Schnellenberger returns to see Louisville

Associated Press

Louisville's national championship dreams evaporated in a blowout loss to South Florida. Now, the 24th-ranked Cardinals (2-1) face the coach who first voiced those aspirations nearly two decades ago.

On Saturday, Howard Schnellenberger will lead the Florida Atlantic team he started from scratch into the $63 million stadium he helped build to challenge the Louisville program he turned into a winner in nine years as coach.

"My emotions are going to be controlled by the game," said the 71-year-old Schnellenberger, a Louisville native. "I don't think I'm going to be nostalgic."

The pipe-smoking coach with the silver mustache launched Florida Atlantic's program in 1998. When Schnellenberger came to Louisville in 1985, the Cardinals were in a similar situation, six straight losing seasons having made them a college football afterthought.

"I see similarities with us now and Louisville then because Louisville was almost a team without players," he said.

Schnellenberger arrived in Louisville fresh off leading Miami to its first national championship. But he drew plenty of smirks when he declared early in his tenure that Louisville was "on a collision course with the national championship." He said his boast was based on his days as a tight end under Bear Bryant at Kentucky, when the Wildcats were Southeastern Conference contenders.

"I knew it could be done in the state of Kentucky because I saw it," he said. "I didn't see any reason why it couldn't happen in Louisville."

The Cardinals were then playing in ugly, cavernous Cardinal Stadium, a converted baseball venue with beat-up artificial turf. Schnellenberger still convinced recruits that the highest goals were reachable.

"He makes believers out of those guys who don't believe," said Louisville quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm, who played for Schnellenberger from 1990-93. "That's one of the reasons he's been successful."

Schnellenberger unveiled plans for a new stadium and mapped out a strategy to get the Cardinals into the Big East - the conference Louisville joined this year. He also pushed to resurrect a series with Kentucky, which restarted in 1994 after a seven-decade hiatus.

"He should feel very good about what he put into place," said Bill Olsen, who was Louisville's athletic director from 1980-97. "He set the stage for us turning the corner."

The Cardinals weren't tied to any league when Schnellenberger arrived and he wanted to keep that independent status so he could beef up the schedule.

Louisville lost to heavyweights like Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Boston College in his first two seasons, but progress soon followed.

The team went 3-8 his second year, 3-7-1 in his third and 8-3 in 1988, the program's first winning record in 10 seasons. Louisville beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1990 season - the program's signature win to that point - then won the Liberty Bowl three seasons later.

By then, Schnellenberger was spearheading fund-raising efforts to improve the stadium.

"He was a leader on the football field, but he was also a leader in the community, getting the leadership and the fans to believe in his vision," Olsen said. "He deserves a lot of the credit for getting us to where we are today."

But in 1994 Louisville and five other schools formed Conference USA. Schnellenberger said he was never consulted about the move by school officials, and felt it derailed his rebuilding effort. He left that December to coach Oklahoma.

"It was disappointing because I had made that statement about winning the national championship. Some guys had come here just because I had made that statement," he said. "If we could've stayed independent long enough, I thought, by playing some of the top teams in the country, we could've qualified for the Big East. That was the only league I felt we had something to gain from."

Schnellenberger spent only one season at Oklahoma and moved back to south Florida. Less than a year and a half later, he drew enthusiastic cheers at the groundbreaking ceremony for Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

From a distance, Schnellenberger continued to follow Louisville's progress, including last year's 11-1 campaign that ended with the Cardinals ranked a school-record No. 6.

"I always envisioned Louisville becoming a top-of-the-line football team," he said. "I'm very happy for the university and for all the people who supported that program for so long. Now, that support has started to pay dividends."

The weekend won't be all business for him. The night before the game, Schnellenberger will be inducted into the University of Louisville's sports Hall of Fame.

Even Schnellenberger concedes the Cardinals will probably beat his 0-4 Owls easily on Saturday. Still, he's been pushing for the game for years and got a call back from Louisville last summer.

"As much as I know we might not be ready to play a team of Louisville's caliber, you will play those games whenever you can get them," Schnellenberger said.