Former FAU, Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger dies, coaching career included national title

Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post

Howard Schnellenberger’s coaching career spanned nearly a half-century, and he won 158 games in 27 years as a college head coach.

But Schnellenberger’s impact on college football transcends wins and losses.

Many coaches have built or revived or even saved programs from extinction. But how many did that three times? That list is short, and Howard Schnellenberger is at the top.

Schnellenberger died Saturday morning at Boca Regional Hospital at the age of 87. But his legacy at the University of Miami, University of Louisville and Florida Atlantic University will last forever.

Lifetime achievement:Howard Schnellenberger to receive Paul ’Bear’ Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award

“Howard always allowed me to be a part of his football life,” said Beverlee, his wife of 61 years. “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."

Schnellenberger underwent four surgeries since falling in his home last July, tripping and hitting his head on a metal owl statue that was a gift from Burt Reynolds.

The first operation was to remove blood from his brain. Then, after being moved to a rehabilitation facility in Boca Raton, he had another fall that was followed by three more surgeries. During that time, Schnellenberger’s family went four months without visiting him because of concerns created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Willie Taggart, who became the sixth football coach in FAU history in December 2019, initially reacted to Schnellenberger’s death on Twitter.

“From the FAU Football Family to the Father of FAU Football, Coach Howard Schnellenberger, we Thank You. We are fully committed to making your Vision become a Reality. Thank you Coach.”

Mark Richt played for Schnellenberger at Miami before a coaching career that included stops at Florida State under Bobby Bowden and as a head coach at Georgia and for the Hurricanes.

"My college coach passed away this morning, Coach Howard Schnellenberger," Richt posted on Twitter. "I learned so much from him on and off the field. He was an offensive genius, but also a man of integrity. God bless the Schnellenberger family!"

A gravel-voiced, pipe-smoking, hard-nosed coach, Schnellenberger oversaw his final game in 2011. He has a football complex and a field named in his honor at Louisville and FAU, respectively, and is responsible for a national championship banner hanging at UM.

Schnellenberger was a master salesman and his product was football. He was as adept at winning over potential donors as he was cooing babies. His act was part Vince Lombardi and part Barnum & Bailey.

“Howard is one of the best coaches I've seen,” Bowden, a rival and friend of Schnellenberger’s, once said. “Lou (Holtz), Joe (Paterno), Barry Switzer, Howard would have been right up there with any of them. He's so smart. He's not a guy to beat himself.”

From August:Former Miami, FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger recovering after fall at Boynton Beach home

A member of the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame, Schnellenberger played with Paul Hornung, played for Bear Bryant, worked for Don Shula, recruited Joe Namath and coached Bob Griese and Jim Kelly. He spent 47 years as a coach, a career that includes 13 years in the NFL, 17 games as a head coach of the Colts and seven seasons as a Dolphins assistant under Shula. What followed was 27 years as a college head coach, where he compiled a 158-151-3 record and is credited for building Miami, Louisville and FAU from various stages.

Then-Florida Atlantic University football coach Howard Schnellenberger stands in front of the team's new stadium, which was under construction and is now named for him, in 2011.

The highlight of Schnellenberger’s career was turning a dormant Hurricanes program that averaged just more than four wins a year from 1970-78 under six different coaches into a national power, leading the school to its first national championship in 1983, five years after he arrived.

That foundation — poured when he famously declared the area starting at the Interstate 4 corridor in Central Florida and extending southward “The State of Miami” — helped others who followed to bring the school to greater heights, as Miami went on to win three more titles in the next eight years (and another in 2001) and become a national brand like none other in college football.

“No one at the university wanted much to do with the football program when we got there, so we did a lot of things there were innovative and different,” Schnellenberger once said.

Roots in Indiana

Schnellenberger was born on March 16, 1934, in Saint Meinrad, Indiana. His parents were German-American. The family eventually moved to Louisville, where he played football, basketball and baseball at Flaget High School — and where he was a teammate of Hornung and earned a scholarship to Kentucky.

After being named an All-American tight end at Kentucky playing for Blanton Collier, Schnellenberger started his coaching career under Collier in 1959. Two years later, he was Bryant’s offensive coordinator at Alabama. The Tide won three national championships during his five years at the school.

Florida Atlantic University coach Howard Schnellenberger is given the victory ride near the end of the Memphis-Florida Atlantic game in the New Orleans Bowl in 2007. FAU defeated Memphis 44-27.

Schnellenberger then started his NFL coaching career with the Los Angeles Rams before joining Shula in Miami in 1970. He was the offensive coordinator for the Dolphins during the undefeated, Super Bowl-winning 1972 season. Schnellenberger had two stops with the Dolphins sandwiched between a short stint with the Colts as head coach that ended three games into his second season after going 4-13. 

The Dolphins released a statement following his death, calling Schnellenberger “a pillar” in the South Florida sports community.

“He was an important part of our success, including the Perfect Season Super Bowl VII Championship team," they wrote. "He will be truly missed. Our prayers and thoughts are with his wife Beverlee, family and countless friends during this time.”

In 1979, Schnellenberger moved a bit south, leaving Shula’s staff to become head coach at the University of Miami, and changed the perception of college football in Coral Gables forever.

That first signature win in Miami 

Schnellenberger’s first signature win at Miami came in his first season when the Hurricanes, led by quarterback Kelly, upset Penn State on the road. After going 5-6 that season, the program took off. The 1983 season started with a loss at Florida and ended with 11 consecutive wins and the hallmark victory of Schnellenberger’s career, a 31-30 victory over No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, that vaulted UM from No. 5 entering the game to national champions.

In this Sept. 1, 2001, photo, a fan holds a sign wishing good luck to FAU head coach Howard Schnellenberger at the start of FAU's first game against Slippery Rock University at Pro Player Stadium. Slippery Rock defeated FAU 40-7.

Bowden once said Schnellenberger would tell people he patterned his program after the way Bowden built the Seminoles. But “then he beat us and won the national championship,” Bowden said. “I always thought he showed us the way.”

The Hurricanes honored Schnellenberger through their football Twitter account:

"Without him, there is no Miami Football. Howard Schnellenberger leaves behind a legacy more impactful than he’ll ever know."

Schnellenberger turned around the Hurricanes fortunes by bringing in players such as Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Eddie Brown, Jerome Brown and Bennie Blades, to name a few. He set the foundation for a long, prosperous run, but suddenly he was gone, resigning four months after being crowned a national champion to become general manager, coach and part-owner of the United States Football League’s Washington Federals, who were planning to move to Miami and play in the Orange Bowl.

The deal crumbled when the USFL planned to switch to a fall season beginning in 1986. That’s when Miami’s Sherwood Weiser, who had wooed Schnellenberger, backed off from buying the Federals and the franchise moved to Orlando. Schnellenberger then decided to sever ties with the team.

Back to coaching

But Schnellenberger was not out of coaching long. In December of 1984, he returned home, accepting the head coaching position at Louisville, a program that had not won more than five games in the previous six years and had been to two minor bowls in its history.

"I may be taking Cinderella to the ball a second time, and almost nobody gets that chance in a lifetime,” Schnellenberger said in 1984 about taking the Louisville job. “There are a lot of similarities between Louisville and Miami. The state is really excited about what could happen.”

The slipper fit. By his sixth season, Schnellenberger had Louisville in the top 15 in the country and capped a 10-1-1 season with a victory over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

Schnellenberger was 54-56-2 at Louisville, but his impact was not unlike what he achieved at Miami, minus the championship. He raised a program that was on its death bed and made it relevant, prompting the university to name the football complex in his honor. The most outstanding player of the annual Louisville-Kentucky game receives the Howard Schnellenberger Award.

But that shine on his career was tarnished when he moved onto his next challenge, a decision Schnellenberger calls the biggest mistake of his professional career, which is saying a lot considering what he left behind at Miami for a failed run at the USFL.

Schnellenberger left Louisville for Oklahoma following the 1994 season and remains one of the least popular figures in OU football history. He left after one year and a 5-5-1 record, with Sooners fans taking exception to Schnellenberger’s ego and disrespect for their tradition.

Schnellenberger arrived in Norman saying, “Together, we can make a great history of a new Sooner era. I envision books being written about it and movies being made of it."

He left saying, "Let's put it this way. We came out of there not as revered and respected as when we came in."

Three years after bolting Oklahoma, Schnellenberger accepted a different challenge than he had at Miami and Louisville, taking on the role as director of football operations at Florida Atlantic University — which did not have a football program. Tasked with starting football from scratch, Schnellenberger raised $13 million in pledges to get the program off the ground. When he was asked by then-FAU President Anthony Catanese to find a coach, Schnellenberger looked in the mirror and named himself.

"This is where God intended football to be played," he once said about southeast Palm Beach County.

The program’s inaugural game was Sept. 1, 2001, a loss to Slippery Rock. The first win came a week later, over Bethune-Cookman. FAU finished 4-6 in his first season but began a journey that would lead the program from Division 1-AA (now FCS) to Division 1-A (now FBS) after four years, joining the Sun Belt Conference; to its first conference title in 2007 followed by its first bowl victory, over Memphis in New Orleans, which established an NCAA record as the youngest program to play in a bowl.

But after going 7-6 and winning a second consecutive bowl in 2008, the program started to slip and in August 2011, Schnellenberger announced the upcoming season would be his last. Though the decision did not come easy, Schnellenberger felt it was the right time. The plan was to step aside and become an ambassador for FAU.

“It’s hard for a coach to even fathom doing this kind of a thing,” Schnellenberger said about the decision.

Schnellenberger’s final year on the field was forgettable and at times sad. Not the way a legendary coach who is revered at three institutions should go out. At midseason, a $70-million, 30,000-seat on-campus stadium was unveiled. By then, though, the Owls had lost their first five games, all on the road, by an average of 23 points. Then came the celebrated opening of the stadium, the day after a bronze statue honoring Schnellenberger was unveiled. What followed was a 20-0 loss to Western Kentucky, which was coached by Taggart, the current FAU coach.

The Owls managed just one win in Schnellenberger’s final year, and he closed his career with a 26-0 loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Boca Raton that ended with Schnellenberger waving goodbye in a nearly empty stadium.

“The only thing I felt was the agony of defeat. I don’t have any Gipper story,” Schnellenberger said following the game, before adding, “I’m turning this problem over to someone else.”

Howard Schnellenberger poses for a portrait in Novembe 2017 at his home in Boynton Beach. Schnellenberger, who built football programs at Miami, Louisville and Florida Atlantic University, died Saturday at 87. SCOTT MCINTYRE / NEW YORK TIMES

D'Angelo:It’s time for the College Football Hall of Fame to open its doors to Howard Schnellenberger

Schnellenberger’s post-coaching career has been defined by something that never happened. Many believe Schnellenberger deserves to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, not as much for his 158 wins, which is outside the top 50 in the sport, but his ability to take moribund programs like Miami and Louisville to such great heights and build a program at FAU from a patch of dirt to one that now plays in Conference USA.

But the National Football Foundation requires that coaches have a .600 career winning percentage to be eligible. Schnellenberger’s is barely over .500. Still, a special committee that examines "unique cases" is allowed to make exceptions for people who do not meet a specific requirement. Schnellenberger, many argue, should be a no-brainer under this criterion.

He still was shunned.

“He likes to take on different challenges but isn't concerned with his record,” then FAU athletic director Craig Angelos said in 2011. “And I am sure it cost him some wins along the way because any time you build different programs, you are going to see your share of losses.

“If he had stayed (at Miami), he would have won numerous national championships and would have a winning percentage unprecedented among college football coaches.”

Schnellenberger's legacy of life

Schnellenberger is survived by: wife, Beverlee; son Timothy and wife Anyssa; son Stuart and wife Suzie; grandson Joey and wife Kristie; grandson Marcus and wife Rachel; granddaughter Teather and husband David; and great-grandchildren Tyler, Lacie and Harper Ann. Another son, Stephen, died in 2008, and he also lost a grandson, Angel. A private, family-only, memorial Mass will be held.

In lieu of flowers, contributions are asked to be made to the Schnellenberger Family Foundation in Delray Beach or the Howard Schnellenberger Endowed Scholarship Fund at FAU. There will be a celebration of life ceremony at Florida Atlantic on a date to be announced.