FAU’s best coach: Joan Joyce vs. Howard Schnellenberger
One created the football program, the other has racked up the most wins in school history, but who gets the edge?
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They both created their programs from scratch.
They both put FAU athletics on the map in their respective sports.
But between softball head coach Joan Joyce, and former head football coach Howard Schnellenberger, who is the greatest head coach in FAU history?
The Case for Joyce
Before she came to FAU 23 years ago, Joyce made her mark as one of the premier female athletes in the modern world.
The current Owls head softball coach played professional softball for 21 years, racking up the most consecutive all-star team selections and eight Most Valuable Player awards in a now defunct professional softball league, as well as pitching 50 perfect games.
After her successful softball career, Joyce began playing golf. She is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the lowest number of putts, 17, for both men and women in a single round, set at the 1982 Lady Michelob.
Meanwhile, in the city of Boca Raton, FAU was working to create a softball program, and then Athletic Director Tom Cargill wanted to not only put the sport on notice early, but the entire university’s athletic programs altogether. Cargill targeted Joyce for the job.
“There’s not a bigger name in women’s softball anywhere than Joan Joyce,” Cargill told the Sun Sentinel at the time. “It’s already had an impact in scheduling and recruiting.”
When Joyce first arrived at FAU, her softball team did not have a real field to play on. All she had to work with was an uncut field, a fence around it and the dugouts for the players. There were no lights, no bleachers, no bullpens and no groundskeeper to get the field ready to play.
Sometimes, Joyce herself had to hop on the tractor to trim the field.
“[It’s] unbelievable how things have changed,” Joyce said.
The program began its inaugural season in 1994 and finished 33-18 after losing to Campbell in the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship game. Joyce was named ASC Coach of the Year, her first of seven conference coach of the year awards.
Two years later, FAU captured the Atlantic Sun Conference title and brought home just the second trophy in FAU athletics history. Then in 1999, the softball team became the first team to participate in an NCAA tournament in any sport in the school’s history.
On March 19, 2017, after 25 years at the helm, Joyce reached her 900th win after a 4-1 victory over Western Kentucky University. Her 905 wins rank 47th all-time among NCAA coaches of any sport.
However, after all those wins, 11 conference championships and coach of the year awards later, Joyce does not have a specific moment she’d pick as her proudest, but the conference championships have a special place in her heart, and her trophy cabinet.
“There’s been so many of those,” she said. “Those conference championships are special because you only have the kids for four years, it’s not like you’re playing with the same players forever. So it’s having all those different kids, and having them react to winning a conference championship that makes it special.”
Joyce is currently part of 11 Hall of Fame inductions, including the Florida Sports Hall of Fame and the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame. She is also just one of a handful of Americans who have been inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
The Case for Schnellenberger
Before arriving at FAU, Schnellenberger revitalized the University of Miami and the University of Louisville football programs.
Miami had a losing record in nine of the 11 years prior to Schnellenberger’s arrival in 1979 and had not played in a bowl game game since 1967. When Schnellenberger took the job, his plan was to win a national championship within the first five years.
He accomplished that in his fifth year, defeating the University of Nebraska 31-30 in 1984.
Schnellenberger then took over another struggling program in 1985, Louisville, which did not have a winning record since 1978. Schnellenberger was unable to win a national championship with the Cardinals, but did win two bowl games during his nine years at the helm.
When he received a phone call about starting a football program in Boca Raton in 1998, he had not coached since his last job with Oklahoma in 1995. Instead, he was in school, studying to become a stockbroker. He passed his exam on the third try, and he was ready to give up football for a while.
However, the man on the phone told Schnellenberger there was something different about this job, something special. The man on the phone, former FAU President Anthony Catanese, said this one was to make history.
“At Miami and Louisville, the program was already there. They were not good, but everything was already built,” Schnellenberger said. “I had to go to classes, go all around Boca Raton just to teach people what football was all about and what I was trying to accomplish here.”
Schnellenberger was tasked with doing everything: coming up with a strategic plan, raising funds, recruiting players, finding a stadium and selecting a new coach. He was able to raise more than $13 million through different fundraising activities and pledges.
When it came time to choose a head coach, Schnellenberger had a tough time luring coaches from other Florida universities, such as Miami, Florida State University and the University of Florida. Not only was he unable to offer them more money than those schools could, but there was also a sense of uncertainty about how well could FAU really do.
Catanese then offered a different plan.
“Why don’t you be our head coach?” Schnellenberger recalled Catanese asking.
Schnellenberger refused the first five times Catanese asked, but finally caved in when the former FAU president made one last pitch.
“Coach, you know you can judge the quality of an institution [of] higher learning by who they hire,”
“I had a belief,” Schnellenberger said. “If what you are speaking about is so positive, people will listen. So what I had to do was install the belief in that what I was trying with Florida Atlantic was going to be special.”
The former head coach recalled several things that went wrong during that first practice in 2000, which featured 160 walk-ons and 22 scholarship players.
First, none of the players were wearing a jockstrap, an undergarment for supporting the male genitalia in sports.
Second, they had no field for their first practice, so the players had to cut the grass on a nearby field and had to use the girls locker room because FAU did not have a facility or stadium for the players.
Regardless, Schnellenberger’s goals for FAU remained clear: become a Division I school, win bowl games and establish FAU as one of the premier football schools in Florida.
“We took the same principle from the University of Miami,” Schnellenberger said. “We decided we were going to emulate exactly what they were doing.”
Seven years into the creation of the football program, two of those goals were accomplished. FAU became a Division I school within four years and won its first bowl game three years later, a 44-27 win over the University of Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.
After 10 years as head coach and 13 years after creating a program from dust, Schnellenberger retired at the expiration of his contract following the 2011 season.
In 2014, FAU Stadium’s field was named after him.
So, who’s the greatest coach in FAU history, according to Joyce?
“He’s an icon,” Joyce said. “It’s unbelievable, he changes a room when he walks in it. That’s what kind of an icon he is. He’s unbelievable.”
Does coach Schnellenberger agree?
“Bullshit,” Schnellenberger said. “She does not have to give me or anybody the edge as [FAU head coach]. I will not accept being named No.1 Joan Joyce. She is the greatest ever.”
All statistics accurate as of April 7.
Let their resumes do the talking
Hans Belot Jr. is the sports editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at @Don_Phenom_.