Howard Schnellenberger, even without the pipe, seems like someone you can trust. Maybe it’s because he resembles Captain Kangaroo, or the fact that his gruff exterior and voice remind you of an uncle in Nebraska.
This man is for real, you think.
So, when Schnellenberger lifts the left side of his bushy mustache to insert his pipe and says he absolutely, positively plans to remain as the University of Louisville’s football coach for at least the length of his five-year contract, you believe him.
“I keep hearing about this,” Schnellenberger said, exhaling a trail of aromatic smoke into the ozone layer above his desk. “But it doesn’t seem logical that a coach of a national championship team (Miami, 1983) who was named coach of the year would use Louisville as a stepping stone to another job.”
Even after the smoke dissipated, you are left wondering how Schnellenberger wound up here in the first place, and whether he’ll again find success and happiness after tossing both aside at Miami.
The unusual circumstances under which Schnellenberger left Miami not long after upsetting Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the national championship have been well documented. But that doesn’t make it any less bizarre.
Publicly wooed by several professional teams and privately lured by a few major colleges after that championship season, Schnellenberger finally ended all the speculation by resigning as the Hurricanes’ coach. But he didn’t even have to pound the For Sale sign into his front yard since he was going to be president, general manager and coach of a United States Football League team a Miami businessman intended to buy and move to the city.
As Schnellenberger so soothingly put it at the time, he wasn’t leaving Miami; just changing teams.
Alas, the deal fell through when the USFL voted to switch to a fall schedule in 1986, meaning Howard’s Miami franchise would be competing against both the Dolphins and Hurricanes. The prospective owner, hotel magnate Sherwood Weiser, backed out, and Schnellenberger, 51, was a football coach without a team and no doubt thinking about how everything that had been so good turned so bad so fast.
But Schnellenberger’s reputation as a builder of downtrodden football programs, proven by his astoundingly quick reversal of Miami’s team, apparently won out over his new reputation for abandonment. College and pro teams were lining up to offer him jobs.
Tampa Bay? Buffalo? Florida? Missouri? They all were interested, and Schnellenberger’s name was mentioned even at colleges that already had coaches.
So, here is Schnellenberger, back to coaching at . . . Louisville , where the football program that has produced a winning team in only two of the last 12 years and finished a dismal 2-9 least season. A program that has been almost entirely eclipsed by the school’s highly successful basketball team. A program that used to promote the pregame tail-gate parties more than the game itself.
Again, you wonder if Schnellenberger has been smoking something funny in that pipe.
“About 80% of (people) think I lost my mind taking this job, and the other 20% aren’t sure,” Schnellenberger said. “But they’re not betting against us.”
Indeed, many are hesitant to bet against Schnellenberger because they remember that in 1979, he took over Miami’s program when it was in worse shape than Louisville’s and in five years produced a national champion.
Before Schnellenberger took the Miami job after seven years as an assistant with the Dolphins, the school was thinking about dropping football. But through a calculated game plan, which included intense recruiting, marketing and promotion as well as coaching ability, Schnellenberger revived the team and also helped improve the city’s image.
Because he thoroughly enjoys such challenges, Schnellenberger sought a situation that was similar to Miami’s in the late ‘70s. He’s found it in Louisville, his hometown.
“Why Louisville?” Schnellenberger asked, anticipating the question. “Probably because I’m interested in seeing whether I’m able to build a successful program within the rules of the NCAA. If we do, then it’ll be the greatest football story ever written, and it will make a dramatic difference in the University of Louisville, the city, and intercollegiate athletics in general.”
Schnellenberger caught himself. He had unintentionally slipped into the speech he has been making to groups and organizations at least once a day since his arrival last December. It sounds blatantly hyperbolic, but the speaker said he sincerely believes a winning Cardinal football team will change life, as they know it, in Louisville.
Roy Hamlin, Louisville’s director of television and radio development and the main marketing man, also had that role with Schnellenberger in Miami. He said that he accidentally found a speech Schnellenberger had used his first season in Miami and found that it was strikingly familiar to the one Schnellenberger uses now.
“It is the same in a lot of ways,” said Ron Steiner, Schnellenberger’s publicity man and another refugee from Miami. “The city wants to be considered big-time, more cosmopolitan, and a successful college football team can make that possible.”
Even though Schnellenberger was a wide receiver at Louisville’s Flaget High School, he didn’t jump at the opportunity to return home. Burned once by his hasty, ill-fated move to the USFL, Schnellenberger wanted to be sure he was making the right decision.
Right from the start, though, Louisville was convinced it wanted Schnellenberger. When the courtship really heated up, school president Donald Swain and athletic director William Olsen brought in former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown and noted heart surgeon William DeVries to sell Louisville to Schnellenberger.
In early December, Schnellenberger agreed to a five-year contract worth $190,000 a year, which is $20,000 less than basketball Coach Denny Crum makes. As an incentive for Schnellenberger to make a long-term commitment, he will be paid a bonus if he stays at Louisville for 10 years.
Money and coming home, Schnellenberger said, were not the major reasons he accepted the Louisville job. Schnellenberger said three other considerations made it enticing: (1) the school had decided to make a commitment to building a “big-time” football program; (2) he would be given the power and freedom to run things his way; and, of course (3) the opportunity to match his rebuilding job in Miami, and perhaps prove it was no fluke.
“I could have gone to places where the program was established and where I would just be another coach coming in and taking up where someone else left off,” Schnellenberger said. “But the reasons why we decided to come here is that the university has demonstrated it wants to put a first-class team on the field. Louisville has never aspired to greatness in football. The university has never wanted it to be.
“I don’t think you’ll find another situation like this in the country, where a team that has never been good wants to become nationally recognized and is willing to do what it takes to put it together.”
As Louisville officials have discovered, it takes a lot of money. So far, though, they have given Schnellenberger everything he has deemed necessary.
The football budget was increased 20%. The weight room, formerly known as “The Dungeon” because it was so dark and cramped that no one went there, has doubled in size and equipment. Schnellenberger also has received a 10-acre practice facility, which is almost completed, and a special dormitory to house the football team.
Schnellenberger has kept up his end by whipping public interest into a frenzy usually reserved for the basketball team, which has been in the NCAA’s Final Four five times in the last 13 years. Largely because of Schnellenberger’s high profile and the promise of better times, Louisville has sold more than 17,000 season tickets, an increase of 4,000 over last season.
When junior linebacker Mike Battaglia showed up last month for the annual kickoff luncheon, he expected the usual 300 alumni and friends to show up. He said he was shocked to see 1,700 in attendance and to see that Schnellenberger had brought in New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner as a guest speaker.
“It’s like, now we know what the big-time is,” Battaglia said. “We thought we were big-time before, but we weren’t. We thought it was that quiet at all schools. But now we get all this media here and people in the city are talking about football and Coach Schnellenberger.”
Already, Schnellenberger and the pipe have appeared on the cover of two local magazines, and he can be seen hawking Cadillacs on late-night television. Every morning when his clock radio wakes him, the first voice Schnellenberger hears is his own, encouraging listeners to purchase season tickets.
Schnellenberger’s innumerable speaking engagements at local companies and clubs--he’s spanned the animal kingdom of Lions, Elks and Moose--has surprised Olsen.
“What sets him apart from other great football coaches is he has the ability to market what he’s doing and he gets involved with so many things in the community, not just taking from it, and that’s going to increase his visibility.”
Schnellenberger simply calls it part of the job.
“A head football coach of any school, by his position, has the ability to have a major impact,” he said. “It’s a person’s responsibility to use that position to make positive steps. Fortunately or unfortunately, college football coaches are a status symbol in a city unlike anything else. You’re nonpolitical and you’re looked up to by alumni and people who never went to college.
“If I ask the community to support our team, I have to support the community. A successful program goes a long way to establishing a city. I don’t think anything that happened in Miami during my years there had the dramatic positive effect that winning the national championship did. And, remember, I was an assistant with the Dolphins when they went undefeated and won the Super Bowl.”
Schnellenberger, once described by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser as having a self-confidence level higher than the Aswan Dam, is not at all hesitant to talk about his five years with the Hurricanes. He is understandably proud of what he accomplished there and has only a little remorse about the manner in which he left.
The first thing Schnellenberger wants you to know about his departure from Miami is that it wasn’t a move born of greed. Sure, Schnellenberger signed a $1 million personal services contract with Weiser and liked the idea of having three titles, but he insists he made the move for the welfare of the city.
“There were people who thought I was disloyal,” Schnellenberger said. “We had an opportunity to go to a lot of places after the championship, but we had a strong feeling toward the Miami community. We thought bringing pro football there in the spring would fill a void. It would be a great opportunity for the community to have pro sports in the spring and for me to spend my declining years in Miami.”
Schnellenberger truly loves Miami. Hamlin recalls that Schnellenberger never turned down a speaking engagement, one time talking to a group of only six people. “That night,” Hamlin recalls, “he gave one of his best speeches.”
“Howard wasn’t embarrassed when the USFL thing fell apart,” said Christ Vagotis, Louisville offensive line coach, who coached under Schnellenberger at Miami. “But he felt bad for the city. He really did.”
During his coaching exile, Schnellenberger didn’t know what to do with himself. He sat in his smartly furnished office, shuffled papers and felt miserable.
“I was a shepard without a flock,” Schnellenberger said. “It was a tough time in my life, one I hope I won’t have to re-enact. While we were still the ‘Miami Whatevers,’ I was busy hiring coaches and signing players. But after that ended, we had no team and nothing to do.”
Hamlin remembers walking into Schnellenberger’s office one day and noticing how out of place he was.
“Here is Howard, sitting behind his desk in a coat and tie, with a view of Coconut Grove in the background,” Hamlin said. “Howard has his glasses down on the end of his nose and there’s a neat stack of papers, and Howard’s papers are never neat. He loves country music, like Willie Nelson, but there was that Mantovani elevator music playing. So, I say to Howard, ‘How’s it going?’ He looks up and me and them mumbles, ‘Hear that music?’
“I bet Howard’s body was in shock when Sept. 7 came, and he wasn’t on the sidelines in a three-piece suit and a rolled up program. He is trained to be there every September.”
There were certain aspects of Schnellenberger’s absence from coaching that he enjoyed. He spent more time with his wife, Beverlee, and four children, and he had time to think about what type of coaching job he wanted.
To the surprise of many, Louisville was the answer.
“Everybody told him, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Vagotis said. “They told him about the basketball thing, that football is swallowed up by basketball. They told him about how bad the team was. But he wanted to change all that.”
So believable was Schnellenberger that 15 Miami people--6 assistant coaches, 2 publicity men, 2 trainers and 5 office workers--came with him to Louisville.
“And he didn’t solicit any of us,” Vagotis said. “We asked him if we could join him.
“Why? Because we know he’s going to win, and you want to be around a winner. And he’s a great guy to work for. He gives assistant coaches responsibility, but he wants to know about every aspect of the program. Not just on-the-field stuff, either.”
When Hamlin first pitched the idea of a TV coach’s show to be transmitted via cable to markets as far away as Alaska, Schnellenberger wanted to know even the most minute details about the operation. Schnellenberger has even been known to ask the groundskeeper about the theories of irrigating the practice field.
Once at Miami, Schnellenberger ordered the assistant sports information director to ‘measure the sun’ at Florida State’s field every hour on the hour to give Miami an advantage in an upcoming game. Before that assignment could be carried out, Schnellenberger started laughing into the telephone receiver. It was something that George Allen actually made Schnellenberger do once when Schnellenberger was an assistant coach with the Rams.
Schnellenberger said he has picked up a lot of his habits from the coaches he played and coached under. It is quite a list. Howard played for Paul (Bear) Bryant at Kentucky and later coached with him at Alabama, served as the Rams’ offensive coordinator for four years under Allen and then spent eight years as Don Shula’s offensive coordinator with the Dolphins.
“Just by osmosis, you pick up things from being around those coaches,” Schnellenberger said. “Each (coach) did it differently, but the things they had in common is that they were all hard workers, paid attention to detail and were ahead of their time.”
What Schnellenberger learned most from Bryant was basic: That you adapt your offense to the personnel, not vice versa. So, when Schnellenberger had passers Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar at Miami, he naturally spread out the offense and threw often. But because Louisville quarterback Ed Rubbert threw 28 interceptions last year, look for the Cardinals to run a lot more this season.
From Shula, Schnellenberger said he learned always to be straight with players and become involved with every aspect of the game while still giving assistant coaches responsibility.
“If a head coach is only concerned with how a lineman blocks and how a quarterback calls an audible, he’s nothing more than a glorified assistant coach,” Schnellenberger said.
The mark Allen left on Schnellenberger is somewhat less tangible. Schnellenberger is just as superstitious as Allen was. Schnellenberger has bagels for breakfast every Friday morning, but just on Fridays. And he always wears a suit and tie on the field instead of the polyester pants and cotton shirt with the school logo on the front often sported by other coaches.
Another thing Allen taught Schnellenberger was how to be meticulous in game preparation. While with the Rams, Schnellenberger used to break down film, frame by frame, to determine how many seconds it took from the time the quarterback took the snap to the instant he released the ball. Other coaches simply timed it with a stop watch; Allen suggested he be more scientifically precise.
Every team for which Schnellenberger has coached has been successful, except for his only NFL head coaching job at Baltimore. Schnellenberger lasted less than two seasons, going 4-10 in 1973 and then being fired three games into the next season.
Even in failure, Schnellenberger kept his dignity. In what turned out to be his last game as coach, he told reserve quarterback Bert Jones to warm up so he could replace starter Marty Domres. Owner Bob Irsay then approached Schnellenberger on the sidelines and, in front of the players, ordered Jones into the game.
Schnellenberger told Irsay he had planned to make the move but couldn’t do it now because he would lose the respect of his players. Irsay fired him the next morning.
Schnellenberger laughs about it now. In fact, he says his decision to accept the Colts’ head coaching job was “the only move I ever made in which people applauded, and it turned out to be a disaster.”
Indeed, people expect Schnellenberger to accept the difficult challenges. And he certainly has one ahead of him at Louisville. Fifteen Cardinal players have quit the team since spring practice. Schnellenberger and his staff calls it a weeding out process. Those who have stayed, including 19 freshman recruits Schnellenberger landed from his old stomping grounds in Florida, are looking forward to at least being in condition and prepared to play for a change.
“A lot of guys didn’t want to put in the commitment,” said Ernest Givens, a starting wide receiver. “Coach is tough. The players like him as a coach, but I’m not so sure they like him as an individual yet. He’s the type of person that, no matter what you’ve done, he’s never satisfied. He’ll moan and mumble and stomp around. You never knows if he smiles or is pleased because his mustache covers his lip.”
Occasionally, Schnellenberger actually shows his teeth when smiling. Don’t blink or you might miss it. He flashed a quick grin when word was relayed to him that not all his Louisville players are endeared with him yet.
“It’s a matter of commitment,” he said. “You’ve heard the story of the chicken and the pig. When you sit down for a ham and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved , but the pig is committed .”