BOCA RATON, Fla. — Howard Schnellenberger, who helped turn one South Florida college football program into a national power and built another one from the ground up, has died.
Florida Atlantic University announced the death of its first football coach Saturday, hours before the Owls were scheduled to play their spring game on the field named in Schnellenberger's honor.
Aside from a forgettable season at the University of Oklahoma in 1995, Schnellenberger left a lasting impact at every stop of his collegiate career.
The University of Miami football team was on the brink of extinction when Schnellenberger arrived in 1979 to resurrect the program.
Schnellenberger coached the Hurricanes for five seasons, taking a 5-6 team in his first year and orchestrating a turnaround that culminated with Miami's first national championship after a 31-30 victory over Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl.
The Kentucky native with the distinct drawl and signature tobacco pipe brought a pro-style offense to the Hurricanes that he perfected as offensive coordinator of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. By the time he left, the Hurricanes were national champions.
Schnellenberger's place in South Florida's football history began in 1970, when he left the Los Angeles Rams to become offensive coordinator for the Dolphins under the late Don Shula. He was part of Miami's historic 17-0 season -- still the last perfect season in the NFL.
Whisked away by the Baltimore Colts for his first head coaching job in 1973, Schnellenberger won just four games in his only full season and was fired after a 0-3 start the next year. He returned to the Dolphins in 1975, spending the next four years back in his familiar role before the University of Miami came calling.
By Schnellenberger's second year in Coral Gables, the Hurricanes were 9-3 and playing in their first bowl game in more than a decade, defeating Virginia Tech 20-10 in the Peach Bowl.
The Hurricanes were 41-16 in the Schnellenberger era, including a 6-4 record against rivals Florida and Florida State.
After a one-year sabbatical from coaching to become part-owner and general manager of a USFL team in a deal that never came to be, Schnellenberger returned to college as head coach of his hometown Louisville Cardinals in 1985.
Louisville had not had a winning season since 1978 and was a candidate for the Division I-A (now FBS) chopping block before Schnellenberger came along. By his fourth season at the helm and with the players he had recruited on the field, Schnellenberger led Louisville to an 8-3 record. It was the first of three straight winning seasons for the Cardinals, whose impressive 24-7 victory over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl to conclude the 1990 campaign capped off a 10-win season -- the most in school history at the time.
While he might not have delivered a national championship to Louisville, Schnellenberger was able to sway minds that football could be successful at a basketball-first institution. Perhaps more importantly, though, was that his 10 years with the Cardinals put Louisville in the national spotlight and convinced school administrators to invest in the program.
The long-term result was the construction of a state-of-the-art, $63 million football stadium in 1998 and the creation of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex.
"I take a lot from my experiences at Miami and Louisville," Schnellenberger said in 2006 of the schools that inducted him into their athletic halls of fame. "Both had a tradition of playing football for a long time, but had never had any great success and were going through a losing period."
When Oklahoma sought Schnellenberger in 1995, it seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead, it lasted just one year.
Unlike his previous stops, Oklahoma already had numerous national championships of which to boast, but the Sooners had taken a slide after the NCAA slapped the school with probation. The sanctions forced the resignation of legendary coach Barry Switzer after the 1988 season and prevented the Sooners from going bowling for two more years.
Although Oklahoma cleaned up its act under Gary Gibbs, winning became less frequent, so Schnellenberger was lured away from Louisville to return the team to its glory days. However, as Schnellenberger noted in 2006, not everyone involved in the hiring process was happy to have him.
"I was not accepted as one of the candidates they would like to have," Schnellenberger recalled of his lone 5-5-1 season. "(Former Oklahoma athletic director) Donnie Duncan hired me. He was the only one who seemed to think I was worthy. Barry Switzer though someone else would be better, and I thought it would be better if I got out of there, so I resigned."
As it turned out, Oklahoma's loss was FAU's gain. After returning to South Florida and spending a few years away from football to work for a municipal bonds company, Schnellenberger returned to doing what he did best.
Howard Schnellenberger: Year-By-Year Coaching Record
Hired by FAU on May 1, 1998, Schnellenberger was tasked with bringing football to the Boca Raton school.
"The president of Florida Atlantic University at the time, Anthony Catanese, called me up and said he planned on starting a football program and asked me if I'd be interested in being their point man," Schnellenberger said in 2006. "Of course, I said yes."
In the beginning, Schnellenberger worked primarily to raise more than $15 million for the program, which didn't officially get the green light until the state board of regents approved adding football at FAU in January 1999. Once he returned from Tallahassee with a certificate of approval, Schnellenberger wasted no time with the next challenge of finding a coach to lead the team.
"When we started in the process of hiring a coach, it became evident after a while that I would be the best candidate, mainly for recruiting purposes," Schnellenberger said.
One could hardly argue with the decision.
Four years after landing his first recruiting class, Schnellenberger's team became the fastest start-up program to notch an FBS victory, defeating Middle Tennessee State in the opening game of the 2003 season. The Owls also became the fastest team to reach the Division I-AA (now FCS) playoffs that same season.
But for FAU to receive any significant acclaim in the football-crazed state of Florida, Schnellenberger knew it would have to be at the major college football level.
"One of the things Howard had always said was that in order to survive, we had to play Division I-A football," then-athletic director Craig Angelos said.
That became a reality for FAU in 2004, when the Owls began the transition from the FCS ranks and defeated three consecutive FBS teams on the road to begin the season. FAU joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2005 and, after a 6-8 start against league opponents, claimed the school's first championship two years later.
Under Schnellenberger, the upstart Owls endured a grueling schedule that Schnellenberger believed would pay dividends for the future of the program. FAU was outscored 193-20 during road games at Clemson, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina -- all losses -- to begin the 2006 season. Then there were the lopsided losses at powerhouse programs like Florida (59-20 in 2007 and 41-3 in 2011), Texas (52-10 in 2008 and 51-17 in 2010), Nebraska (49-3 in 2009) and Michigan State (44-0 in 2011).
Many of those lumps came while FAU was still playing football about 20 miles to the south at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. The antiquated 17,417-seat stadium was a glorified high school stadium that didn't do much to appeal to a growing fan base.
Along came Schnellenberger, whose next move was to campaign for an on-campus stadium. The Owls began play at FAU Stadium in 2011, Schnellenberger's final season with the team. The playing surface was named "Howard Schnellenberger Field" in 2014.
Schnellenberger led the Owls to back-to-back bowl victories in 2007 and 2008. He retired after the 2011 season with a career record of 158-151-3.
Born in the small Indiana town of St. Meinrad on March 16, 1934, Schnellenberger moved to Louisville and earned a football scholarship at the University of Kentucky. After earning All-American honors in 1955 and a brief playing stint in the Canadian Football League, Schnellenberger returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1959. He then became offensive coordinator under legendary head coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama in 1961, spending five seasons there before moving on to the NFL in 1966.
"Howard always allowed me to be a part of his football life," his wife of 61 years, Beverlee Schnellenberger, said in a statement released by FAU. "Watching him on the sidelines was an opportunity that gave us a special closeness -- win or lose -- that not many wives get. Even though he never smiled, he was always smiling in his heart. We loved all the moves and challenges. I will miss his warm heart, his warm hands and soft kisses. Howard always treated me special, like a queen, and was truly a husband that every Canadian girl dreams of. You will always be my love, now and forever. I'm proud to be your wife. You were a great leader of men and the leader of our lives."
A private memorial mass will be held for Schnellenberger's family. A public ceremony honoring Schnellenberger will be held at FAU on a later date.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Schnellenberger Family Foundation in Delray Beach or the Howard Schnellenberger endowed scholarship fund at FAU.