Schnellenberger passes along his wisdom

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

BOCA RATON The salesman in him would come out later. Howard Schnellenberger is a natural, and the Florida Atlantic University football program is only the latest example. But for a few moments the other day in his office in the Tom Oxley Athletic Center, he was just a parent.

Schnellenberger has a son, Stephen, who three decades ago, in his late teens, was diagnosed with a rare form of endocrine cancer. The condition has worsened through the years. Stephen lives at home with his mother, Beverlee, and father. He has undergone several operations. A surgery in 2003 to remove a tumor seemed routine, but Stephen lapsed into a coma for months.

 
 

Often, there are complications. On this particular day, Schnellenberger spent several hours, beginning at 6 a.m., dealing with one. He mentioned "spinal tap" and "checking for a buildup of fluid on the brain" and something else before getting to the important part that it "looks like everything is OK." As OK as it gets, anyway.

He apologized, astonishingly enough and altogether unnecessarily, about being a few minutes late for an appointment. The room then fell quiet for no more than a few seconds.

"Beverlee has earned sainthood through all of this," he said. "I knew she was a strong girl, but this ... "

There were no tears. Not even a hint.

His voice never wavered. Not even a catch.

He is 73 years old and resolute.

He has been that way, he says, ever since he was a teenager playing football at Louisville Flaget High School and riding the Humming Bird railroad train to New Orleans for a game against Holy Cross or to Nashville or Knoxville or Chattanooga or Cincinnati or Evansville.

"I had the great fortune as a young man to be in a situation that demonstrated the true value of football," Schnellenberger said.

The words were spoken proudly, though more as a matter of fact than in the Rev. Howard preacher's tone with which so many are so familiar. The valuable lessons were reinforced when playing for and later coaching under Bear Bryant, and Schnellenberger has spent a lifetime passing them on to others. He has coached in the pros, but his mark was made in college where Schnellenberger made big news first at Miami (leading the 'Canes to their first national title) and then at Louisville, putting the Cardinals on the path to success.

There was a one-year failure at Oklahoma in the mid-90s after which Schnellenberger was absent from the sidelines.

But in 1998, he reappeared as director of football operations at Florida Atlantic, three years before the Owls ever played a game. The FAU endeavor is different, because Schnellenberger was its architect from the initial blueprint. He promised to fast-track Florida Atlantic out of the Division 1-AA ranks, and did. The Owls play in the Sun Belt Conference, but still have much grander aspirations. The hope is for a 40,000-seat stadium to be in use on campus by 2010.

To that end, Florida Atlantic has absorbed lopsided losses in exchange for substantial paychecks the past couple of seasons as part of the construction of a dream. It probably will be more of the same this season against a schedule that includes Oklahoma State and Minnesota and Kentucky and Florida.

"A monstrosity," Schnellenberger called it.

But a welcome one.

And this is where the salesman returns.

"It's not defeat at all if you have the will to do it and know why you're doing it," Schnellenberger said. "It's not losing if you play like a winner with a purpose. All of the things that happen have to make an impression about what we're trying to do here. It's going to happen here even if it doesn't happen on my watch."

It's difficult, though, to shake the notion that Schnellenberger, if he's able, will remain in charge as long as possible. Ask him, for example, to verify his age, and his reply is jokingly gruff: "Why do you want to know?" He doesn't know how long he'll coach, but he figures 80-year-old Joe Paterno at Penn State and 77-year-old Bobby Bowden at Florida State have "set precedents for me."

Another season begins Saturday afternoon in Lockhart Stadium against Middle Tennessee, and both the venue and the opponent will do for now. Schnellenberger, though, seeks something bigger and better and has from the first time he addressed an audience on the subject of FAU football nine years ago.

This week, he talked about the debacle of FAU's inaugural game (Sept. 1, 2001, in what was then Pro Player Stadium) when "we were ready to beat the hell out of Slippery Rock."

But didn't.

The Owls lost 40-7 that afternoon after 13 players were declared ineligible because of a lack of academic certification. Schnellenberger managed a rueful smile and shake of his head at the recollection, but much has been accomplished since those confusing days.

He went back to sit at his desk. Just behind him a painting of his wife leaned on a counter against a wall. Together, they are resolute.