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Schnellenberger building a fourth power in Florida

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  • Schnellenberger building a fourth power in Florida

    Sept. 23, 2004
    By Dennis Dodd Senior Writer

    Why not flip a coin to pick a starting quarterback?

    Howard Schnellenberger had done wackier things in his career. Twenty years ago it seemed like he was throwing that career away. Miami had won the national championship in 1983 and Schnellenberger, the celebrated architect of Hurricanes football, bolted -- try not to laugh -- to the USFL.

    Needless to say, that didn't work out. There was an inspiring stop at Louisville and a disappointing one at Oklahoma but, really, his career arc was never the same again.

    "In my opinion, he might have as many championships as anybody, ever (if he stayed at Miami)," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "It's crossed my mind many times."

    So why not flip that coin three years ago? How is that more outrageous than creating a football program at an unknown campus in Boca Raton, Fla.? A place where the burrowing owls on campus were the inspiration for the school's nickname?

    Or agreeing to go door-to-door soliciting community leaders for the mere $15 million needed to go from germ of an idea to kickoff?

    Really, it wasn't weird at all for the 70-year old who, well, let's just say he still has extreme confidence in his abilities. So, yeah, it really was Schnellenberger who suggested in 2001 that freshman quarterbacks Jared Allen and Garrett Jahn flip a coin to start the first game in Florida Atlantic's history.

    "They were too close for a human being to call so God called it," Schnellenberger said this week, considering his latest construction project. "Certainly I would do that. Why wouldn't I?"

    Ridiculous is sublime again in Schnellenberger's world. Amid this season's talking points -- hurricanes, instant replay, kickers who can't kick -- is the job Schnellie has done at that owl-laden commuter campus of 13,000 students in Palm Beach County.

    Three victories, all on the road, all against I-A competition in Florida Atlantic's final season before joining the big time, which in this case is the Sun Belt Conference in 2005. Next year, this college football IPO will be eligible for -- please stifle your laughter again -- a bowl.

    All of it after playing organized college football for all of four years. All of it according to plan.

    "He was basically semi-retired in Miami selling municipal bonds," said Dr. Anthony Catanese, the man who hired Schnellenberger at Florida Atlantic in 1998. "I said, 'That's not the place for Howard Schnellenberger.'

    "He told me in five years he'd have this program nationally recognized. He did it in three."

    Almost all of it has been done with kids from the state of Florida who couldn't go to one of the Big Three -- Miami, Florida or Florida State. While the glut of in-state talent has inspired other programs to spring up on the peninsula, it can be successfully argued that Florida Atlantic is leading the pack.

    Because of what the coach calls "the most experienced team in America," (30 seniors) the Owls are 3-0 during an NCAA-mandated transitional season into Division I-A. The blueprint is essentially the same as it was at Miami and Louisville -- build with Florida kids.

    More than 20 years removed from the floor of the Orange Bowl when he introduced the plan to the country, there are still more than enough Floridians to go around. South Florida, Central Florida and others have launched programs in the state hoping to become the state's next major power.

    But Florida Atlantic has arguably succeeded the fastest and the best. Shockingly quick considering the program didn't have a single player five years ago.

    "I'd rather have a bunch of givers than a bunch of takers," Schnellenberger says of his wide-eyed Stepford players. "Takers are those guys that go to very well-known renowned schools where the name is already established. They want to bask in the glory of what other young men have battled for and have earned.

    "Here, nobody is going to do it but them."

    Only Schnellenberger, accompanied by his signature ego and pipe, can make signing with a top 10 program sound like dining with Satan.

    Catanese is now president at Florida Tech but basks in the glory of what came out of a meeting at a Chinese restaurant more than six years ago.

    "I think we had him at, 'We're going to start a new football program,'" Catanese said. "I saw the twinkle in his eye. Then he told me something very interesting. He thought this would be the crowning achievement of his career."

    It's headed that way. In a lot of ways, this job is miles ahead of his Miami resurrection. That was an existing program that was struggling. This was a school where there wasn't a set of shoulder pads, much less a practice field to attract players, donors or fans.

    "It was probably easier to start a new team than it was to resurrect an old, broken-down team," Schnellenberger said. "You don't have to fire anybody. You don't have a bunch of guys hanging on that are losers. Everybody you bring in, you're selecting them, they're selecting you. It's a marriage that can develop quite the momentum and force."

    Florida Atlantic did the impossible these days. Plenty of programs want to join I-A from a lower division. Few have the time, money and guts to follow through. Almost none have added football from scratch. The Title IX hit alone (adding 85 scholarships) makes it financially prohibitive.

    "The answer is they believed in Schnellenberger," Catanese said of the donors. "Just his name brought in people to the university that frankly didn't have any interest in football before he came."

    Schnellenberger's cult of personality spiked interest before a receiver spiked a ball. Catanese lit a bonfire in February 1999 to celebrate homecoming, 2 years before the first game. Two years later, another fire was lit. The program's second recruiting class included five of the state's top 100 players.

    The coin flip? Jahn won it and started the program's first game against Slippery Rock. Allen started the second half and every subsequent game but two since then.

    "We thought he was joking at first," said Allen, a senior from Edmond, Okla. "He wasn't. He got the coin out. It was too close to call."

    Allen was being recruited at Oklahoma until the Sooners signed Hunter Wall out of Texas. Edmond Santa Fe High School coach Barry Allen knew one of Schnellenberger's assistants and sent film. The head coach offered a scholarship sight unseen.

    The grand plan, though, is still based on snagging some of those high school recruits that couldn't go to the Big Three.

    "Two hundred of those kids have to get on an airplane and find a scholarship someplace else out of state," Schnellenberger said. "That's not the way it should be. Every kid from the state of Florida should be able to find a scholarship close to home where mother and father can see them play."

    If that sounds like a recruiting pitch, well, you're right. The guy didn't get to his station in life without knowing how to work the media.

    First aiming to play in lower divisions, the Owls reached the I-AA national semifinals last season and finished ranked No. 4. During that season it defeated Middle Tennessee, becoming the fastest I-AA program ever (22nd game) to beat a I-A opponent.

    That team went 11-3 with no seniors. Because the program is in that transitional status this year, it can neither go to the playoffs nor be eligible for a bowl.

    It matters little. Florida Atlantic already has shocked the world. It went to Hawaii over Labor Day weekend for the opener and won in overtime. The score made few if any mainland papers the next day because the game ended at 4:11 a.m. ET. The team returned to find the campus shut down due to damage caused by Hurricane Frances. The players were forced to stay in a hotel for a week.

    The Owls then traveled to Denton, Texas, where they upset three-time Sun Belt champ North Texas, ending the school's nine-game home winning streak.

    They were trailing 17-6 on Saturday at Middle Tennessee before rallying to win 27-20 behind Allen's three touchdown passes.

    Florida Atlantic finally will play its home opener Saturday against Illinois State.

    "The whole idea is to go undefeated," Allen said.

    Schnellenberger has done it without a 300-pound lineman on the roster. "Fat bellies," he says of allowing his players to weigh what has become the norm for most other I-A linemen. He has done it with a staff that has accumulated seven national championships and might, before Schnellenberger leaves, get another.

    That's the whole idea for a man who is a long way from taking his last puff.

    "When Joe Paterno retires, I'll have eight years to go," Schnellenberger said, "and when Bobby Bowden retires I'll have six years to go."

    So maybe that coin flip thing wasn't wacky at all. The way Schnellenberger figures it, the Supreme Being has helped him out before. That day and night of Jan. 1, 1984, when Miami came in ranked No. 4. No. 2 Texas lost. No. 3 Auburn barely beat Michigan.

    All Miami had to do was beat No. 1 Nebraska.

    "God worked some kind of miracle for us to put us in that position," Schnellenberger said.

    Everything fell into place, miraculously, launching a dynasty. A dynasty that went on without its architect.

    "If I started (worrying about) that I'd probably jump off a mountain someplace," Schnellenberger said.

    Maybe that's why he settled in Boca Raton, at sea level.

  • #2
    Re: Schnellenberger building a fourth power in Florida

    Nice article. Howard is a great football man. People often forget that it was he, not Jimmie Johnson, that put the Miami Hurricanes on the map.
    What he has done with FAU is nothing short of amazing.


    • #3
      Re: Schnellenberger building a fourth power in Florida

      I went to Slippery Rock and it was awesome seeing our boys down in Miami for FAU's first game. We beat 'em, but I've always rooted for them in I-AA play.


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