Schnellenberger unhinged — and having the time of his life
June 18, 2012
Ever since Howard Schnellenberger left football last year, after 54 years of coaching, after a 1-11 season, after the misery, there’s one question he keeps getting asked. And it’s annoying, really.
What are you doing now that you’re retired?
“And I say, Christ, I’m not retired,” he says. “I took a sideways step.”
Schnellenberger’s hidden now — the first football coach in FAU history, the man who created the entire program — tucked away on the second floor of the administration building, the last door on the right in a tight hallway filled with secretaries and computers and, well, business. Real work.
His office is still covered wall-to-wall with memories of the past — the old framed photo of Bear Bryant, the shot of Schnellenberger stroking his mustache in a Miami huddle with Bernie Kosar — but the room feels more Schnellenberger Museum than Schnellenberger Office despite the location.
Dressed in a long-sleeve white dress shirt, grey pinstripes with gold suspenders on top, the 78 year old is trying to explain his new job.
“The university offered me the position of ambassador, which I summarily rejected,” Schnellenberger says. “I stated I would require being ambassador-at-large, so I wouldn’t be confused with those senior students that squire around the freshmen when they come in at orientation. There’s a lot of ambassadors that run around there, so I wanted to have a different title than that. I wanted to be like Geraldo Rivera.”
He explains some of the nuances of his job. It is, in a nutshell, to raise money. And so, three to four times a week, the old ball coach makes his way out to speaking engagements — a famous voice and name giving rise to a cause, any cause.
Schnellenberger has teamed up with a 90-year-old World War II veteran in an effort to get companion dogs for injured soldiers returning to the states, he’s put his name behind an app called FreeSafeText (designed to disable your phone while driving, “We’re gonna help from keeping you guys from killing yourself,” he jokes) and, as always, he’s trying to drum up money for FAU football.
“He’s been out an incredible amount,” his boss, Jennifer O’Flannery Anderson (the VP of community engagement) says.
And while his contract’s not public record — according to media relations it’s a part of the FAU foundation — he says his performance goals are personal, not contractual: $15 million for the university over five years.
“My mission,” he says, “is to raise a lot of money.”
“I would never laugh at a goal that Howard has,” Anderson says. “If he puts his mind to something, he can do it. He’s proven that to our whole community time and time again.”
It’s easy to dismiss a 78-year-old salesman, but this is a professional 78-year-old salesman. When Schnellenberger took over as director of football operations in ‘98 he needed to raise $5 million dollars.
“Just to get the state to let us start a football team,” he says. “We raised $13 million in two and a half years.”
“At FIU, they had been collecting a $10 surcharge for every student that had been enrolled for about 10 years before they started football,” Schnellenberger says. “So they had a big pile of money to start. [FAU] had not done any of that when I first got here.”
So Schnellenberger begged and bargained to raise the athletic fee. It was 1999, and he was arguing on behalf of a football team that didn’t exist, asking for money, answering with promises.
“When you go into a place like Alabama or Florida as a coach, all you do is coach,” he says. “Get out there and whip the boys into shape. Recruit like hell. But when you go into Miami or Louisville or FAU — no team at all. First thing you gotta do is go out on the mountaintops and start shouting: Football in paradise! Football in paradise! Football it’s here! Hallelujah!”
He got the money. An athletic fee that was $7.00 before Schnellenberger arrived was raised to $7.75 at the end of 1999, $8.75 in 2000 and $10.00 in 2001 (it’s $17.27/credit hour for 2012 FAU students). And with answers of money came the answering of promises. The program would start on time, but not before former FAU president Anthony Catanese asked Schnellenberger, his director of football operations, to select a football coach.
He did. Himself.
Still, the idea of Schnellenberger as ambassador-at-large? As a voice to raise money for anything and everything? As Geraldo Rivera with more mustache?
“I think they were startled I’d come here and punch a clock,” he says. “But I don’t punch a clock. I don’t know the rules, and I’ve broken a lot of rules around here because there’s a lot of bureaucratic stuff that commanders in chief like coaches don’t do. They’re asking me to document all my calls. Questioning my veracity? I don’t write down who I’ve seen and how many hours I’ve spent there. When you’re a coach you just go do what you’re gonna do. They either give you a raise or they fire you.”
After his final game on Dec. 4, 2011, after 52 years in coaching, Schnellenberger took a vacation. It would last two months before he returned.
“I hit the ground running,” he says. “I’m going to run as fast as I can run. Let’s see who can keep up. I haven’t found anybody that can keep up yet. I do that because I’m 78 years old. If people think you’re old they tend to not pay much attention to you.”
Howard Schnellenberger’s angry. He leans back in his chair and rests his hands atop his head, fingers interlocked and takes a deep breath.
We’re talking about FAU football, about the direction he sees it going in. On May 5, conference rival FIU left the Sun Belt and announced its move to Conference USA, citing more exposure on ESPN among the reasons for leaving. It’s triggered something in Schnellenberger, and finally he reveals.
“We can’t continue where we are,” he says. “You can’t win the national championship from the Sun Belt conference. We can’t maximize the potential of our stadium playing Sun Belt Conference teams. We have to be in the Big East Conference, not Conference USA. That’s a dead conference. Florida International made the worst mistake they could make volunteering to go to Conference USA.”
I start to ask a follow-up question.
“What’d I just say?” he asks. “(FIU) made a bad mistake, they can’t win the national championship from there. Why would you go to a conference you can’t win a national championship from? That was my goal coming in here was to win the national championship in my lifetime from a startup program, and that’s still do-able if we get out of this conference and into the Big East conference.”
Schnellenberger pauses, re-adjusts himself at the table and begins day dreaming.
“All we’ve gotta do once we get into the Big East conference is go undefeated, and that will then vault us into a BCS bowl and it could be against the best team in America,” he says. “Or we could be the best team in America.”
There’s that smile again.
Schnellenberger works closer to 60 hours a week now than his usual 80 as football coach. He gets to work around 7:30 a.m. these days (“I don’t have to be up at 4:30 in the morning for weight training, I don’t have to be there til midnight preparing game plans,”) and, he says, he hits the campus gym three times a week.
“I’m leg pressing about 200 pounds,” he says. “For the first time I’m not blubber anymore. I’m starting to get a hard body. Like all my girlfriends.”
I didn’t believe him, and it left but one question. Um, coach … can I go to the gym with you?
“I’m not gonna let you see me in the gym,” he says. “See me muscling up 10 pounds? Can’t we do something else?”
Saturday at 10:00 a.m. The gym next to the football stadium. That’s right.
The 78-year-old Schnellenberger has agreed to visit the gym with me — in the name of journalism — and now there are forms to be filled out, lines to sign, the whole ordeal.
To snap shots of someone in FAU’s gym, you need permission. The form granting it asks for an address, a Z number, a phone number, a signature — all the basics.
And so Schnellenberger is in his office and the papers are handed to him.
“What is this?” he says. “They want my Social Security number or something? They know I’m a public figure?”
“I’m not being obnoxious,” he says. “Just saying.”
He looks at the form, eyeballs it up and down, and signs his swooping signature with a flourish. One more glance at the paper in front of him.
“I don’t have a friggin’ Z number,” he says, handing it back
I took the paper, empty save for his signature, and handed it back to Julie, the lady in charge of these sorts of things for the gym. She stared down the nearly blank form.
“Oh, that’s coach,” she said. “We’ll handle it.”
And up walks the old ball coach. It’s 10:04 a.m. on Saturday and it’s hot outside, the clouds up above doing little in the way of slowing down or blocking much of the sun, if at all. Schnellenberger, dressed in a white FAU polo shirt tucked into blue shorts, walks gingerly toward the Rec Center.
“Good morning,” he says, extending his right arm, a blue and red rubber band with one of his many mottos affixed to it (To Believe Is To Be Strong). “Let’s get to work.”
Inside the gym, Schnellenberger is standing at the second row of metal entrances, the fingerprint entrance, and it’s not opening, not even for championship-ring-covered fingers.
“The fingerprint machine is down,” an employee tells him.
Schnellenberger shakes his head and spreads his arms wide, grinning.
“$400 million dollars and it doesn’t work?” he says.
The gates, all of them, open.
“Don’t worry about it,” the employees tell Schnellenberger. “We know who you are.”
He smiles and walks through.
“Let’s do what I usually do,” he says. “A nice walk on the treadmill followed by some leg presses.” On his way over, he spots a couple of students pedaling on bicycles. “Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “How are you guys doing?”
Stunned, the students can’t help but smile. “Hi, coach!”
Schnellenberger makes his way over to the treadmill and steps onto his favorite one, the one in the middle of the front row, and starts walking. He looks over to me and puts his machine up to 2.0 mph. “It’s not about walking fast,” he says. “You have to warm-up.”
Earlier in the week, Schnellenberger warned me. He came to the gym often, he said, though he had limitations.
“I’ve got three prosthesis,” he says. “I got a knee that’s been replaced. I got a hip that’s been replaced. I got a shoulder that’s been replaced. We got six major joints in our body and three of mine have been replaced. I’m half a bionic man.”
And so by way of explanation, not excuse, he drops a bomb on me while on the treadmill.
“I had to learn how to walk again,” he says about his right hip surgery last season. Schnellenberger is in the middle of explaining how (“I never missed a day of work,” he offers up) when he notices something odd: Me. My foot, actually.
“You’re flopping your right foot,” he says. “Making a circle out of it. What are you doing? Never learned the military, did you?”
We’re about halfway through our first lap, and the most famous mustache in FAU history, still bushy as ever, says he likes to walk for just one lap before pumping iron. It’s a race now, and ridiculous though it may sound, I’m not losing to a 78 year old. I crank the speed up on my own treadmill and Schnellenberger peers over.
“You’re at 2.8 (mph)? I don’t have enough kick,” he says. “This is just a warm-up exercise, I want to just slide on in.”
And with the race nearing its end, Schnellenberger gets excited.
“All right, down the stretch we come,” he says. “Now the whip comes out. Stride for stride, nose for nose. Five furlongs to go. I can see the wire.”
I finish first (obviously), but Schnellenberger isn’t impressed.
“You just ran faster,” he says. “Notice I haven’t broken a sweat. And I was talking at my normal rate of speed, not gasping for air.”
Hey, writing and walking at the same time? Kind of difficult, coach.
“I like to go talk to a student now before I go on,” Schnellenberger says as we walk away from the treadmill. I’m confused but curious. He spots a student on the elliptical machine hard at work, headphones in, sweat pouring.
“May I ask what you’re listening to?” Schnellenberger says.
The girl pulls her headphones out.
“I’m listening to the band Cake,” she says.
“Cake?” Schnellenberger says, his eyebrows up high now, perplexity painting his face.
“You know, like the food,” she says. “C-A-K-E.”
“What do you know about Cake?”
Schnellenberger turns and asks me.
It tastes good, I tell him. Love it. He laughs. Notice, I tell him, she’s actually breaking a sweat.
“She’s not gonna break a sweat,” he spits out. “Girls don’t sweat.”
And just like that, Schnellenberger has a new fan. That red and blue rubber band he has on? It is part of a marketing campaign called “Howard’s Hundreds,” and with the help of Student Government, 10,000 red and blue, cliche-laden bands were ordered in the hopes of creating spirit and soul for the football team.
And, ridiculous though it may sound, when you hear Schnellenberger tell it, maybe, just maybe, the old ball coach can still do a bit of selling.
“Once you put one on,” he had told me, “you can never take it off again. Ever. You become one of Howard’s Hundreds.”
Making our way past the line of cardio machines — the treadmills and ellipticals and bicycles — Schnellenberger spots his baby: the leg press machine.
“Ah,” he says. “Old faithful.”
Schnellenberger adjusts the machine to its farthest setting, making way for his brittle body as he climbs aboard. He yanks on each leg, one at a time, grimacing until they are steady and set on the machine.
“The biggest thing when you’re 78 years old,” he says, “is about the angles.”
He pulls the metal handle and slots the machine at 160 pounds. Three sets of 15 on the way, he says.
If you can do that, I say, you can definitely do 200 pounds, coach.
“One time, you mean?” he asks.
“We don’t go for maxes here,” he says.
Why not, coach? I mean —
He cuts me off.
“Because I’m 78,” he says. “What difference does it make?”
Schnellenberger powers through his first set, no breaks necessary, and he’s quick to remind everyone what he just accomplished.
“That was a set of 15,” he says sternly. There’s a pause. And then a smile.
In between sets he tells stories of old times, of playing football, of training, of never giving up.
The second set is also blown through without problem, though the sweat is beginning to pile on.
“Now my heart rate is at 200,” he says. “Most important thing is how quick it goes back to 75. That’s the thing people don’t understand. They think walking is best for your cardiovascular health, but this does it too.”
Schnellenberger’s ready for his third and final set, his right leg ready to go, his left stubborn and still on the floor.
“Get up here!” Schnellenberger screams at his leg, yanking on it.
The leg obliges and, like he promised, like he always promises, three sets of 15 are through with.
Howard Schnellenberger is teaching me how to walk.
“Just walk behind me,” he says. “Just watch my feet. You should come down with your heels, then ball, then toe. Not flopping in a circle.”
He has to go soon, he says, so we make our way to the other side of the gym, and Schnellenberger is ready for the end of his workout. Time to rehab his bum shoulders.
He walks over to the lat pulldown machine, the one with the long grey bar up top, meant for back and shoulder exercises and places the weight on its lowest setting.
“All I’m gonna do here is hang,” he says.
And in the back corner of the gym, sitting backwards on the machine, Schnellenberger is literally hanging from the top bar, just relaxing.
He increases the weight, begins to swing his shoulders right to left. Up goes the weight again. Finally, once more.
He struggles with it.
“I’m just trying to show off now, huh?” he asks.
Schnellenberger’s ready to leave now. He says goodbye to nearby students, most glancing over at the spectacle throughout, and he makes his way outside of the gym.
“Good seeing you,” Schnellenberger says, extending his arm.
He walks away gingerly, breaking a sweat.