BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
When I spoke to FAU Football Coach Howard Schnellenberger, before the 2009 season, the 75-yard old boss of the Owls had better mobility than this 46-year old reporter. I could see the concern in his face as I struggled to get up and down from his chair in his office just seven weeks removed from my major back surgery on June 24th.
Nevertheless, as we always do, there was plenty of time to talk about our days when we first worked together while he was coach of the Miami Hurricanes in 1983.
That was the driving force behind my desire when former Deerfield Beach Observer Editor Ric Green and I had a vision to help promote Schnellenberger's latest venture.
Now in my third year of covering the Owls, this program has come along way. It has won two straight bowl games.
FAU defeated Memphis 44-27 to win the 2007 New Orleans Bowl then followed it up with a 24-21 triumph over Central Michigan in the 2008 Motor City Bowl.
While Schnellenberger is one of the most colorful people I've ever spoken to and worked with, I did put him on the spot about his challenges comparing the two programs.
In this interview, we addressed a lot of different areas.
Q: Do you ever have any of your former players come down and give pep talks to your teams?
A: The only quarterback that I've ever had come to a game and help the team was Joe Namath. In the Orange Bowl Game against Penn State, I asked him to come down and be my honorary coach in charge of upsets. He got his big upset in the Orange Bowl in Super Bowl III against the Baltimore Colts. He came down and talked to my team in his own way the night before. Then on game day, he had a pre-game meal with us, came on the bus, and stood on the sidelines by which time I introduced him to the team as my hoary coach of upsets. And low and behold, we got an upset.
Q: Am I sensing a superstitious Howard Schnellenberger?
A: Oh sure I'm superstitious. All old coaches are.
Q: How would you compare the magnitude of the challenges with Miami and FAU?
A: They're so different because I went into a program that was on the verge of extinction but they had a long life's experience. I believe they started back in 1927 and played football consecutively until I got there in 1979. They had some success but had fallen on hard times and I came in as a gunslinger coach that had some cleaning up to do. I gathered a group of players around me and we had great success. Here at Florida Atlantic, there was nothing here. We had no history and I came in as the Father Of The Program. I brought players in just like a father has a son. We brought in our own players and we trained our own players. We had a lot of money to raise and the other things. If we would ever become anywhere close to being as successful here as we did at the success at Miami, it would be a sweeter victory.
Q: Which has been more fulfilling, FAU or Miami?
A: There is nothing more fulfilling than winning a national championship within five years. This one will be more fulfilling in a different way. This is Natural Child Birth and the Miami thing was Adopted Children if you will. These children are my Natural Children and when you watch your sons grow and get better, it's a lot more prideful than when you watch your stepchildren do the same thing.
Q: So you're telling me that you won't tilt one way or the other?
A: Yes, that's pretty close to it. If I would lead this one to a national championship then it would be twice as satisfying. But I can't live that long.
Q: When you were at Louisville, what was your recruiting strategy?
A: We made a commitment to come back to Florida to get the majority of our players just like we did at Miami and here at Florida Atlantic. I've also got to be considered the Guru of recruiting in the State of Florida.
Q: If I placed a tag on you as the “George Washington” of Florida Atlantic University since you're the Father of this Football Program, would that be accurate?
A: Nobody has ever called me that before but I'll accept that.
Q: Was the undertaking at FAU more difficult than you anticipated?
A: I didn't know what to anticipate because I've never done it before and didn't know anybody that had done it. But it was so different it took me awhile to find out how to get it done. When I came up with the concept of gathering 100 founders to give birth to this program with me, I was able to raise $13 million and that was certainly a very important thing for us to get off to a fast start, build this building (Tom Oxley Center) that we're sitting in right now, buy the uniforms, get the state to get us a license to have a football team and then to bring in the assistant coaches to help bring in the players, scheduled the games and do those things you do when you build a football program from scratch. I didn't know what I was getting into but we were able to get it done through trial and error. We brought in a lot of good coaches and players to get it started.
Q: What's the most gratifying moment of your tenure at FAU?
A: There are really two of them. To take a brand new team and in three years have them in the playoff of I-AA. There is 130 teams in this division and to be one of 16 selected to go to the playoffs, plus we were not in a conference so there was no automatic bid, we were an at large team, we won two games in the playoffs and reached the semifinals enabling us to get ranked fourth in the nation, that obviously was a very big thing. It may have even been bigger then us winning the (Sun Belt Conference Championship versus Troy) in our third year and winning the New Orleans Bowl allowing us to come out with that ring. These two were the most satisfying.
Q: Lets talk about the Motor City Bowl. Wouldn't you say that was more gratifying than the New Orleans Bowl since Central Michigan was a better team than Memphis and it technically was a home game for them?
A: You would think this one is better because you're from there. You're probably right but both teams have been playing football for over 100 years. Both had high powered offenses. I would rank the Motor City Bowl three but with both of these bowl games, we were the only game on that night so the exposure was priceless.
Q: You must be elated knowing that your on campus stadium will be a reality in September of 2011?
A: Thank goodness the date has arrived. We're glad that the Board of Trustees has allowed us to go to the bond house and get the money. This is going to be the platform that our football program is going to rise to great heights. A 40,000 seat stadium is the right size and it's going to allow us to recruit much better players, plus allow us to attract much better football teams to come down and play. I think it's going to put us in a position to get into a BCS Conference.
Q: You've been at Miami, Louisville and FAU. It seems like you've had good luck getting stadiums built?
A: This is the rubber match. We were unable to get a stadium in Miami, did in Louisville so it's one and one right now. When we get one done here, I'm on the plus side. This is a record because no other team has ever been able to build a stadium of that magnitude in 10 years. We're designing our stadium for 40,000 but starting with 30,000 so we can make sure we can sell it out. The following year we're hoping to add the 10,000 in 2012 or within a year or so.
Q: How much has Howard Schnellenberger changed since we met in 1983?
A: The hair has gotten grayer, I've gotten smarter and my wife (Beverlee) has gotten prettier.
Q: Could you ever see yourself coaching into your 80's like Penn State's Joe Paterno or Florida State's Bobby Bowden?
A: They're both my heroes and I think when Bobby leaves the scene I would have five more years to go and when Joe leaves the scene, I'll have eight years ago. Joe's 81 and Bobby is 79 that would give me four more years. Joe's either 81 or 82, that would give me six more years.
Q: Even though you won't come close to their win totals, do you feel that building three programs is a bigger accomplishment for you legacy wise?
A: It's all in the mind of the beholder. Some people think being a caretaker of a program and winning all of those games is the definition of greatness. Some people think how much you've elevated programs and how much you've elevated football in an area makes a difference. I just try to do what my high school coach did and the four coaches I worked for, they were all builders. I had no caretakers in this group.
Q: John Wooden had his Pyramid of Success, what is Howard Schnellenberger's?
A: Pass the torch. Take what everybody taught you, what was important to you, and pass that information to your coaches and players. I accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
These are all lessons that everyone in life can learn from. Hearing it from an individual who has had such mentors as Paul “Bear” Bryant, George Allen, Don Shula as well as others just validates why Schnellenberger has been successful in many of his challenges.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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