On his first day as the man in charge of University of Miami football — a moribund program that had churned through five coaches in nine years and was seriously considering dropping to a lower level of competition — Howard Schnellenberger stood before his players and predicted the Hurricanes would win a national championship. Not necessarily that season but eventually.
Nobody could have imagined he would do it within five years. Schnellenberger, the architect of the Hurricanes football dynasty and the founding father of the Florida Atlantic University football program, died on Saturday at 87, leaving behind a legacy that forever changed two South Florida universities.
The cause of death was not disclosed, but Schnellenberger had been in declining health. He suffered a subdural hematoma from a fall last summer, requiring hospitalization.
“Howard treated me special, like a queen, and was truly a husband that every Canadian girl dreams of,” Beverlee Schnellenberger, his wife of 62 years, said in a statement released by Florida Atlantic University. “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.”
Navigating UM to its first of five national championships was his personal pinnacle, but he left an imprint on South Florida sports on so many levels.
He was Don Shula’s offensive coordinator and right-hand man for seven years during the Dolphins’ glory years of the 1970s, including the 1972 undefeated team.
He established the foundation for a dynasty at UM — five titles in 19 years — by leaving behind 60 freshmen and sophomores that comprised the nucleus of coach Jimmy Johnson’s first two teams.
And there was the achievement that gave him the most joy: Launching and building the FAU program, then spearheading the construction of a sparkling stadium.
Schnellenberger stands above everyone else
“Who compares to him? There is no one that compares to Schnellenberger,” said UM radio analyst Don Bailey, who played for UM during Schnellenberger’s first four seasons. “He took Miami — a program where people thought its days were numbered — and brought it to a championship. He took a Louisville program worse than Miami’s and took it to 10 wins and beating Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.
“He went to FAU, where they didn’t even have a program, and in his third year, they’re one win away from being in the national championship game. He had every answer for every challenge. To me, he left the game underrated.”
The FAU experience “is hard not to be the one I take the most pleasure in,” Schnellenberger said in an interview with the Miami Herald in February 2013. “That was more personal.”
But Schnellenberger was never under any illusion about where he forged his legacy.
“What most people feel would be my highlight,” he said, “has to be the development of the University of Miami program from where it began to being the best team in America and beating the unbeatable team in Nebraska in the 50th Orange Bowl game” in January 1984.
Over a nine-year period, UM sifted through coaches Walt Kichefski, Fran Curci, Pete Elliott, Carl Selmer and Lou Saban, with none able to post an overall winning record during their tenures.
When Saban left after 5-8 and 6-5 seasons to take a job at Army, the UM program was at a crossroads. School officials discussed dropping football or moving down to a lower division. In the meantime, UM offered the coaching job to Schnellenberger, who had impressed in his job overseeing the Dolphins’ offense.
“I turned it down at first,” he said. “It was only after my wife Beverlee prevailed on me to take the job that I took her advice and accepted.
“I was reluctant to take it because it was a graveyard for coaches. It had been for 20 years. Here I was with Don Shula, who had won the Super Bowl. Why would I go to the University of Miami? It wasn’t until I looked at it that it seemed it was pretty good.”
Shortly after taking the UM job, Schnellenberger learned the administration was discussing “dropping to Division I-AA. When I found out, they went back into committee to restudy the motion, then tabled it for five years.”
Schnellenberger said he made of a list of the football program’s “assets and liabilities.” He concluded that some of what the school considered liabilities were actually strengths.
“I said we had the greatest stadium in the south in the Orange Bowl, which they thought was the worst stadium for them because it was too big and wasn’t on campus,” he said.
Howard Schnellenberger | Career in pictures
“The second thing I said we had was the best schedule a team could have — Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, Penn State. That was an asset for me, but for them it was a liability, because they thought these teams were strong and they thought we can’t win.”
The third asset Schnellenberger listed was ultimately vital to his success at UM: “I said we’re sitting on a hotbed of talent, the best 30-mile ratio in the world.
“So when I looked at that list, it became obvious to me that the only liability they really had was they were pessimists, losers, people that didn’t believe in themselves.”
National title was the No. 1 goal
That’s why, on his first day on the job, he informed his players that he would win a national championship at UM.
“I thought I had to drive some enthusiasm and confidence and arrogance and bravado and set a goal that I can believe in and is do-able,” he said. “And then recruit the coaches that believe what I believe, and then recruit these kids that wanted to come to Miami, but nobody would ask them.”
Bailey said that first speech — predicting a national title — “changed my life. It proved ‘impossible’ was only an opinion and not a fact. I’ve lived that and done hundreds of talks on that subject.”
Schnellenberger decided to build a metaphorical “fence around Miami” and encourage the top players in the tri-county area, including those in Miami’s inner city, to hop aboard.
He supplemented the roster with selectively chosen players from outside the state, including Ohio-born Bernie Kosar, the quarterback on his national championship team.
“We were going to become the most expert of all the schools that recruited here, bring in kids that want to play football in front of mom and dad,” he said.
When Schnellenberger drove into the inner city in his white Cadillac, “I would wait until I saw the first kid on a bicycle and ask, ‘Where does Alonzo Highsmith live?’ He would say, ‘Come with me.’
“Then you would hear people shout, ‘The scholarship man is coming!’”
Schnellenberger made a convincing sales pitch.
“Howard told you, ‘You can go anywhere you want, and you’ll probably start,’ ” Highsmith recalled, by phone. “But he said, ‘If you stay here in Miami, you will have an opportunity to build something that will last a lifetime and influence other kids to stay in town.’ I could have gone to any school I wanted, but I wanted to be part of something new.”
Opposing coaches “told me my mother the only bowl I was ever going to see at Miami is the salad bowl. My mom was crying.”
With his baritone voice, snazzy suede jacket and trademark pipe, Schnellenberger made quite an impression.
“This guy comes in with a cherry smoke pipe — very intimidating,” former Hurricanes running back Melvin Bratton said on the ESPN documentary, ‘The U.’ “He said, ‘Do you want to be part of the Miami tradition?’ I’m like, ‘Bro, you have no tradition. You all got smashed.’ He left his pipe in our [house]. I think it was a ploy.”
It was, in fact.
Schnellenberger said he left his pipe “on purpose for the very good ones we were recruiting,” creating a reason to come back. Many of the top Dade/Broward players — Highsmith, Bratton, Brian Blades and many others — committed to UM, forming the nucleus of a Canes juggernaut in the 1980s. Even before many of those players arrived, Schnellenberger had reversed UM’s fortunes, incorporating a pro-style offense — led initially by quarterback Jim Kelly — and guiding UM to 9-3 and 9-2 records and Top 25 finishes in his second and third seasons (1980 and 1981). Before that, UM hadn’t finished in the Top 25 since 1960.
“His offense changed college football,” Bailey said. “I don’t remember anyone else playing a pro-style offense then, maybe Florida State. Nobody utilized tight ends and two backs like he did. Teams didn’t have an answer.”
After a 7-4 finish in 1982, the 1983 team opened its season with a deflating 28-3 loss at Florida.
Epic Orange Bowl Game victory
But the Hurricanes never lost again, punctuating a storybook season with an epic 31-30 Orange Bowl win against a Nebraska team that had been considered among the best in history.
Miami was voted national champions in The Associated Press poll, and Schnellenberger received the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award. On the heels of his 1983 class — “30 of the best kids I ever saw any school sign,” — Schnellenberger said he “went out and signed 30 players even better than the first 30.”
Ultimately, he would not coach that new group. He sent shock waves through South Florida by resigning to become coach and part-owner of what was to be a Miami-based team in the United States Football League.
The team, which was relocating from Washington, never played a game in Miami. A few months after Schnellenberger took the job, the USFL announced it would shift from a spring to fall schedule, and the owner of the proposed Miami team didn’t want to compete against the Dolphins. A new owner moved the team to Orlando, and Schnellenberger wasn’t retained.
If he had stayed at UM, “he would have been the most legendary coach in the history of college football,” said Art Kehoe, who was UM’s offensive line coach on all five championship teams.
“We would be talking about him with the Bear Bryants if he hadn’t left Miami,” Highsmith said. “We’d be talking about 350 wins and six championships. Leaving Miami, no one ever gave up more for less.”
Three decades later, Schnellenberger insisted he felt no regrets above leaving UM.
“I thought it was an opportune time to make a move,” he said. “It was an opportunity to follow in Don Shula’s footsteps, the way he came from the Baltimore Colts to the Dolphins.”
He said that in deciding to leave UM, “there were other things I asked to have happen that didn’t happen, other things that were upsetting.” But he declined to specify them. The lesson from the experience, he said, was this: “I learned that God has a better plan for mortals than I can have for myself.”
The son of German immigrants, Schnellenberger was born March 16, 1934, in Saint Meinrad, Indiana, moved with his family to Louisville and attended the University of Kentucky, where he was an All-American defensive end.
He began his coaching life as an assistant at Kentucky and then joined Alabama, where he recruited Joe Namath, served as offensive coordinator and helped legendary coach Bear Bryant win three national championships.
Schnellenberger joins Don Shula’s staff
He left in 1966 to become receivers coach for the Los Angeles Rams under George Allen, before Shula lured him to the Dolphins in 1970.
“He was a graduate assistant at the University of Kentucky when I was there, and I was so impressed with him I later hired him on my staff when I came to the Dolphins,” Shula said several years ago before his passing in May 2020. “He was a great addition because he brought the youthful attitude and outlook to a veteran coaching staff.
“He had been a player and always wanted to know the whys and hows of what we were doing. He had a great relationship with the players and knew how to communicate with them very well. When you add that to a solid grasp of the X’s and O’s in football, it makes for an outstanding coach, and Howard certainly fit that description.”
Schnellenberger said he takes some measure of satisfaction in his success with the Dolphins, “but it’s not personal pride. That’s a Don Shula accomplishment that we all tried to help him reach.”
He parlayed the Dolphins’ accomplishments into a head coaching job with the Baltimore Colts in 1972 but lasted just 17 games, finishing 4-10 his first season before being fired after an 0-3 start in his second.
Schnellenberger actually was fired during the third game of his second season in what he calls the most bizarre moment of his career.
After quarterback Marty Domres threw an interception, Colts owner Bob Irsay ordered Schnellenberger, in front of the team, to replace Domres with Bert Jones.
Schnellenberger said he told Irsay before the season that Domres would play the first three games and if the Colts didn’t win any of them, Jones would start the fourth. But Irsay wanted to call an audible.
After Irsay shouted his instructions to Schnellenberger, “I told him, ‘Get your fat ass upstairs and let me coach!’ He said, ‘You’re fired.’
“I said, ‘You can’t fire me. You’ve got to wait until the end of the game.’ ”
No NFL head coaching options
Schnellenberger knew immediately that “you’re never going to get another NFL head coaching job after doing something like that. I went back to the Dolphins with my tail between my legs.
“If I had ever met Bob Irsay before taking that job, I wouldn’t have taken it. But I couldn’t stand there like a freshman and let him tell me to change quarterbacks on national television.”
Schnellenberger’s career quickly rebounded, and halcyon days followed: three more seasons on Shula’s Dolphins staff, and then the glorious five-year run at UM.
After the USFL job fell through, Schnellenberger agreed to help Louisville find a head coach before the university acknowledged the best candidate for the job was under its nose.
“From the beginning, I was interested in the job,” he said. “It was like the girl down the street you really like and she kind of likes you, you flirt around the edges. They knew what I was doing and I knew what they were doing.”
After struggling in his first three seasons (8-24-1) with a largely talent-bereft program that hadn’t produced a winning season since 1978, success came suddenly, capped by an unexpected 10-1-1 season and a 34-7 dismantling of Alabama in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl.
“After those first three years at Louisville, it was the greatest time of my life,” he said. “Remember, it was my hometown. I went to Kentucky for college. I was the only guy that could have done that, and I’m not being pompous.”
Some unpleasant times
But he left because the school administration decided Louisville should give up its independent status in football and move to Conference USA.
“I knew the chance to win the national championship in that conference was impossible, so I couldn’t stay there,” he said. “When Oklahoma asked me to coach there in 1995, it would give me a chance to win a national championship.”
But his experience in Oklahoma was an unpleasant one. Hired before the season to replace ousted Gary Gibbs, he won only two of the final eight games to finish 5-5-1. He resigned shortly after his only season there.
“I knew they didn’t want me there,” he said. “When you lose to Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and [37-0] to Nebraska, it doesn’t go over well.
“I treated Oklahoma like I treated Miami and Louisville, as a program that was in need of a real overhaul and change of culture. I should have been more tuned into their tradition.”
Neither ready to retire from coaching nor eager to jump at any job, Schnellenberger then tried selling bonds. But first, he had to pass a government test.
“I hadn’t balanced a checkbook before,” he said. “I got a bond house to sponsor me to go to school and see if I could pass the damn thing. That was a scary thing for a 65-year-old guy.”
On his third try, he passed the test and sold bonds for more than a year, before then-FAU president Anthony Cantonese called in 1998 and presented Schnellenberger with a blank canvass and an enticing offer.
“He asked if I would like to create a team, and I said, ‘Damn right I would.’ It was hard because I came to FAU when I wasn’t very desirable as a coach.”
With Cantonese’s blessing, Schnellenberger decided to coach the team himself. The Owls began play in 2001, and just two years later, made it all the way to the national semifinals of the Division I-AA playoffs before losing.
More success followed when FAU transitioned into the higher-level Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). FAU went 9-3 in Schnellenberger’s fourth season, the Owls’ first in the FBS, and he led the program to bowl wins in 2007 and 2008.
Perhaps equally instrumental was his role in securing some of the $70 million in private funding needed to construct an on-campus stadium.
The 30,000-seat facility, which Schnellenberger hoped would be in place by 2003, finally opened in 2011, a moment he called highly emotional.
“It’s a beautiful landmark, just majestic,” he said. “It’s the only stadium in America with an ocean view, just 1.2 miles from the Atlantic.”
The stadium now bears his name. “The house that Howard built,” FAU president M.J. Saunders called it.
Like a proud father, Schnellenberger reaped immense pride from nurturing the FAU program through its early years, “from raising the first dollar to pay my skimpy salary to going before the Board of Regents and explaining how we could be successful building a program.
“Birth was when we played our first game and got killed by Slippery Rock in 2001. The bar mitzvah or Confirmation came when we joined the Sun Belt Conference and went to a bowl game.
“Then, we got to manhood. We created something out of nothing in such a short time and topped it off with the most wonderful stadium ever built in the middle of a 1,000-acre campus.”
Schnellenberger announced his retirement in August 2011, effective at the end of that season, which would conclude with a 1-11 record, his worst in 27 years as a head coach. After retiring, he remained affiliated with FAU as a university ambassador.
“We got the stadium right at the end of my five-year contract, and that gave me 54 years in coaching, and what a great time to step aside,” he said. “All of us know there comes a time. We wanted to make it as seamless as we could. Do it in a civil way.”
His final record as a college head coach — 158-151-3 — does not do justice to his career, or to his legacy as a builder. This was telling: His teams won all six bowl games they played in.
The death of his son
Along the way, Schnellenberger experienced personal tragedy with the 2008 death of his 52-year-old son, Stephen, who was diagnosed with a rare form of endocrine cancer as a child and underwent numerous surgeries during his lifetime.
He lived a normal childhood and became an insurance broker, but during 2003 surgery, his heart stopped and he suffered brain damage that left him in a semi-comatose state. He spent the final five years of his life under the care of his parents.
“It was a slow growing cancer, and it affected the course of his whole life,” Schnellenberger said. “He had the best life he could. He was a Superman because when he got to be 45, he was the oldest known person to have this thing.”
Stephen’s struggle “didn’t harm Beverlee and me — it made us stronger,” he said.
Schnellenberger is survived by Beverlee, his wife whom he met when he was playing for the Toronto Argonauts, and two living sons: Stuart (a tight end/center on the 1983 UM championship team) and Tim.
“He was a confident man — a man of convictions,” Highsmith said. “When he told you something, you could believe it. He didn’t promise me anything but he said, ‘If you’re good enough, you’ll play.’ ”
Said Bailey: “Howard was fair, and the thing he did as well as anyone ever in the game was take you farther than you ever believed you were capable of going as an individual and teammate and player. That carried on for the rest of your life.”
A private, family only memorial will be held.
This story was originally published March 27, 2021 9:32 AM.