Howard Schnellenberger’s Legacy Gets a Shine This Postseason

“I’m a great-grandfather watching his children play,” he said in an interview last month. As he spoke, a Dolphins game played in the background.


Schnellenberger coaching the Louisville Cardinals in 1991. He positioned the then-floundering program to land in a major conference.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

“He had a great run at Miami, but wasn’t above 50 percent at any of the other schools,” said Steve Hatchell, president and chief executive of the National Football Foundation, which administers the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. “He’s a great coach,” Hatchell added, “and did wonderful things wherever he went.”

Schnellenberger, 83, still wears his trademark bushy mustache. He still stays in touch with football goings-on. When he visits nearby F.A.U. Stadium for a home game, he greets the large statue of himself outside. Then he sits in the president’s box, from which, he noted with pride, one can see the ocean.

If all Schnellenberger had done was elevate Miami, he would still be one of the most important college football coaches of the past 50 years. “The fact that they had such long, long success, and the fact that they went from a program with very little history to one that has sustained history, is very significant,” said Kent Stephens, the historian and curator of the College Football Hall of Fame.


Schnellenberger watched his Florida Atlantic team run drills in 2008. At F.A.U., he took a program from nothing to a bowl game in his fourth season.

J. Pat Carter/Associated Press

But Schnellenberger did so much more.

His life in football sounds made up. The future Green Bay Packers star Paul Hornung was the quarterback on Schnellenberger’s high school team. Shortly after Schnellenberger’s playing career at Kentucky ended, his college coach, Bear Bryant, hired him as offensive coordinator at Alabama. Schnellenberger won three national titles there. In 1972, he was offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins when they had their 17-0 season.

He was working for the Dolphins in the late 1970s when the University of Miami offered him its top football job. At the time, the Hurricanes were an irrelevant independent team that had last won seven games in 1967. His wife, Beverlee, had to talk him into it.

“I thought it would be fun,” she said last month.

Schnellenberger took over the Hurricanes before the 1979 season. He installed Bryant’s boot camp mentality and the N.F.L.’s offensive concepts. He focused on recruiting what he called the state of Miami, a swath of South Florida that perhaps contained, and maybe still does, more high school football talent than any other metropolitan area in the country. He roused the community. In his fifth season, Miami defeated Nebraska, 31-30, to win the Orange Bowl Classic. The championship rings from Miami’s 1983 season and the Dolphins’ 1972 season are the two he still wears.


Beverlee Schnellenberger bronzed a pair of shoes that she said her husband wore during every game that he coached from 1959 to 1972.

Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

It was the first of five national championships the Hurricanes won over the ensuing two decades (with another three nearly theirs as well). During that period, Miami dominated and even defined college sports, infusing them with the brashness that anticipated Michigan’s Fab Five and Johnny Football. The Hurricanes were also guilty of scandals both imagined (they wore camouflage to a bowl game to play to their bad-boy image) and real (under-the-table cash, drug use, violence).

But Schnellenberger, having kicked off this phenomenon, departed before it flowered. After that Orange Bowl, he left to go flirt with the United States Football League. He nearly coached the New Jersey Generals — their owner, Donald J. Trump, still calls Schnellenberger “my coach” when they see each other, Beverlee Schnellenberger said, which most recently was last New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Lago. Schnellenberger’s plan to coach and partly own a Miami U.S.F.L. franchise fizzled.

Instead, he was lured home to coach Louisville, at the time essentially a commuter school known for its basketball team, with minimal football tradition. He positioned the floundering program to build an on-campus stadium and land in a major conference. The Florida Atlantic job — conjuring a program from nothing and taking it to a bowl game in his fourth season — was his swan song; he stepped down in 2011, at 77.

“I had to be the sage,” he said. “I’ve got to be the — what was his name? — Saint Paul, was it, the guy who was selling Jesus Christ?”

Schnellenberger’s résumé includes two unequivocal failures. He was the Baltimore Colts’ head coach in 1973 and for the first three games of 1974. Robert Irsay, the owner then, fired him after a sideline disagreement over who should play quarterback. Schnellenberger wanted to stick with the more established Marty Domres; Irsay wanted him to put in the rookie (and future Pro Bowler) Bert Jones. And he was coach of Oklahoma for one season, 1995, before a 5-5-1 record and what he characterized as the rumor-mongering of entrenched interests forced his resignation.

These also happened to be the two times Schnellenberger was put in charge of pedigreed powers. They weren’t the underdogs, hungry for even a modicum of success, where his P. T. Barnum-esque salesmanship sold well.

“I will kiss every baby in the cradle, I will speak at every Kiwanis Club — I’d do 500 of those a year — and I make myself available to everybody,” he said.

He also had the courage to set the goals high. “I said at Miami, ‘We’re gonna win the national championship in five years,’ and we did,” he said. “At Louisville, I said, ‘We’re going to win the national championship,’ but I knew it wasn’t going to be five years, so I said the only variable was time. And it’s hung up there and hung up there. Good — that’s the way it should be.”

Now he says the same is true of Florida Atlantic. It does not matter that the Owls play in a midtier league, Conference USA. Never mind that there are 129 other teams, a few with athletic budgets five times larger than Florida Atlantic’s. It is national championship or bust.

“Who gives a damn?” Schnellenberger said. “That’s your goal.”

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