More national attention
More national attention
Schnellenberger?s project at FAU is his biggest yet
By STEVE HUMMER
BOCA RATON, Fla. ? In the race for significance, what Howard Schnellenberger says always has run neck-and-neck with how he says it. The message is consistently grandiose. The messenger sounds like he swallowed a steam engine.
What the Bob Vila of college football is saying about his latest building project ? the Florida Atlantic University Fighting Owls ? is that a program can lose to Slippery Rock by 33 in its inaugural game and play for the Sears Trophy eight years later.
??Florida Atlantic will play for the national championship by 2008?? has been Schnellenberger?s unwavering mantra, even as his first team was changing at a nearby community college and bussing over to its practice field.
Of course, the first challenge for the listener is to determine what exactly is a Florida Atlantic? Answer: A 40-year-old, 850-acre South Florida university of 26,000 enrollment hard off I-95. Flip-flops and a commuter parking decal are two requirements.
??I don?t know of anybody else dumb enough to say it,?? Schnellenberger admits. ??What I said was that we should be good enough to compete with the best teams in America. That should give us the opportunity to play for a championship.??
??I would never doubt him, not with everything he?s already done here,?? said the Owls? senior quarterback, Jared Allen.
Would the words carry the same weight if they were not delivered with Schnellenberger?s trademark low, slow rumble? His words flow like wet cement from beneath a bristly white moustache. His is the voice of distant thunder. Dare we say it, his is the voice of a creator? ??It?s pretty intimidating. When he talks, people listen,?? Allen said.
Said another one of his former quarterbacks: ??He had us all intimidated. You?d be at one end of a long hallway and he?d be at the other and you?d think, ?Oh, no, I?ve got to walk by this guy.? But, you know, every day he had a story for us, something to convince us we needed to practice hard and get somewhere. He had us all convinced we?d win a national championship.?? The speaker was Mark Richt, a backup at Miami, Schnellenberger?s first great testing ground.
Building a program
Whatever his methods of persuasion, they are working once more here in Addison Mizner?s pink-hued town. Follow this arc of the Owls:
1998: Schnellenberger hired as director of football operations. A year later, he signs a seven-year deal to coach.
2000: It rains, and team holds first practice in Palm Beach Community College gymnasium. Those chosen spend an entire season scrimmaging.
2001: Goes 4-6 in first season in Division I-AA.
2003: Defeats first Division I-A opponent ? Middle Tennessee ? in record time (22nd game); goes 11-3 and marches to Division I-AA semifinals.
2004: In advance of joining the I-A Sun Belt conference in ?05, opens season with a shocking 35-28 overtime victory at Hawaii. Then goes on to beat defending Sun Belt champion North Texas. The Owls then reconnect with reality, losing three of their next four, to sit here today at 6-3.
The biggest name in coaching ? just the Schnellenberger part consumes 15 letters ? is 70 years old, in good health other than a balky knee, and playing out a Johnny Appleseed-esque career at maybe the sixth-most prominent college football program in its own state.
It always has been about building with this coach. That and liberal servings of hype and hokum. It is presumed he got into coaching only because ??Barnum and Bailey and Schnellenberger?? wouldn?t fit on a train car.
??I just grinned when I heard he was head of the (coaching) search committee. I knew he?d hire himself,?? Richt said.
Who better to midwife a new program than the man who breathed life into Miami football, downright moribund before he led it to the first of five national championships in 1983? The same man who went to Louisville and in 10 seasons got a new stadium built while digging a toehold for football at a basketball school (his best team finishing 10-1-1, beating Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl).
Already at FAU, he has inspired a $7 million athletic complex that overlooks coconut palm-lined practice fields. There exist plans for a Carrier Dome-like facility on campus. Schnellenberger insists it will be completed about the time the quixotic national championship chase is scheduled to commence. Until then, they play home games at cozy Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, which has seen everything else from high school football to the North American Soccer League.
Everything to him is an opportunity to construct. Even Hurricane Jeanne. ??I live two first downs from the ocean,?? he said. ??There was no damage to the beach. In fact, we gained about five feet of sand.??
Still, there is the reflex question, one that must be asked of a coach who puts FAU on the same resume with the names Bear Bryant and Don Shula: Man, what are you doing here?
??I still get asked that, but less and less, because the answer I give is so shocking and so completely right,?? Schnellenberger said. ??It would be virtually impossible for any healthy male coach given the opportunity to build a football team to turn it down. It would be like a marine not wanting to go off to war.??
Look at it this way, the one time Schnellenberger tried to insert himself into an established program was a disaster. He was one-and-done at Oklahoma in 1995, an ugly, rumor-pocked 5-5-1 campaign.
This is what he does. A builder?s gotta build. A salesman?s gotta sell. A huckster?s gotta huck.
Schnellenberger describes the process in a little different way. There is no metaphor he will not try. ??This place is like getting married and having a child,?? he said. ??The foreplay is raising money. Conception comes when the state legislature says you?ve raised enough money, now go ahead and start a team. Then there?s the giving birth. Our confirmation or our bar mitzvah was when we made it to playoffs. Now we?re struggling young men, trying to make our way. Then you hit manhood, and anything can happen.??
As an assistant to Bryant when he resurrected Alabama, to George Allen when he reinvented the Los Angeles Rams and to Shula when he made the Miami Dolphins perfect, Schnellenberger has been around projects all his life. This latest and last is nothing other than a natural instinct allowed to run wild in the pasture.
No one is tittering so much any more. The Owls are a dangerous little team, behind the old guy?s pro style offense. ??Now we have over 30 seniors who are playing relatively good to this point. We?ve got more experience then they got and a lot more talent then they got, if the coach doesn?t mess it up,?? he said.
Schnellenberger has attempted to use the model he employed at Miami, intensely recruiting his own neighborhood, trying to keep as much talent from getting homesick as possible. With the Hurricanes, he declared a State of Miami, an inviolate territory in which he would have first pick of the high school recruits. (Sound familiar? Richt has done likewise at Georgia).
??Up until this year we let the lion take his share (of recruits), and us jackals would scavenge the rest,?? he said. ??We decided we?re going to take them on, thinking that if we can get one out of 10, it would be a great start. All our 10 coaches don?t go north of Orlando. We know more about kids in South Florida than Miami, Florida and Florida State put together.?? Ninety-five of the current 105 players come from the region of Orlando south.
??Why not??? Richt says when asked if this venture actually would work. ??It?s a pretty place. There are so many talented players around there. They can argue, ?Why go somewhere else when you can stay right here and play I-A ball????<br> Schnellenberger will be happy to take your deposit on national championship game tickets at any time.
Steve Hummer writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: [email protected]
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