BOCA RATON – The first time hearing the voice of god can be jarring, especially when the message booming from the sky is: “GET AWAY FROM MY QUARTERBACK!”
At the time FAUOwlAccess.com existed for about one year. During the summer we created highlight videos from the players’ voluntary 7-on-7 summer practices. After one of those sessions, on a nearly empty practice field, soon-to-be starting QB Jeff Van Camp called me onto the field to ask where he could see the video.
To this day I don’t know whether FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger knew why Van Camp and I were talking. I’m not certain it would have mattered. By FAU rule, reporters aren’t supposed to talk with players without a school representative present, and Schnellenberger wasn’t about to give a relatively new reporter the benefit of the doubt. This was his team. He would protect his player.
Unbeknownst to me, Schnellenberger walked onto the balcony office that overlooked the practice fields, watching this long-haired interloper chat with his player.
As his thundered command rolled across the empty fields, I jumped as though a lightning bolt had struck the goal post next to me, then moved crisply off the field.
Schnellenberger made his point.
I located FAU sports information director Katrina McCormack and explained to her that I wasn’t really breaking the spirit of the protocol, I only answering an inquiry from a player. For the next couple days I worried I had ruined a budding relationship with the legendary coach.
Schnellenberger never addressed the situation again.
We didn’t know each other well back then. That would soon change.
BIRTH OF A SCHNELLENBERGER FAN
My family moved to South Florida the week before my freshman year of high school. That first Saturday in the Sunshine State, I plopped myself in front of a television inside the room of the recently razed Delray Beach hotel where we stayed those first few weeks and watched Florida beat Miami in the season opener.
Prior to moving to Florida I’d already become a casual fan of Miami, having watched a few games – notably, that massive 1981 victory over Penn State. I rooted for Miami in that Florida game, but wasn’t too upset by the loss. After all, the Canes started a freshman quarterback – some guy named Kosar.
That would be the lone loss of the season for the Hurricanes, who ultimately launched a run culminating with Miami’s first national championship. I really didn’t know much about Howard Schnellenberger before that loss to Florida, other than maybe his Long Name Club. By the time Miami defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, my knowledge expanded greatly.
I lost track of Schnellenberger after he left Miami, but couldn’t have been more eager to be the Owls’ backup beat writer in 2001 for the now defunct Boca Raton, the Owls inaugural season.
Schnellenberger and I didn’t have much more than a friendly reporter-coach relationship for about a decade. Truthfully, he may not have even known my name for much of that time. I had certainly never met his wife and co-coach, Beverlee.
The founding of FAUOwlAccess.com helped bring us closer. For starters, Marcus Nelson and I were at FAU for every practice, interviewing Schnellenberger – never one to shy away from the media – after all of them. But we really got to know coach when we produced the weekly Howard Schnellenberger show. Nelson and I, and later Ken LaVicka, valued the extra time with Schnellenberger that show afforded us, talking about the team, college football in general, and current events.
Gifted at hyperbole, Schnellenberger’s off-camera stories were often hilarious and insightful at the same time. You never knew what he would say. For a man who commanded so much respect, he uttered some of the funniest lines ever growled.
At one practice, he walked slowly and purposefully toward me on the sideline. I saw him coming and wondered what I had possibly done to draw his ire. When Schnellenberger reached the sideline he turned to face the action, then leaned into my ear and said, “You shooting B-roll?”
Relieved, I confirmed that I was in fact recording video to be used as part of a clip for his show. He smiled with satisfaction at using the proper television terminology and returned to coaching. I could only laugh when a reporter standing next to me asked what Schnellenberger said.
Schnellenberger was part coach, part showman, part promoter. A master of bombast, in the early days of the Owls’ program Schnellenberger would carry a tree stump with handles attached to the side throughout campus and Boca Raton, jumping on the stump to preach the doctrine of FAU football.
He’d promote FAU, Owls’ football and himself with equal, albeit sometimes garbled, vigor. Once, in an effort to get more fans to attend his weekly radio show held at Hooters, Schnellenberger announced live, on-air, that the restaurant had a special that day. He then described the Schenllen-burger – a big beef patty, with lettuce, tomato and cheddar cheese, “on a Kaiser!” There was, of course, no such special. I ordered one anyway.
I can’t tell you how many times he asked whether our stories or videos could be viewed on “Beverlee’s internet.”
SCHNELLENBERGER BUILDS A WINNER
The epitome of an old-school coach, Schnellenberger seemed to have the determination to will things to happen. FAU didn’t have lightning detectors during his tenure. Many a time Schnellenberger defiantly stood alone in the middle of the Oxley practice fields, staring down fiercely approaching storms. More often than predicted, those storms diverted their course. They clearly wanted no part of the voice of god.
Schnellenberger led the fledgling Owls to the FCS semifinals in 2003 – their third year of existence. In 2007 his Owls became the youngest program ever to win a bowl game. They won another the following year.
The FAU program should have been a rocket ship. As Schnellenberger first said of Miami and repeated in Boca Raton, FAU was on a collision course with a championship, with the only variable being time.
But surrounded by administrators either unwilling to fund the program properly or lacking the competency to build lasting financial relationships within the community, FAU’s program declined during Schnellenberger’s final seasons.
Even in those tough final years, Schnellenberger loved fans. And fans loved him. He set lofty, unreasonable goals – and made people believe they could be achieved.
Weeks before Schnellenberger’s final game, FAU realized that it should probably create some sort of final game tribute to its program founder. Lacking the personnel to do that in house, FAU asked me whether I could produce something.
I spent hours with coach learning even more of his history, poring over old photos, and reveling in stories dating back to his high school playing days. Through sheer osmosis I learned more about football during those sessions than in any other project I ever undertook.
On one memorable Friday night in an Alabama hotel room, Nelson, LaVicka, Brian Rowitz and I wrote the tribute script for what would become a six-minute video that LaVicka narrated. The process would have been smoother had I not been simultaneously breaking the news that then-athletic director Craig Angelos was heading to the Midwest to interview Carl Pelini as Schnellenberger’s replacement.
The video we created played on the scoreboard before Schnellenberger’s final game. Later, a condensed version appeared on the video board of what is new Hard Rock Stadium at halftime of a Dolphins game when Miami honored Schnellenberger, the offensive coordinator on that undefeated 1972 Super Bowl team. The video can be viewed in its entirety above.
WINNING EVEN AFTER RETIREMENT
Upon his retirement, Schnellenberger moved offices to the main FAU administration building where he served as the school’s ambassador-at-large.
I’d frequently be summoned there or, when I had free time, pop in just to chat. One year into retirement Schnellenberger invited me to accompany him on a trip to is home state of Kentucky during which he helped me land a job with a Jim Host-led venture called iHigh.
Schnellenberger’s biggest FAU-related retirement joy, however, came when he led tours of the magnificent on-campus football stadium that is the crowning jewel of his FAU legacy.
When my iHigh boss came to town, Schnellenberger gave him the deluxe tour, starting on the field and going all the way to the roof. When I apologized to my boss for the length of the tour, he shook me off, saying, “How often do you get a tour of a stadium from the person whose statue stands out front?”
Schnelleneberger once gave a stadium tour to my visiting nephews. Every time they visited after that the boys asked to go visit coach.
I never expected our families to become friends. It probably started when Beverlee met my youngest sister Amanda, who worked in the same airport terminal that FAU used for its charter flights. The two hit it off immediately, binding over earrings.
Gradually Beverlee and Coach met the entire King clan – a big thrill for a family of former Miami Hurricane season ticket holders. One year they even came to our family-only Christmas party. One of the nephews leaked to a neighbor that Coach was inside and suddenly half the neighborhood knocked at the door with cookies. If it bothered Schnellenberger, he didn’t show it. He knew how to work a room.
When my father battled a long illness a few years back, I didn’t tell many people. But Beverlee and Coach knew, and constantly called to check on me and my dad. When nature ran its depressing course, they attended my dad’s viewing – an act my dad surely would have appreciated.
Sadly, that relationship transposed when Coach’s health began to fail a little more than one year ago. One of the great tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, with hospitals preventing visitors, thousands of people died alone.
Like many, I chatted with Beverlee during Coach’s hospitalization and could hear the relief in her voice when she was finally able to see her beloved in person, again. In his final days Coach physically felt the touch of love.
HOWARD SCHNELLENBERGER’S LEGACY
FAU celebrates the life and career of Coach Howard Schnellenberger tonight at the stadium he built on the field that bears his name. Those in attendance will talk about a college career that earned All-American honors at tight end for Kentucky, winning national championships as an assistant under Bear Bryant, revitalizing programs at Miami and Louisville, claiming a national championship as a head coach with the Hurricanes, and founding the FAU program. His contributions at two major universities were deemed so significant that his name adorns buildings at Louisville and FAU.
Schnellenberger, however, is not enshrined in the College Football Hall Of Fame, however. A builder of programs, Schnellenberger’s career winning percentage falls just shy of the arbitrary mark set by the Hall. For some reason, the Hall couldn’t find a way to overlook or sidestep that requirement with some sort of lifetime achievement award, honoring his accomplishments as a player, a coach and a promoter of the sport. That the Hall did recently find a way to enshrine the Goodyear Blimp before Schnellenberger invalidates the building much in the same way that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lost all measure of relevance by inducting Abba before Alice Cooper, Rush or Hall and Oates.
Should the College Football Hall of Fame come calling posthumously, Beverlee should decline the offer. Screw them.
It might surprise many that I’ve had a pretty good relationship – most of the time – with all of FAU’s football coaches. However, I’ve never developed a friendship with any of them – or any other coach I’ve covered, for that matter – like I did with Schnellenberger. Coach opened his heart and family to me, trusting that a long-haired devotee of chaos – my words, not his – could embrace his vision and persona.
Several times Schnellenberger told me that no matter how old players get, they always address him “Coach.” Anytime someone said the name “Howard” around FAU’s campus, everyone knew the surname being referenced was “Schnellenberger.” Still, even though I never played for him – or played football, for that matter – out of respect I always addressed Schnellenberger as “Coach.”
I’m also proud and grateful to have called him a friend.