Football at Florida Atlantic University was a newly hatched and likely crazy notion back in 1998 when Howard Schnellenberger got an idea to grow interest in his nonexistent team.
“I had to have some type of poster to put up around campus,” he recalled Monday in that resonant baritone rumble of his. “It turned out to be a harbinger.”
The poster was entitled “FAU: Football In Paradise.” It showed four young boys photographed sitting on the sideline at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, looking up at the sky as if daydreaming their futures. Up in the clouds, under a rainbow, a receiver drawn in an FAU Owls uniform was about to catch a perfect pass ahead of a cornerback who happened to be wearing orange and green.
“And it looked like that defender had a ‘U’ on his helmet but you couldn’t quite tell because of the clouds,” Schnellenberger said, eyes shining, trademark mustache lifting slightly at the corners.
See, the old coach’s dream for FAU was that the program would have symbolically arrived when it finally saw Miami on its schedule. That was the carrot.
Now, 15 years after the chase began, that harbinger — Schnellenberger’s vision and hope — finally comes true this Friday night at Dolphins stadium.
The Miami Hurricanes play Florida Atlantic for the first time ever to open this college season, and anybody who knows either program might as well call this what it is: Howard Schnellenberger Week in South Florida. Because it was this man who was “really starting both programs at the end of the day,” as UM coach Al Golden put it Monday.
Schnellenberger did that figuratively for the Canes, as the iconic symbol of UM’s 1983 national championship, the first one, the one that started it all.
He did that literally for FAU, as the man who founded the program from scratch and left it two years ago with a little gem of a new on-campus stadium as his legacy.
“This was the day I dreamed of,” he said. “Miami vs. FAU.”
Schnellenberger kids about being “in my declining years” at 79. But it is no joke how right it feels that this occasion happened with the coach still around to enjoy it.
This will be the first of three meetings over four years, hopefully with many more to come.
Who will the patriarch be rooting for Friday night? The answer may surprise you. That he isn’t feigning neutrality may also surprise you.
“My heart is at FAU,” he said. Then, that sly smile again: “Of course it is. It’d be ridiculous me pulling for those powerful, five-time national-champion bullies playing lil’ old guys who are still wet behind the ears!”
Schnellenberger also is being pragmatic, since FAU has paid him to be an “ambassador at large” spearheading fundraising efforts ever since he retired from coaching after 11 years at the Boca Raton university following the 2011 season.
Make no mistake, though. His five years at UM (1979-83) own a piece of his heart, too. That’ll hit home as the 30th anniversary of that ’83 championship team is marked at halftime of Friday’s game, after a private reunion on campus Thursday night.
Schnellenberger will be an honorary captain of both teams at the pregame coin flip. UM invited him to be its honorary captain: “I said only if I could serve in that position on the other side, too.”
He plans to spend the first half watching from the UM side of the stadium and the second half on the north side among Owls fans.
I asked if he thinks Friday night will be emotional for him.
That can be a complicated question for some people. Howard, from the foghorn voice to the bear’s build, conveys a gruff persona. He is of a different generation. He learned under cold-eyed, taciturn giants such as Bear Bryant and Don Shula. He is a man’s man of the John Wayne type.
“I get emotional as hell inside but I don’t show anything to anybody,” he said. “Because that’s what a head coach does.”
I asked if he ever cries during a movie.
“Yeah I don’t do that,” he said. “To a leader of men, emotion has to be used, distributed wisely. It’s like a poker face. You’ve got to control your emotions.”
This has been a big (and dare say emotional?) couple of weeks for Schnellenberger.
Last Tuesday he was with the 1972 Perfect Season Dolphins on their White House visit, as that team’s former offensive coordinator under Shula.
“That was like the pony on Christmas that you didn’t expect,” he said of the honor 41 years after the fact. “The whole thing was edifying.”
(Howard says things like that. Like harbinger, and edifying. Sometimes you wonder at what point the college professor took a wrong turn and wound up in the athletic department. It is no wonder he is a popular hire for speaking engagements, including one to the FBI Academy just last month in Orlando. Something about Howard is grandiose.)
Schnellenberger volunteers he wasn’t a Barack Obama voter but adds, “I went because I was invited by the commander in chief, and it was a great privilege to answer his welcome. You absorb the greatness of the event.”
Yet that ’72 Dolphins visit would not be as special to Schnellenberger as this UM-FAU week is. That wasn’t his team. These are.
“You feel different when you become the supreme commander,” he said. “When you’re second in command, it’s his ballgame. You take great joy in it, but that was Shula’s team. That was my training ground for things to come.”
So it was those things to come that Schnellenberger mentions when you ask what he is proudest of in a coaching career that spanned 53 seasons. He mentions three stops bookended by UM and FAU.
“From a success standpoint, the thing down in Miami has to ring as the crowning project,” he said. “But from a human standpoint it was going back to my hometown of Louisville and bringing that program to the point we did [from 1985-94].
“That was twice as hard as Miami, because at Miami we just had to get that program out of a recession. Then it was something different entirely with FAU, to create something out of nothing. Up here [in Boca], we had to go through foreplay, inception, birth, baptism, confirmation, Bat Mitzvah, childhood — everything.”
Schnellenberger reflects upon two career mistakes he made, “two terrible decisions,” he said Monday.
The first was leaving UM after the ’83 season to take over a Miami-based USFL team that never happened. Had he not, who’s to say Schnellenberger would not have been the Canes coach for all five of their national titles or more?
“If he stayed, what’s he going to win here, seven, 10 national titles?” Canes offensive line coach Art Kehoe wondered Monday. Kehoe played and got his coaching start under Schnellenberger.
“My junior we were going to drop football and he goes from that to a national championship,” Kehoe said. “He’s the main fabric of everything here.”
Schnellenberger said his second mistake was leaving Louisville after the ’94 season for one ill-fated, miserable year at Oklahoma after which he resigned under pressure.
Lifting himself up a few years later to shepherd the birth of FAU football was “an antidote to what happened to me out at Oklahoma,” he said. “It cured me.”
Now Schnellenberger’s epic, ebbing career comes full circle with UM vs. FAU. He and wife Beverlee had three children, losing one to complications of cancer in 2008. They have three grandchildren, but two other of his cherished offspring will be playing on Friday night.
I asked if the decades since that ’83 championship have seemed to fly by. “No, it seems like 30 years,” he said. “We’ve had a full life.”
That life’s full impact on football in South Florida has been not less than profound, when you consider a time line and imprint stretching from the Dolphins Perfect Season to the maiden UM championship to that very first FAU football poster touting a team then alive only in one man’s imagination.
Remember the rainbow on top of that original poster?
This week, Howard Schnellenberger finds the end of it, at last.