Catching Up with Coach
by J.J. Hysell
Former U of L football coach Howard Schnellenberger spends his days surrounded by the luxuries of eternal summer.

He and his wife, Beverlee, reside in a beautiful townhouse in the Florida community of Ocean Ridge, situated right off legendary Highway A-1A where the view of the pristine Atlantic Coast shoreline is enchanting.

But the super sunsets and tropical temperatures are pointless; in Schnellenberger's world, it's always fall. It's always clashing helmets, scribbling chalk, goal-line stands and Saturday showdowns with throngs of fans.

It's always college football.

That's one reason why the 66-year-old gridiron guru was recently chosen to build an entire football program from scratch at Florida Atlantic University, a commuter school of about 23,000 students based in Boca Raton.

In a state where college football is nearly religion, Florida Atlantic, established in 1979, has been without its own "church." That will change in September 2001, when the school is slated to send a brand-new Division I-AA team onto the field at Pro Player Stadium, the home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins, to compete in its first-ever football game.

Schnellenberger has played an integral role with NFL Super Bowl championship and playoff teams and has carried home several major college bowl trophies, but this project could turn out to be his most rewarding yet.

"This is the most important job I've ever had," Schnellenberger says.

"Starting at zero and getting to 100 or some number is a lot different than when you start at 50 and get to the same number. This is going to affect the lives of thousands of players over the next 100 years. It will affect the lives of every student that comes through these doors, along with the alumni and the fans.

"The quality of life for students, families and staff will improve with football. For that reason, this is the most important thing I've tried to accomplish."

Since he began his coaching career, first as an assistant at the University of Kentucky and then under Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama, Schnellenberger has built a reputation as "the man with the toolbox"-a sort of human prescription for ailing football programs.

But the challenge he faces now is very different from that which he conquered at Miami, where the Hurri-canes had seen six different coaches in 10 years and suffered eight losing seasons before his arrival in 1979.

Schnellenberger promised a national championship to the downtrodden program and its fans-and he delivered four years later in 1983.

The task at hand also varies greatly from that which he achieved at U of L, where he propelled what once was a shadow of a competitive football squad into a national contender. The sole operator of U of L football's most illustrious thrill ride, Schnellenberger took the Cardinals to places they had only dreamed, including a win over Alabama in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl that stands as the program's most momentous victory.

In every town to which he leads his curing caravan, he leaves a lasting impression. To this day, the mere mention of his name beckons U of L fans to whip out an imaginary pipe and bellow a few familiar verses in Schnellenberger's trademark gruff, steel-toned voice.

At FAU, there are no former coaches, no long-standing records, no rites of tradition. There is only an idea, a dream, which Schnellenberger must work to make a reality.

"At Miami and Louisville, it was fixing programs that were broken," he says. "These were programs that had been in existence a long time, with an infrastructure in place. It amounted to the recruiting of coaches, staff and players toward building a national championship program.

"Here at Florida Atlantic, there has been no team, no infrastructure. If we do anything, we have to raise money for it. We have to create positions for staff and personnel, then go about the task of finding the best people we can.

"In recruiting high school players, we had to go out and establish an awareness of Florida Atlantic so we could attract players from our area."

The sell wasn't so hard considering Schnellenberger's status in the Sunshine State; he has spent a combined 17 years recruiting in Florida and is considered one of the most talented coaching geniuses the state has ever seen.

"In the state of Florida, he's revered," says former U of L player Craig Swabek '89B, who served as an assistant coach to Schnellenberger and is now a color analyst for WDRB-TV in Louisville. "When we were there recruiting, we'd walk into a restaurant and all the people would come up and talk to him.

"He has big-time star power there. It doesn't surprise me they picked him."

Swabek, a Cardinal from 1986­89, said he learned a great deal about Schnellenberger's approach to the game after both playing for him and working with him.

"There was a method to the madness," Swabek says. "Once I started coaching with him, I could see he had a formula he believes in and he stuck to it. It's old school: Work hard, train hard, play hard. His philosophy never changes. It was black and white‹here's how we do it, period."

Since he embarked on the project 27 months ago, Schnellenberger says he has raised $11.5 million towards the $13 million goal.

"I've never been a fund raiser before," he says. "The first thing we had to do was raise money." He has also brought the first recruiting class in FAU history together‹24 "top of the line" athletes.

"They could have gone to school outside the state of Florida, to any Division I school, but elected to stay at home and play in front of their mothers, fathers and friends," he says.

He envisions the day when an up-and-coming Florida Atlantic squad will roll into places like Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and Ohio Stadium and be consistently feared like a mighty perennial power.

"By 2004, we plan to move into Division I-A. By 2007, we plan to be able to play Louisville, UK and Ohio State and have a legitimate chance to win," the coach says.

When Schnellenberger came to Louisville in 1985, talk centered around the possibility of his becoming the first coach to collect two NCAA national titles at two different schools. Somewhere down the line, it could still happen.

But that's one thing the coach will leave up to someone else.

"We'll put that in God's hands," he says.

J.J. Hysell is a Louisville-based sports correspondent and sports editor of the Cardinal student newspaper.