Farewell to a Force

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, December 06, 2011 No Comment(s)

The kid was good. All-State. The problem was that he was from Edmond, Okla., and Oklahoma already had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and a top recruit who was the heir apparent. Jared Allen wanted a college scholarship and he wanted to play. Somebody mentioned that Florida Atlantic University had a young program and might be interested. His father, Lyndon, had never heard of the school. He asked who was the coach. He heard the name Howard Schnellenberger. “Howard Schnellenberger,” he repeated. He could not believe such a name was coaching at a school he never knew existed. The films were in the mail the same day.

When Howard Schnellenberger saw the kid’s films he did not hesitate. Jared Allen got his scholarship and Florida Atlantic got one of its best players in its 10-year football history. He was a four-year starting quarterback who guided FAU as a Division 1-AA team that beat a Division 1-A team in only its 22nd game. He starred for a team that opened its history playing Slippery Rock and just a few years later was competing against teams from the Big Ten.

At the time Howard Schnellenberger predicted that someday Florida Atlantic would win a national championship, although he never promised to be around to see it. Keep in mind that he was comfortably retired, well into his 60s, when FAU asked him to start a football program from scratch. And when he predicted great things for a new program, people had to respect the man’s opinion. This was a man who worked under Bear Bryant and Don Shula and was offensive coordinator for the only undefeated team in NFL history, who took the Uniersity of Miami, a team that had rarely tasted glory in more than 50 years, to a national championship. And then took over another doormat program, the University of Louisville in his hometown, made them a winning bowl game team and built a new stadium in the process. He said he wanted to do the same thing in Boca Raton. That seemed less far fetched when the Owls tied for the Sun Belt championship after only two seasons in the conference, and began getting invitations, and winning bowl games. By then he was working on a campus stadium. This was for a team that could not draw enough people to fill Lockhart Stadium, and had to schedule big-time opponents on their turf to get a decent pay day.

This year Howard Schnellenberger got his, and FAU’s stadium. It is a jewel of a facility, a petite version of the kind of thing one sees at the most modern professional venues. It took a lot of personal work by the coach to get it built, and one sensed that when it opened this season he knew his time at the school was over. He announced his retirement before the season began.

It would be nice to report that FAU’s brilliant start in football had continued to this day. Alas, the last three seasons have been disappointing, this one especially. There are reasons for that. Success can be its own enemy. Gary Nord, a good offensive coordinator, was hired by Purdue. By playing big-time opponents such as Texas and Michigan State early in the season, the team was almost guaranteed a few losses each year. Schnellenberger, going back to his UM days, liked to recruit in South Florida. But competition today is much tougher. The rise of Central Florida, South Florida and now Florida International as important football progams has made the job of picking up the best of the leftovers more difficult. Schnellenberger has had physical problems. Surely, at 77, he can’t chase talent the way he once did, not and build the stadium at the same time.

He left in early December, as always gracious and with a touch of self-deprecating humor. He has been first in so many ways, for so many years, and his leaving was, in an ironic twist, also a first. He retires, likely this time for good, after three losing seasons, the last one 1-11, the last score 26-0. When was the last time a coach did that and people were still sad, more than sad, to see him go?

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