Howard Schnellenberger was a football icon. He grew up in Louisville playing at the now-defunct Flaget High School and, after high school, he played college football for one of the sport’s greatest coaching icons, Bear Bryant. He went on to have an All-American career at…a school I would rather not mention. Afterwards, he played professionally in Canada before eventually making his way into coaching. He coached under numerous great football minds such as Bear Bryant at Alabama and Don Shula in Miami. Wherever Howard went, success seemed to follow. After a successful stint as a member of the Dolphins coaching staff, Schnellenberger found his true calling: as a collegiate head football coach.
It began at Miami. He took over a program that was dying. Through a combination of his brilliant offensive mind, his recruiting efforts in the hot bed of football recruiting that is South Florida, and his trademark discipline, Miami went from near death to a powerhouse. It wasn’t quite bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but it was still a miracle in its own right. His efforts at rebuilding the Miami program culminated in a national championship in 1983.
After that season, he resigned to try and develop a USFL pro franchise. However, that endeavor fell through and Coach Schnellenberger bided his time, waiting for a new opportunity to coach. That opportunity came at his hometown university, the University of Louisville. The Louisville program was in an even worse position than Miami had been. They were on the cusp of being moved to Division IAA or even dropped completely. The miracle worker came in to resurrect yet another program from the brink of demise.
It was at his introductory presser that Howard Schnellenberger uttered the phrase any Louisville Football fan, young or old, knows by heart, “Louisville is on a collision course with the national championship, the only variable is time.” When that phrase was uttered, I was a 3 year old rug rat that knew nothing of football. Now, as an adult, I dare to dream the dream of Howard Schnellenberger.
Of course, the program had to walk before it could run. The first three seasons of Coach Schnellenberger’s tenure were marked by losing, with an 8-24-1 mark. However, his next three seasons were some of the most successful in program history. He went 8-3 in 1988, 6-5 in 1989, and then 1990 happened. That season, Louisville went 10-1-1 and went to the first New Year’s Day bowl in school history. They ended up winning that bowl game, the Fiesta Bowl, in blowout fashion against perennial blue blood Alabama. The score was 34-7. That season was the high water mark of Coach Schnellenberger’s time as UofL’s head coach. Afterwards, he had two more winning seasons in 1993 and 1994. In 1993, his Cardinals went 9-3 and won their second bowl game under Coach Schnellenberger, the Liberty Bowl. They defeated Big 10 opponent Michigan State, 24-23.
After the 1994 season, it was announced that Louisville would go from being a football independent to Conference USA, a move Coach Schnellenberger vehemently protested. He either wanted to remain independent or join a conference where a national title pursuit was realistic. He resigned in protest and eventually took over for Gary Gibbs at Oklahoma. Unfortunately, Coach Schnellenberger did not have great success at the blue blood program and left after just one season.
Yet, that wasn’t the end of Coach Schnellenberger’s time as a miracle worker. He took over a Division IAA program at Florida Atlantic. There he coached them to the IAA semifinals in 2003 and eventually helped transition the program to Division I where they now are a respected member of UofL’s former conference, Conference USA. They have won four bowl games, including their first two under the legendary Schnellenberger.
Whether it was his trademark pipe, his gruff baritone voice, his quips and curse words, or the numerous stories he told, Howard Schnellenberger was one of college football’s most interesting characters and iconic coaches. His name is deserving of being mentioned with those of the pantheon of greats: Bryant, Osborne, Hayes, Schembechler, Rockne, and Leahy. What set him apart from all of these greats, was his ability to take multiple programs that had decayed or had never really known sustained success and mold them into successful programs. He helped them either become powerhouses or become respectable.
What Howard Schnellenberger did for the programs he headed, was like the plot of a Disney movie. He was a version of a real-life Gordon Bombay. Although, I’m pretty sure he was more like Captain Blood than the quacker Bombay was. Yet, he earned the respect and admiration of every player that put on a uniform for him.
Miami wouldn’t be “The U” if there was no Howard Schnellenberger. Louisville wouldn’t be in the ACC, have competed and won two BCS bowls, nor had the beautiful 65,000-seat Cardinal Stadium built had Schnellenberger not come home and yanked his hometown university up by its lapels to respectability. Florida Atlantic would likely still be a middling FCS team had Schnellenberger not taken over and remade the program, growing it into a respectable FBS member.
Howard Schnellenberger not being in the Hall of Fame is a travesty. There are three programs in existence that may have been wallowing in mediocrity or, worse, not in existence at all had Howard Schnellenberger not come along. While he was a tough coach, he was by all accounts a good man that cared for the players in every program he was a part of. He was a creator that molded football programs into his image of tough, successful, winning entities. While he did not live to see the collision course traveled to its ultimate end at Louisville, he did help shorten the only variable to its conclusion, time. Louisville is still on that collision course and the variable of time has shrunken immensely because of the efforts of Howard Schnellenberger.
Let me close with a story. As a 10ish year old child, I was with my father picking up his TARC uniforms from Coit on Crittenden Drive. At the time, across the street where the now abandoned Cardinal Hall Of Fame Cafe sits, there were two practice fields for the Louisville Football team. I watched from the store window as Howard Schnellenberger, trademark pipe in his mouth, with a straw hat covering his snow white hair, rode around the fields in a golf cart. He intently watched drills being run and plays being executed. Suddenly, I heard whistles blow and saw him exit the cart, stand up, and, using a megaphone, blister a group of players in a profanity-laced tirade about some error or errors during a particular play or drill. The players didn’t sulk or shy away. It must’ve been something they were accustomed to as they went right back to work. They apparently corrected the errors as Coach Schnellenberger simply gave an approving nod after they had ran the play or drill again and moved on to other areas of the fields, reviewing his team.
Howard Schnellenberger was definitely an old school coach, but he commanded the respect and admiration of his players and multiple college football fan bases. He was a son of the Ville that represented his hometown well. Thank you Coach for the memories. College Football Hall of Fame, do the right thing and give Coach Schnellenberger his place among the greats.