Nearly three decades after bringing the first of five national championships to the University of Miami, Schnellenberger closed out his prolific coaching career in Boca Raton with Florida Atlantic University. His Owls, unfortunately, lost to the University of Louisiana-Monroe, 26-0.
But Schnellenberger went out with his head held high, taking the pre-game video tribute and the coin toss with his family at his side with him as positive memories of his last game. He thanked the students and the fans after the game was over and then headed off into the sunset with these parting words.
“I’m turning this problem over to someone else,” he said just a few days before Carl Pelini was introduced as his successor at FAU.
It was a symbolic end for the man who literally built that program from the ground up, considering it was 41 years ago when he was introduced to the region as the Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator.
“I think the players were a hell of a lot better than the coaches, and you can quote me on that,” said Schnellenberger, who had two stints with the Dolphins from 1970-72 and 1975-79 under Hall-of-Fame Head Coach Don Shula. “That team holds a special place in my heart because the quality of the individuals was so much less than the quality of the group as a whole and they won with heart and determination. We had a lot of ordinary players as individuals, especially on defense, which is why they were called the No- Name Defense, and other than guys like Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Mercury Morris, they were pretty ordinary on offense but played as a team.”
Having already experienced the highest of highs both at the NFL level with the Dolphins and three times at the college level as an assistant to the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama (1961, 1964 and 1965), it was time for Schnellenberger to step out on his own. He accepted the head-coaching job at Miami in 1979, when the school was seriously considering doing away with football, and laid the foundation for what was to become one of the most dominant powerhouses in the NCAA.
Four years later, Schnellenberger was named 1983 National Coach of the Year. His Hurricanes upset Nebraska, 31-30, in the 50th Orange Bowl in front of what was virtually a home crowd. Following that season, he left to pursue an opportunity with a USFL franchise that never materialized because of a change in ownership.
After sitting out 1984, Schnellenberger returned to the college ranks in 1985 as the head coach at Louisville, where he would stay for the next decade. A one-year stint at Oklahoma in 1995 eventually led to his return to the Sunshine State, where in 1998 he launched FAU’s football program.
“The reason we had a chance here was because of my other three stops — Louisville, Miami and the Dolphins — because Louisville and Miami were developed with Florida players,” Schnellenberger said. “And for the successes of those three programs and the fact that this school was in South Florida and in the state where we recruited so well, people thought that I would have a chance to make this happen.”
The Owls played their first game on Sept. 1, 2001 and in one successful decade Schnellenberger took them to record heights. They won their first game over Bethune-Cookman, 31-28, one week later and the next year became the fastest start-up program to win its first Division I-A game. That same 2002 season FAU reached the Division I-AA national semifinals and afterward joined the Division I-A Sun Belt Conference.
Schnellenberger earned 2007 Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year honors and led the Owls to back-to-back conference titles and bowl berths, winning both of them. By doing that, FAU also became the fastest start-up program to earn a bowl berth and win two bowl games in its first three years at the Division 1-A level.
Schnellenberger leaves his post having gotten to coach a young man he considers in high regard, senior running back Alfred Morris, who is the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“I was thankful that Coach Schnellenberger gave me an opportunity to play collegiate football and he saw something in me that these other schools didn’t,” said Morris, who Schnellenberger compared to Csonka because of his hard-nosed running style. “I’m glad I was able to play under his tutelage while I was here because he’s a great coach and a great man.
“He’s a legend in collegiate football and I’m just thankful because he left a great impact on me. For him to have coached some of the great names he has coached and to hear him compare me to some of them is an incredible honor. He took a chance on me and I’m glad I was able to pay him back on and off the field.”
Morris paid him back the best way possible one week before the ULM game when he rushed for 198 yards and four touchdowns in FAU’s lone victory of the season, a 38-35 win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham at FAU Owl Stadium. Schnellenbeger got to ring the victory bell for the first time and leave the field with a smile on his face and the statue of himself in the background.
On Sunday, the Miami Dolphins and all of South Florida get to say thanks to Schnellenberger for everything he achieved down here at both levels.
“God works in mysterious ways, and for him to put me in this situation where I wanted to get back into coaching and could do it right here where my family lives was special,” Schnellenberger said. “This place is very special for us.”
Former players from the collegiate and NFL level reflect on the legacy of Howard Schnellenberger:
Former Miami Dolphins and Hall-of-Fame running back Larry Csonka:
“I’m lucky enough to be in the NFL Hall-of-Fame. I rode in on the shoulders of some great offensive linemen and was breezed in by the brains of some great offensive coordinators and Howard Schnellenberger leads the pack in that respect.”
Former Miami Hurricanes, Buffalo Bills and Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly:
“It was an honor to play for Coach Schnellenberger when I was the quarterback at Miami. It was a Godsend that he came after Lou Saban to coach for the four years I attended the University. He helped me achieve my goals not only at the college level but also at the next level as a professional athlete. I am forever indebted to him.”
Former Dolphins wide receiver and Vice President/Special Advisor Nat Moore:
“Coach Schnellenberger was one of the hardest working coaches I have been around. Our offense was always fundamentally sound and he had us totally prepared to play each and every week.”
Former FAU and current Tennessee Titans quarterback Rusty Smith:
“Coach Schnellenberger was one of the main reasons why I came to FAU. He really helped me develop as a quarterback and I owe a lot to him. When I first got into his office and he showed me that highlight tape with all the great quarterbacks he has coached over the years with Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde, you really saw how he influenced a program. It is going to be hard to see FAU without the coat and tie on the sideline. I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors. He is a great guy and a great coach.”