Howard Schnellenberger with beloved wife Beverlee at the Paul Hornung Awards in Louisville in 2011 (Charlie Springer photo).

Schnellenberger clung to dream for Louisville football, even after moving on

Editor’s Note:  Howard Schnellenberger, head football coach at the University of Louisville from 1985 to 1994, died Friday in Florida.  He had a 54-56-2 record at U of L from 1985-94. His most memorable season was 1990 when the Cardinals went 10-1-1 and beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. The UofL football complex bears his name. Steve Springer originally posted his memories of the coach in 2016.

By Steve Springer

The author, then 10 years old, gets an autograph from Schnellenberger in 1985.

Every diehard Card fan knows the infamous phrase that Coach Howard Schnellenberger termed during his introductory press conference when he was hired over 30 years ago. But in the event that this season’s unprecedented success and exposure has you donning the red tinted glasses, drinking the Kool-Aid and is consuming you and your bleeding Cardinal heart so much that you can’t think straight, here ya go:

“We’re on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time…

A few months after this glorious prognostication, said coach made another impression on the writer of this article by trading hats with the then 10-year-old at his weekly radio show at W.W. Cousins on Breckenridge Lane. He left as much of a mark on that young fan as he did the University of Louisville’s football relevance and trajectory, so said fan grew up and felt that it was imperative to catch up with the legendary leader in south Florida and ask a few questions about this year’s magical ride.

When asked Monday about how he feels knowing that UofL is on the cusp of realizing the ultimate, Coach told me, “I’m delighted that they have exploded on the scene the way they have and to have the team prepared for the introduction of Action Jackson.” (Yes, Coach has jumped on the sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson hype train and is officially calling him Action Jackson). He even went as far as to call him the “Commander in Chief for the next two years” and a championship is “inevitable.”[UofL was in the top 10 at the time.]

After coining the infamous “collision course” comment, did he really feel like that was possible for a team that almost dropped football and was playing in a minor league baseball stadium in front of freebie-ticket fans? Or was he just appealing to the fan base to generate some excitement and interest in the program?

The man who made it possible for UofL fans to dream … of stadiums, wins and national championships.

“I was appealing to my God Almighty, the students, the faculty, the staff, the basketball fans, and to the whole world that Louisville had the capability, and when we got the stadium it had the opportunity to become reality; it was the fulfillment of what the University of Louisville was destined to be.”

Why he came to the University of Louisville

When the USFL deal didn’t materialize, what peaked his interest or curiosity about the University of Louisville? Was it just wanting to come home, or was there more?

“It was a combination of a whole bunch of things. The fact that it was my hometown, I played and coached football in Kentucky, played football and basketball for Flaget High School, used to play St. X, Trinity, Manual” and went on to mention his “pipeline to the pro’s from south Florida and saw that that could be important to the scene.”

When asked about how the landscape of college football might be heading over the next few years and how UofL fits in, Coach shied away expressing that “I’m not a student of what’s going on, not a fan of what’s going on,” also noting that he’s not a fan of how it’s being run. “I wish they would settle down and let the coaches coach, and the athletic directors raise money, and the presidents run the school.”

Wants 16 teams in college playoffs

The college football championship playoff was next up in the discussion and when questioned as to if there should be more than four teams involved, Coach responded with “yeah, I think so. I think 16 teams in the playoff would be good. Sixty four would be better, but sixteen would get it right.”

And if you’re up on the latest updates with Coach Petrino’s future (not checking out Tigernet looking for bulletin board material, washing your No. 8 jersey to get it ready again for Saturday, or even flipping channels scouring the television for College GameDay promos) you’ll already be aware that Coach Petrino has quieted the “CBP to LSU” talk that adversaries of our fine program are perpetuating. He knows where the grass is really green, or maybe red.

Kicks himself in butt for leaving Louisville

A lot of coaches over the years, including John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino, have expressed regrets over leaving UofL for so called “greener pastures,” yet when they got there, eventually they wish they had never left. Did Coach Schnellenberger ever have any feelings like this looking back? Just as some fans have theorized that there almost seems to be a curse over coaches that leave The Ville, Coach helped to sustain this fan theory by revealing “[Deep, rough chuckle] Are you kidding me? [Louder, booming laugh] One year at Oklahoma??? Of course I kick myself in the butt, but that wasn’t going to do anything, so I had to come down here and start over again, at FAU.”

And with that, legendary Coach Howard Schnellenberger descended back into the memory and lore that is college football, or more specifically, University of Louisville football legend. He made his mark on my heart and many others’ in Card Nation long ago and then again today cemented it praising the team, “They can go all the way and win the championship this year.”

Who knows if possibly he could have been the one holding the trophy high for the Cards at the end of the season if the conference shenanigans had played out differently. But he knows that the University of Louisville is the place to be and is excited for what the rest of the season has to hold and maybe it will reveal exactly when that variable becomes a reality. 

Schnellenger made it possible for UofL football fans to dream.

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Steve Springer

Steve Springer is a lifelong University of Louisville fan and was Volvo's "Biggest Fan of the Big East" in 2011. He's a sportswriter for the Murray Ledger & Times, in addition to teaching physical education. He graduated from Eastern High School, earned a Master's degree from the University of Louisville and his BS degree at Murray State University.

6 thoughts on “Schnellenberger clung to dream for Louisville football, even after moving on

  • March 27, 2021 at 11:25 am
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    A memorable night. A memorable coach. Go Cards!

  • March 27, 2021 at 2:43 pm
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    Football has lost one of its most colorful, bigger than life characters. Howard Schnellenberger, with his meerscham pipe and huge mustache pacing the sideline with that infectious smile will be remembered and respected as a friend to all of the young men whose lives he shaped. Rest in peace Coach. You followed your game plan right into Heaven.

    • March 27, 2021 at 4:11 pm
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      Well put, Gene. One of the most influential people in UofL football history. We could well still be sitting behind that post at Fairgrounds Stadium if Bill Olsen hadn’t ventured out and hired this gentleman. Some great, great memories.

  • March 28, 2021 at 8:19 am
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    “The Pipe” was a born leader, who had the God-Given talent to “Dream and then make the Dream come true.” For him to ‘come home’ to Louisville and prove that to his hometown — was one of the most important things that has happened to “my hometown” in the 20th Century. Louisville used to have leaders. In the 19th Century Louisville was a major economic center. Even in 1940 Louisville was larger in population and national influence than Atlanta. Despite the brilliance of David Jones, Wendell Cherry and David Grissom in founding Humana and John Y. Brown, Jr. in bringing KFC to Louisville we STILL, as a City, didn’t understand growth and our capabilities. Then “The Pipe” came home — and the rest is history. We should all learn lessons from this great leader’s life’s work and “making a Dream come true.”

    • March 28, 2021 at 2:32 pm
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      I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts, Bruce. There really does seem to be a chasm when it comes to leadership here. I was hoping that the creation of Leadership Louisville in the mid-Seventies by the Louisville Area Chamber of Commerce would help fill the void. But as far as one can tell, Leadership Louisville has turned out to be little more than a meet and greet group, more social than action oriented, and has done relatively little to move the community forward. Howard showed us that individual initiative is one of the most effective ways to get things done. One has to applaud your continued efforts to get a professional basketball franchise to Louisville in spite of the impact it might have had on University of Louisville basketball. Speaking of UofL, how about the visionary leadership of Bill Olsen in hiring Howard Schnellenberger?

  • March 28, 2021 at 2:17 pm
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    I have to concur with J. Bruce Miller. Schnellenberger was needed in this community because the city had become immersed and trapped in a lack of creativity, innovation or leadership. A dependance on state government was repeatedly rewarded with little or no substantive returns from Frankfort.

    Schnellenberger had vision and cut through the crap, motivating Louisvillians to do things for themselves. The construction of Cardinal Stadium was done without any financial assistance from state government, except for allowing a land swap for ownership of part of the site.

    He showed local civic and business leaders what could happen when they dared to take risks on behalf of the community. Mark Lynn and the soccer stadia, for example. Dan Ulmer and the Louisville baseball stadium. The Main Street projects, for another. Schellenberger taught people to believe in Louisville.

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