By Ed Peak
The sad news came Saturday morning that Howard Schnellenberger had passed away. The 87-year-old Louisville native played football at Flaget and the University of Kentucky and coached the UofL Cardinals for 10 years.
Schnellenberger learned from some the best, playing for Blanton Collier in Lexington on a coaching staff that included Don Shula, later of Miami Dolphins fame, Bill Arnsburger who would coach Florida and Charlie McClendon who would lead LSU. Schnellenberger would later join legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama.
While head coach at Miami, Schnellenberger thought enough of his hometown to schedule a game at old Cardinal Stadium against the Cardinals. Schnellenberger would lead Miami to its first national championship in 1983. He would resign the same year to become part-owner, president, general manager and head coach of The Spirit of Miami of the proposed United States Football League.
The league never got off the ground, Schnellenberger answering a call from UofL Athletic Director Bill Olsen to come to Louisville. It was early December in 1984 when Schnellenberger was introduced at a news conference at the UofL President’s office.
I was covering the event when someone asked if I could get coach to autograph a picture. Schnellenberger wrinkled his forehead, looked at me and said in that deep, gravelly voice. “We’re not starting this now are we?” He smiled, autographed the picture and continued on.
He was a character. Once he knew you and trusted you, you were good. Schnellenberger was always giving Courier-Journal columnists Rick Bozich and Pat Forde a rough time. Beat writer Russ Brown sometimes had difficulty believing some of Schnellenberger’s PR tactics.
One will never forget Schnellenberger after a particularly humbling loss to Eastern Kentucky in his first season. I was there with a student reporter. After some silence and mumbling, the student spoke up and asked a question. “Coach what good do you think you got out of this game?” I thought the coach was going to explode but he gathered himself and said, “I hope this is rock bottom.”
It took Schnellenberger a few seasons to get things turned around. He was a master at rebuilding programs. In 1990, the Cardinals were 9-1-1. Several teams turned down the Fiesta Bowl because of racial tensions in Arizona. Schnellenberger didn’t flinch, pouncing on the opportunity to play high and mighty Alabama.
The Crimson Tide should have known. Don’t give “The Pipe” a month to prepare. UofL led by three touchdowns at the end of the first quarter and cruised to a 34-7 victory. It marked the first bowl win since the Sun Bowl in 1957. The fact that it was against “Bama” carried a lot of weight.
Schnellenberger deserves much for credit for the construction of Cardinal Stadium, saying a stadium was necessary if Louisville was going to compete for a national championship. His leadership prompted Olsen to go on sabbatical for a year to investigate the possibilities. Olsen returned, convincing local banker Malcolm Chancey to head fundraising efforts over several years. Much of the money came from the fans themselves.
His relationship with the University of Kentucky was the connection needed to finally get a UofL-UK rivalry series on the schedule. UofL had to play the game in Lexington until the stadium became a reality. He also lined up games against Indiana, Illinois, Purdue, Texas, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Schnelly would leave UofL in 1994 largely because he wanted UofL to remain independent in football. President Donald Swain would prevail, getting the school to join the Metro Conference. After finishing 6-5 in 1994, Oklahoma called Schnellenberger and he left for the Sooners. He spent one season, going 5-5-1, for which he was canned.
After some time off, he accepted the job of starting a football program at Florida Atlantic University, guiding the Owls to a Motor City bowl win in 2008. Schnellenberger brought the Owls to Cardinal Stadium in October of 2005 where his team suffered a 66-10 loss at the hands of the Cardinals.
Before the game, however, Athletic Director Tom Jurich had surprised the coach, unveiling a plaque renaming the training facilities as the “Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex.” Schnellenberger was moved to tears, recalling his time at UofL as some of the best days of his colorful college football coaching career.