Moments before stepping onto the field bearing his name for pregame ceremonies, Howard Schnellenberger proclaimed bigger and better things were in store for the Boca Raton Bowl.
“This is larger than life,” Schnellenberger said as he kicked back in a leather chair steps from his field. “This is much grander than I thought it would be in the first year. Obviously, this stadium, this program and this town are exceptional. We’ve put our best foot forward, and we’re three years ahead of where we should be.’’
The first installment of this made-for-TV bowl game — it’s owned and operated by ESPN — pitted the champions of two mid-major conferences in Marshall (Conference USA) and Northern Illinois (MAC) in a stadium Schnellenberger fought to have built on the FAU campus.
The FAU Stadium, which opened in 2011, has Schnellenberger’s touch all over it.
“Football in Paradise” was his selling card when he started the FAU football program from scratch in 2000 with the Owls finally hitting the field in 2001.
The 30,000-seat stadium — which was declared sold out Tuesday although it might have only been 50 percent filled — has neon palm trees on the south end zone scoreboard and a view of the Atlantic Ocean from the press box.
A statue of Schnellenberger greets visitors at the main gate. His bronze likeness is, of course, surrounded by palm trees.
“A bowl game was always part of the plan,” said Schnellenberger, who stepped down as FAU’s coach following the Owls’ first season in the new digs. “And how could you not be excited for the matchup? This wasn’t the luck of the draw, it was the magnetism of this community and stadium in a sub-tropical climate 1.2 miles from the beach with an ocean view. This reminds me of the Orange Bowl games back in the ’50s and ’60s when it was a community event. That’s the beauty of this. They have brought the fathers of our community together to make this great.”
If anyone can rally a community around an event, it’s Schnellenberger.
The stadium he built stays busy throughout the year, not only hosting FAU football games but All-Star games and other events such as soccer and lacrosse.
Building the stadium in Boca Raton wasn’t his first foray into the construction business.
While coach at Miami in the early 1980s, Schnellenberger pushed for the school to build a stadium closer to campus — something that never happened. The Hurricanes eventually left the Orange Bowl and now play in north Miami-Dade County at Sun Life Stadium.
“Now they’re driving 60 miles to get to the Dolphins stadium,” Schnellenberger said.
And it was Schnellenberger’s work at Louisville (he was head coach there from 1985-94) that helped get his hometown Cardinals their own stadium.
The growth of the Louisville program — and expansion of Papa John’s Stadium — helped get the Cardinals into the ACC.
“It’s the same thing I’ve said here at FAU, ‘I told you so,’” Schnellenberger said. “If you build a stadium, things start to happen.”
▪ With three catches in the first quarter, Miami Central’s Tommy Shuler set the Marshall record for career receptions with 307. Shuler passed Josh Davis (2001-04).