their praise for Coach was universal. He could be tough, but he was fair and he had everyone’s respect. Coach’s 6 am “Breakfast Club” was not a place you wanted to end up, with players performing field-long somersaults, spins, and miles of running.
But at the end of the day, Coach inspired his team and built the Canes up from near the death of a program to national champions in five years, fulfilling a five-year promise he made when he took the job.
“Playing for Coach Schnellenberger - it didn’t matter who you were going to play against - he had you believing you were going to beat anybody,” Fitzpatrick told me.
Thanks for making Miami football what it’s become during my lifetime, Coach. And thank you for taking part of a 2013 fall afternoon to speak with a young Tampa writer. Your small act of kindness wasn’t even a blip on the radar of all you did in your life, but it meant the world to me.
Rest in peace.