Weathers: Florida Atlantic moving at 'Schnell's pace'


Advocate sportswriter

If you thought Howard Schnellenberger looked somewhat out of place on the sideline of upstart Florida Atlantic University, consider his plight just eight years ago.

Schnellenberger was a year removed from the one stain on his coaching résumé -- a 5-5-1 record in one season at the University of Oklahoma -- before deciding to pick up his ball and return to Miami. He had come to the realization that after more than three decades in coaching, it was perhaps over.

Schnellenberger actually let go of his headset long enough to sell stocks and bonds for two years. That was until, as he describes it, "a fire alarm went off."

It turned out to be the four to five-alarm variety that would bring Schnellenberger with his trademark fluffy white mustache and deep baritone voice, back to coaching, the chance to again douse the passion that obviously was ablaze within.

The one caveat in this proposition for Schnellenberger, who led the University of Miami to the 1983 national championship, was that there were a myriad of challenges that stood in his way before he would ever coach a game at FAU.

There were no footballs, no helmets and more importantly, no players.

FAU turned to the sage Schnellenberger, 64 at the time, to build a program from the sand up in Boca Raton, an hour north of Miami.

Even though Schnellenberger was credited with reviving Miami's sagging program in the early 1980s, and breathing life into Louisville's thought-to-be dormant program for the decade he spent there, this move appeared to be a desperate act to get back on a college sideline.

What did such an accomplished coach like Schnellenberger need with the headache of starting from scratch? This is the same coach who was part of two Super Bowl staffs with Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins, including the famed undefeated 1972 team. He was also part of Bear Bryant's staff at Alabama when the Tide helped to create today's unbearable expectations with three national championships.

"When I was asked to be the point guy, to put in this program, it was too exciting, it was too much to pass up," Schnellenberger said.

Schnellenberger's first order of business was to help raise $15 million and then he really get to work, assembling a coaching staff and recruiting players. By 2000, he gathered 164 players for his first practice and a year later the fledgling FAU program kicked off.

Two games later the Owls became the fastest start-up program to defeat a ranked opponent -- 31-28 over No. 22 Bethune-Cookman.

It wouldn't be the last time Schnellenberger, one of 10 active coaches to win a national title, stopped turning heads.

FAU needed only 22 games, or 24 fewer than South Florida, to become the quickest start-up program to knock off a Division I team (current Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee) or record a victory over a bowl team with a 35-28 overtime win at Hawaii to open last season.

After four years and 26 victories, Schnellenberger equates FAU's growth to the steps taken by a new-born baby. The Owls are now Division I, a full-fledged member of the Sun Belt Conference and hopeful a new 40,000-seat domed stadium will be complete in 2007.

"This gives me an uncommon thrill," Schnellenberger said. "The kind of the thrill that very few coaches will ever have."