Next stop: The Metrodome

by David McCoy

A quick glance at Florida Atlantic football coach Howard Schnellenberger’s coaching credentials begs a single, simple question.

How does a guy who has won a national championship, been an NFL head coach and even won a Super Bowl as an assistant end up at a school like Florida Atlantic?

It might seem like Schnellenberger was once at the top of the football ladder and has fallen to the bottom rung, now that he’s coach of a no-name school in only its fifth year of existence and first in Division I-A.

But that first glance might be quite deceiving.

“It must be hard to understand the thrill of a coach, how he can find happiness in starting a program from before it’s even conceived,” Schnellenberger said. “It gives you 10 times the satisfaction that you get when you go in and it’s established and running good.”

Schnellenberger’s Owls play Minnesota’s football team at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome.

Schnellenberger and Minnesota’s Glen Mason are two of only four active coaches to have two bowl victories at two different schools.

Put aside Florida Atlantic, and Schnellenberger has one of the most impressive résumés in NCAA football.

He was an assistant coach for Kentucky, Alabama, the Los Angeles Raiders and the Miami Dolphins, including the 1972 Dolphins team that didn’t lose a game.

The year after, Schnellenberger moved on to the Baltimore Colts as head coach, but lasted only 17 games before getting fired and returning to the Dolphins as an assistant until 1979.

Schnellenberger then went to the University of Miami to rebuild a program on the verge of getting dropped.

In 1983, the Hurricanes went 11-1 and won their first national title.

“Us in college football have been around for a while know and really respect the job that he’s done,” Mason said. “In the modern era now, you tell a kid getting recruited that, and they say, ‘Come on coach, they were going to drop football?’ They thought they had no chance of winning, making money, being able to field a team, and Howard went in there and took the job and turned them into a national champion.”

Again, Schnellenberger reached higher. After his national title season with the Hurricanes, he decided to put his hand in an effort to bring the USFL’s Washington Generals to Miami, with himself as part owner, general manager and coach.

The effort was a failure. So in 1985, Schnellenberger moved on to a Louisville program that he said at that point was further from success than his Owls were before they played a game. The Cardinals peaked at 10-1 in 1990.

“Louisville was destitute when it comes to players,” Schnellenberger said. “They only had four players on the team that could play at the Division I level. So we had to recruit a lot of players and we came back to Florida to get most of them – about 15 that first year and a like number for the next number of years.”

Schnellenberger reached again in 1995 by taking the head job at Oklahoma. But the team went 5-5-1 and he was summarily fired, just as he had been back in Baltimore.

“That was a mistake on my part by not doing my due diligence in learning about the main man at each of the institutions,” Schnellenberger said. “I’m thankful that I got out as soon as I did so I could start on something new and different.”

He retired to South Florida to be with his children and grandchildren and got his Series Seven license to sell stocks and bonds. He said he would have kept doing so if Florida Atlantic had not asked him to “be the point man” in the school’s effort to start the football program.

Schnellenberger said one of the biggest reasons why the low-profile position was attractive enough to lure him out of retirement was the freedom to do things his own way – “as gospel,” he said.

No doubt Schnellenberger could be coaching at a more prestigious school at this moment, but he said he wouldn’t even consider it.

“I wouldn’t have taken a team that’s already under way,” he said. “The only reason I got back into football was that I thought I could be the right person for this job at Florida Atlantic and that I had the best chance to make it successful. If I had a chance to go back to Miami or to Florida or Florida State to be a caretaker of those programs, that wouldn’t be very interesting.”

Even though his career has taken a turn few have traveled, coaching is still his calling.

“Coaching is almost like being a priest,” Schnellenberger said. “It’s a vocation. And once you’re a coach, you’re a coach for life.”