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It’s Fiesta Time for Schnellenberger : Louisville: Controversial bowl situation puts his rebuilt program in the spotlight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Trout is in the tomato business now. After all, there’s only so much a man can take and Trout took and saw it all as an assistant coach with Howard Schnellenberger’s first University of Louisville football team, a Tinkertoy program if there ever was one, in 1985.

One day, while awaiting the arrival of some prospective recruits, Trout glanced out his office window in time to see a herd of prize cattle amble past the Cardinal football building. The building is located about a mile off campus at the state fairgrounds, home of the annual North American Livestock Show.

Fearing the worst, Trout dashed to the front entrance, only to find that the cattle had left some, uh, pungent mementos on and around the doorstep. Completing the nightmare, Trout’s recruits arrived shortly thereafter, which would have been great had they been 4-H Club members or aspiring ag majors. They weren’t.

Expecting the red-carpet treatment, the recruits got a cow-chip obstacle course, instead. Imagine their surprise. Imagine how fast they turned Louisville down.

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“I really wonder if that happens at, like, Auburn or Alabama?” Trout said. “It got so bad, we couldn’t get kids from the city to visit us, never mind about the state or anywhere else. We couldn’t give tickets away. I don’t think we could have cheated to get anybody. If we would have cheated, they would have turned us down.”

So Trout, who still wears the national championship ring he earned as a member of Schnellenberger’s 1983 Miami Hurricane staff, got into veggies. It was a career move born of necessity. Louisville was going nowhere, Trout was going nuts.

“Tomatoes don’t have to pass the SAT,” Trout said. “Then again, you don’t have 70,000 people come see you growing them.”

Of course, Trout didn’t know that the impossible would happen twice, that Schnellenberger, a native of this town, would work his curious magic on a program whose previous highlights could be counted on a shrimp fork: 1951--quarterback John Unitas plays his first game for Louisville . . . 1955--Johnny Unitas plays his last game for Louisville.

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Since then, it’s been slim pickings. A showing in the 1972 Associated Press poll. A minor bowl appearance in 1977. A regional telecast in 1983. Otherwise, nothing.

Actually, it wasn’t until six seasons ago, when the celebrated Schnellenberger was hired, that anyone outside the city limits even remembered that Louisville had a football team. And it wasn’t until this year that anybody cared.

Now look at the Cardinals. They’re 9-1-1, which is only the third time since 1912 that a Louisville team has won as many games. Also, an invitation to the troubled Fiesta Bowl has been accepted, which means New Year’s Day television exposure, a $2.5-million payday and, for the first time since Schnellenberger took the job, an opportunity for the Cardinals to prove themselves a legitimate force.

Of course, Louisville probably wouldn’t have been extended a Fiesta bid had Arizona voters approved the much-publicized Martin Luther King Jr. referendum. When they didn’t, organizers of the Tempe-based Fiesta were forced to improvise. Attention-starved Louisville, previously bound for the All American Bowl, was approached and after considering the possible ramifications, quickly said yes.

In justifying the move, Schnellenberger spoke of the Fiesta’s $100,000 contribution to the school’s minority studies or scholarship fund. He suggested that the controversy will prompt positive change and that sports and politics should be mutually exclusive.

What he didn’t mention was how desperately his program needs a game such as this. By choosing the Fiesta, his Cardinals go from cable to network, from a $600,000 payout to a multimillion-dollar deal, from a Dec. 28 telecast to a prestigious Jan. 1 kickoff, from probable opponent North Carolina State, an Atlantic Coast Conference middleweight, to Auburn, Tennessee or Alabama, all Southeastern Conference heavyweights.

What Schnellenberger also didn’t, or couldn’t, mention was that he needs a game such as this. He needed to know that he didn’t made another career blunder, such as his 1984 decision to leave a budding Hurricane dynasty for a Miami franchise in the United States Football League that never materialized. Not surprisingly, the Louisville football media guide doesn’t contain a word about Schnellenberger’s USFL experience.

“My redshirt year,” Schnellenberger said. “Tougher than going 2-9. I thought it was finally the great reward of 20 years of hard work.”

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Instead, the league folded, the checks quit coming and Schnellenberger was left without a job.

And maybe he won’t admit this, either, but Schnellenberger needed to know that he still can coach, that he still has that knack of doing the improbable, of making a difference.

“Everybody thought I was a screaming idiot to take this job,” he said.

Untrue. Everybody thought he was a screaming idiot to take the USFL job. When he accepted the Louisville position, everybody figured that was simply the natural progression of lunacy.

Consider the Schnellenberger resume of the mid-1980s:

--Leaves the Hurricanes, who, said Trout, could have won five national championships.

--Spends an entire year twiddling his thumbs.

--Politely declines feelers from other teams, both professional and college, for the chance to rebuild a Louisville program that was never built in the first place. For this he gets paid an estimated $400,000 a year--no small change, but no small challenge, either.

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Bear Bryant, who hired Schnellenberger as an Alabama assistant coach in 1961, used to liken the rebuilding process to a recipe.

Using all sorts of cooking analogies, the Bear would talk about making sure the pots were big enough (translation: the program could grow), the stove was hot enough (translation: the school and community were behind you) and extra pinches of salt were added sometimes (translation: hard work, discipline . . . the usual).

Schnellenberger is no different. He has his own homespun speech, complete with references to Louisville’s particular timetable for success.

“Sometimes you have to stir it a little longer,” he said. “We only had to stir it one year at Miami (before the Hurricanes had a winning season). We had to stir it three years at Louisville.”

In 1985, his first season, Schnellenberger won two games. How, nobody knows.

Trout knew the Cardinals were doomed nine months before that first season began. He returned home from his first recruiting trip and found then-defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti staring blankly at game film of the 1984 Louisville team.

“I’ve seen seven games so far,” Olivadotti said, shaking his head in disbelief, “and this is the worst football team I’ve seen in my life.”

“Aw, they can’t be that bad, Tom,” Trout said.

Yes, they could. Two weeks later, Olivadotti accepted a job with the Cleveland Browns.

There were more warning signs. As spring practice approached, Trout interviewed every returning Cardinal defensive player. He discovered that only five were even contacted by major schools.

It got worse. No defensive lineman ran the 40-yard dash faster than 5.3 seconds.

“I could probably get a wino to run that fast,” Trout said. “On our national championship team, the whole defensive line ran under five flat.”

Big deal. A 5.3 . . . a 4.9--what’s the difference?

“About eight wins,” Trout said.

This was the same team that had one, maybe two players--wide receiver Ernest Givins, tackle Bruce Armstrong--who could have started for the 1983 Hurricanes. This was the same team that couldn’t make it through 15 minutes of Schnellenberger’s first practice without taking a water break. Between the beginning of spring workouts and midseason, 32 players quit.

“The most pathetic mess I’d ever seen,” said trainer Mike O’Shea, who has worked for Schnellenberger at Baltimore, Miami and Louisville. “Looking back, we were pretty bad. (Schnellenberger) fought it, but after a while, he ran out of things to tell them.”

Practices at Cardinal Stadium, the 35,500-seat structure the school shares with the local triple-A baseball team, the Redbirds, were interesting. As a rule of thumb, the Louisville workouts would end about the same time Redbird batting practice began. Trout said it was the first time he considered wearing a helmet to work.

During all this nonsense, Schnellenberger did what he could, which was mostly keep a stiff upper lip. As a last resort, he tried superstition.

Some background: In 1961, his first year at Alabama, Schnellenberger’s wife, Beverlee, bought him what had to be the only pair of Italian loafers available in Tuscaloosa, not to be confused with Tuscany.

Schnellenberger wore the shoes during his entire career as a college and NFL assistant coach, compiling a record of 129-29-4. He knows this because one of his sons recorded the victories, defeats and ties on a sheet of notebook paper, a folded copy of which can be found in those same loafers, now bronzed and available for viewing in Schnellenberger’s office.

Twenty-five years after slipping on those Italian boats, Schnellenberger decided to start another winning streak, this time with the help of a pair of cowboy boots.

Forget it. When Louisville began the 1985 season with four consecutive losses, Schnellenberger returned the boots to his closet.

“I didn’t want to ruin them,” he explained. “Luck’s a great thing, but you have to give it some help sometimes.”

Schnellenberger would get to work by 5:15 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until 11 p.m. Some nights he wouldn’t leave at all. Instead, he would curl up on his office couch and lie there in the darkness wondering if he would ever win another game.

The Cardinals finished 3-8 the next year. In 1987, they could manage only three wins again. After a particularly embarrassing 65-6 loss to Southern Mississippi that year, Schnellenberger recited his postgame speech for the benefit of reporters: “As I told them, they’re a dog football team, but they’re my dog.”

The Kennel Ration Kids won eight games in 1988, but got frozen out of the bowl mix. Last year, with a team that Schnellenberger said was better than this one, the Cardinals went 6-5, losing four times on the final play of the game.

Times have changed at Louisville. A local grocery store chain sponsors a series of slickly produced television commercials featuring the Cardinals and, of course, their coach. At the end of each commercial you hear Schnellenberger, his voice as rough as a gravel road: “Like I’ve always said, the only variable is time.”

Season ticket sales are at an all-time high. There is even talk of building an domed stadium.

Meanwhile, Schnellenberger tinkers with a Louisville schedule that has purposely been a bit on the hoppity side. For example, this season’s Cardinal opponents, two of which were Division I-AA schools, have a combined 42-70-4 record. Only two opponents--San Jose State and Southern Mississippi--have winning records. Worse yet, San Jose tied Louisville and Southern Mississippi beat the Cardinals this season.

A scheduling face lift has been ordered. In the next two years, Louisville will play Tennessee, Ohio State, Florida State, Arizona State and Virginia, among others.

The big victory this season was a 9-7 decision over West Virginia. Other victims were Murray State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Memphis State, Western Kentucky, Cincinnati and Boston College. Not your powerhouse schedule.

Strange as it may sound, Schnellenberger says he thinks he can win a national championship here. If he did, he would become the first coach to ever win titles at two schools. He is 56, but he still dreams like a little boy.

On occasion, he can throw a tantrum like one, too. He has called Louisville reporters at home to complain about their stories. He is brash. He is gruff. He is demanding. He is, if the situation requires it, almost theatrical. There is little middle ground with Schnellenberger: You are for him or against him.

“The guys we have on this team are survivors,” said Pat Fitzgerald, a senior linebacker who was offered a scholarship only after another player turned Schnellenberger down. Coach Schnellenberger’s disposition is arrogant, but that’s all right. He wants us to have a little arrogance. He’s a tough man. He makes it hard. This past year he’s really lightened up with us. But before that, it seemed like he never smiled once.”

When he was a teen-ager growing up on the west side of Louisville, Schnellenberger used to sell programs and mint juleps at Churchill Downs. Now, on Derby Day, he sits on Millionaires Row. He is wealthy, but he isn’t satisfied.

One of these days, Schnellenberger said he will present a ring to each of his sons. One son will receive his 1983 Miami Hurricane ring. One will get the 1972 Super Bowl ring Schnellenberger earned as an assistant on Don Shula’s staff. The other will get the 1971 Miami Dolphin Super Bowl ring.

“But the next one is committed to my wife,” Schnellenberger said.

The next one is the national championship ring he intends to win at Louisville.

Every year Schnellenberger’s assistants and office staff buy him a birthday present. When he turned 56, they presented him an engraved silver bucket and a bottle of Dom Perignon. Read the attached instructions: “Not to be opened until day of first bowl bid.”

Louisville received its Fiesta invitation Saturday. For Schnellenberger, champagne never tasted as sweet.


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