Howard Schnellenberger will walk to midfield Friday at Sun Life Stadium representing two programs: One he says he grandfathers, one he says he fathers.
But for Schnellenberger, who will be the honorary captain for the University of Miami and Florida Atlantic University during the coin toss, his loyalties remain with one school.
“I’ve been at Florida Atlantic longer than other coaching assignments,” said Schnellenberger, who started at the university 15 years ago and remains there as a fundraiser for the president. “I’m still an integral part of this university and this team. No question where my loyalties lie. My sentiments lie with what this football team has accomplished.”
Schnellenberger, 79, is the man of the hour for the first game between two programs separated by 50 miles of Interstate 95 and US 1, but linked by the man whose prints remain on both.
In 1979 Schnellenberger took over a Miami program on life support and four years later pulled off one of the more stunning upsets in history, a 31-30 victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl that brought Miami its first of five national titles. That 1983 team will be honored Friday.
In 1998 he started building a program at Florida Atlantic that has risen to impressive heights, culminating with a conference championship and bowl game victory in 2007. Schnellenberger retired following a 1-11 2011 season.
“He built that (Miami) program into something that will go down in history. … and then built this program,” FAU coach Carl Pelini said. “He did it twice.”
Actually, three times. Schnellenberger also turned around a sagging Louisville program starting in 1985.
The weekend festivities cap an exciting 10 days for Schnellenberger, who was part of the 1972 Dolphins team that was honored at the White House last week. Schnellenberger was an assistant coach under Don Shula.
Schnellenberger is calling Friday’s game, the season opener for both teams, his finest hour at FAU. He followed his Miami blueprint from the moment he stuck the first shovel into the ground on the FAU campus. It centered on relentless fundraising, taking advantage of his surroundings when recruiting and shooting for the stars even if meant settling for the moon.
Although his tenure as a coach did not end well, he reached the pinnacle off the field when FAU opened a 30,000-seat, on -campus stadium during his final season, something Miami still lacks.
“That was the genesis of the game, that we would celebrate what he has done for both programs,” Miami coach Al Golden said.
The game is one Schnellenberger envisioned for more than a decade but his attempts more than a decade ago were rebuffed by Miami before a three-game series (at UM Friday and in 2016, at FAU in 2015) finally was agreed upon 16 months ago.
One of the first publicity posters Schnellenberger helped design at FAU pictured one player in an FAU uniform and another wearing green and orange with a feint ‘U’ on the helmet.
“There was a rainbow going over the stadium and coming behind the stadium where there was a pot of gold,” Schnellenberger said.
That pot of gold represented where Schnellenberger wanted to take FAU and where Miami had been. The Hurricanes’ rise under Schnellenberger was a prelude of things to come at FAU, though at different levels.
Miami went from five wins in Schnellenberger’s first season to 11-1 and a national title in his fifth. Schnellenberger left Miami after 1983 for a Miami-based team in the now-defunct United States Football League that moved to Orlando before playing a game. Schnellenberger was not retained after the move and never coached a game in the USFL. He called the decision the worst of his professional life.
The Owls went 11-3 in Schnellenberger’s third season, moved to Division 1-A two years later and won a conference title and bowl game in 2007.
“To see what he did with this program was amazing to me,” said Hurricanes offensive line coach Art Kehoe, who played and coached under Schnellenberger at Miami. “We hadn’t gone to a bowl game in 17 years. Heck, we couldn’t pay the phone bill. Now we have five national championships and played in 11 of them. He’s the main fabric of all that.”
Kehoe then got to wondering: What if Schnellenberger never left.
“I don’t know, seven, 10 national titles? Who knows? He would have had a stranglehold in recruiting. He was relentless.”
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Staff writer Matt Porter contributed to this report.