LOUISVILLE — Howard Schnellenberger was a visionary. He saw possibilities where others could only see problems. His life was a testament to dreams and audacity, to beliefs so brazen as to invite skepticism and inspire laughter.
Schnellenberger, who rebuilt programs at Miami and Louisville and led the Hurricanes to a national title in 1983, died Saturday at 87.
His coaching career spanned six decades and included stops at Alabama, where he was an assistant under Bear Bryant and helped recruit Joe Namath, to assistant gigs in the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins to a short-lived stint as the Baltimore Colts coach.
That winding path brought him to Coral Gables, Florida, where he put the Hurricanes on the map and kick-started the college game as we know it today — putting an emphasis on speed, fitness and recruiting.
Schnellenberger attracted attention with bold pronouncements, and backed them up with unprecedented results
With or without his trademark pipe, Schnellenberger was famous for blowing smoke. He declared Louisville to be on a "collision course" with a national championship not long after former athletics director Bill Olsen feared "we were on a collision course to dropping football."
“He brought some sort of big-time feel to it, like the Music Man,” WHAS’ Terry Meiners said. “There was a definite mood swing. We didn’t quite get a swagger, but I think everybody held their heads higher after being a laughingstock."
Louisville football was at a low ebb when Schnellenberger returned to his hometown to coach the Cardinals in 1985. Stuck playing before sparse crowds in a decrepit minor-league baseball stadium, mired in a streak that would ultimately extend to nine consecutive losing seasons, the outlook was so grim former Board of Trustees chairman A. Wallace "Skip" Grafton had recommended the board take a hard look at football "to see if it's worth it."
But just as he had done at the University of Miami, Schnellenberger turned the program around. He led Louisville to its first 10-win season, its first New Year's Day bowl game and blowout victories over brand names including Alabama and Texas.
“I think without question he resurrected the program," said former Cardinals quarterback Jeff Brohm, now the head coach at Purdue. "He provided hope, optimism at a time where there was talk of possibly shutting things down. He not only kept it going but took it to a point when he dropped it off, it was at its highest level."
Louisville has yet to complete the championship “collision course” Schnellenberger envisioned — as his Miami Hurricanes had done in 1983 — but its competitive profile, campus stadium and Atlantic Coast Conference affiliation can all be traced to strides made during Schnellenberger’s 10-year tenure.
“He just has a presence about him that makes you believe that whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish that you can accomplish it,” said Craig Swabek, who played and coached for Schnellenberger at Louisville. “You really think you’re going to do whatever it is he’s trying to accomplish: win a game, start a business, build a stadium. He just had a way of strong leadership.
“He was almost like this crazy snake-oil salesman (and) an easy target for pundits. But when you were with him day to day, you started to see his plan. He had a master plan.”
A football, basketball and baseball teammate of Paul Hornung’s at Louisville’s Flaget High School, Schnellenberger went to Kentucky to play for Bryant and would become a first-team All-America end under Bryant’s successor, Blanton Collier.
He later served as an assistant coach on three of Bryant’s national championship teams at Alabama, was entrusted with the high-stakes recruitment of Joe Namath, and went so far as to hide the quarterback from rival coaches by stashing him at a relative’s home.
His success at Alabama led to NFL opportunities under Hall of Famers George Allen (Los Angeles Rams) and Don Shula (Miami Dolphins). Coordinating the Dolphins’ offense during their 17-0 season in 1972 led to a brief, turbulent stint as head coach of the Baltimore Colts, which began with the New York Times declaring Schnellenberger was “regarded as a certain success in this precarious business,” and ended three games into his second season when Colts’ owner Robert Irsay demanded a mid-game quarterback change that Schnellenberger refused.
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