Greg Cote

End the illogical shame and get Schnellenberger into College Football Hall of Fame

Former Miami Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger, celebrating the team’s 1983 national championship in one of the most iconic photographs in South Florida sports history.
Former Miami Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger, celebrating the team’s 1983 national championship in one of the most iconic photographs in South Florida sports history. Miami Herald file photo

There are big, important causes that are loud and should be. What Colin Kaepernick started. What students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High are doing. The #MeToo movement. The fight to find a cure for ALS. So many.

There are smaller, more quiet causes that might pale by comparison, yet still are wrongs in need of remedy, wrongs worth noticing, wrongs worth somebody caring about.

I have been on this soapbox with a bulhorn before, in a column in 2015. All that has changed since is that Howard Schnellenberger is three years closer to leaving us without ever knowing he got what he was due. There is little sadder than the posthumous honor that needn't have been. Gratitude should never wait for the eulogy.

Schnellenberger, the retired football coach, thankfully is alive and well, but 84 is an age when one takes nothing for granted. Not the promise of next year. And surely not the College Football Hall of Fame finally bending on the one pointlessly intractable rule that is keeping this man off the ballot.

So the 2019 nominees for induction are out, and there are 176 players and 38 coaches on the ballot, including three former Hurricanes in linebacker Ray Lewis (1994-95), linebacker Dan Morgan (1998-00) and coach Dennis Erickson (1989-94). That's 214 names, but no room for Schnellenberger. There are 1,214 persons in the Atlanta-based college Hall including 217 coaches, but one name continues to be missing.

"I'm disappointed. It would be very meaningful for me," Schnellenberger said Monday, that distinct low gravel of a voice rumbling from his home in Boca Raton. "But I'm sorry to say I think it may be a dead horse."

Dead, yes, unless the National Football Foundation that oversees the Hall of Fame agrees to consider an exception to its rule requiring coaches to have a minimum .600-plus career winning percentage to be considered.

"I wouldn't say never," NFF president and CEO Steve Hatchell said Monday of that possibility, speaking from his office in Irving, Texas. "But I haven't found any heartbeat for that change."

Schnellenberger's career college record of 158-151-3 is well shy of .600, because he took on challenges, not easy situations.

At Miami he took over a struggling program and made the Hurricanes 1983 national champions, grand-marshaling what would become a national dynasty.

Hatchell, who was executive director of the Orange Bowl Committee in 1987-93, needs no lesson on what Schnellenberger meant to UM and South Florida.

"Howard clearly put Miami on the map without a doubt," Hatchell admitted.

At Louisville the coach took over a perpetually losing program, won the first two bowl games in the program's history and left the school with a new campus stadium born of the excitement he created.

At FAU he built football from the ground up, fathering the program, and enduring the growing pains not always conducive to ease or winning. Yet he won two bowls in the school's first eight years before retiring after the 2011 season. The Owls had not won a bowl game since until new coach Lane Kiffin did it last year.

There was a lone misstep on the timeline, a failed one-season blip with Oklahoma in 1995. Still, Schnellenberger merits the coaching Mount Rushmore of three different college football programs in a profession where most men would kill to be of that stature at even one school.

Weigh Oklahoma, but count it as 4 percent of a 24-year college head-coaching career — it was the other 96 percent spent turning Miami into champions and a national brand, saving the sport at Louisville, and creating it from nothing at FAU.

Did I mention Schnellenberger was 6-0 all time in bowl games? Nobody else has that many postseason wins without a loss.

To its credit UM consistently nominates its former coach for the Hall ballot every year ("Miami always does," said Hatchell), while FAU and Louisville also have written supportive letters. But the current .600 eligibility rule, adopted in 1990, make the support moot.

There are 32 pre-'90 Hall inductees below the .600 career mark, they won't bend again for Schnellenberger.

Coaches on the 2019 ballot include five guys who never won a championship, one of whom barely made the minimum (at .604) and three of whom were a combined 4-10 in bowl games. But there's no room for Schnellenberger.

I would emphasize the coach is not bitter, does not campaign for himself and refuses to let the Hall snub define him.

"I get all the glory and praise I need from all the people like you, and my players and the Bobby Bowdens," he said. "All of them have made their feelings known."

All that is missing is for the National Football Foundation to think outside its intractable .600 rule, consider all that this man meant to three different programs, and add the one overarching, legacy-shaping honor that becomes one's introduction for eternity: "Hall of Famer."

Make it happen.