Master Architect: Howard Schnellenberger

Howard Schnellenberger built three Division One football programs, but the people he interacted with felt his lasting impact.


Photo courtesy of FAU Athletics

Joseph Acosta, Business Manager

Howard Schnellenberger passed away on March 27 at the age of 87, but three of his fondest passion projects continue to thrive in college football.

Many writers and fans credit him as the architect of Florida Atlantic’s football program, turning a 94-page proposal into a Conference-USA football power. He also created the  University of Miami football program we know today, a category five hurricane of athleticism and swagger reminiscent of Dade and Broward County, and revived a Louisville football program that didn’t have a season with double-digit wins in its entire history.

Yet, the players and coaches he interacted with are the direct protégés of Schnellenberger’s work in the football world, and much like an instructor, he taught his students well. As Don Bailey Jr., an offensive lineman under Schnellenberger at the University of Miami from 1979-1982 described it, “If you play for Howard Schnellenberger, you get a doctorate in Schnellenberger, and that would hold up in life to any doctorate you get in any educational category.”


Miami is for Me

On a hot afternoon in 1979, Schnellenberger strode into Coral Gables after taking a job to turn around a program headed towards disbandment. The University of Miami’s football team entered the offseason coming off of a middling 6-5 record, but rumors of disbanding the program ran rampant. The facilities were among the worst in the country and the school earned a bad reputation among college football circles.

However, Schnellenberger was adamant about what he called a “five-year plan,” a strategy to bring Miami to the ranks of the elite.

“We are going to win a national championship at Miami,” Schnellenberger told his players on that day in 1979. Tony Fitzpatrick was one of those players, and when Schnellenberger told players what the pinnacle of the five-year plan was, Fitzpatrick was stunned. “I thought he was crazy,” he said. 

Schnellenberger would soon put the plan into action, starting with turning a rag-tag group of players rejected by larger schools into the beginning of one of the most dominant runs in college football history. Fitzpatrick, who played for Schnellenberger from 1979-1983, originally committed to play for Liberty University, a small Baptist school in Lynchburg, Va. because the 242-pound nose guard was deemed “too small” by larger schools. 

In college football writer Bruce Feldman’s book, “Cane Mutiny,”  Feldman says that Lou Saban recruited a quarterback from Pennsylvania named Jim Kelly who Penn State wanted to move to linebacker. Under Schnellenberger’s tutelage, Kelly would become a force in college football before his Hall of Fame career for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. “He turned boys into men,” Kelly told WGRZ in Buffalo. “When you’re around him, you either do it his way or you were gone.” 

Three and-a-half mile runs at 6:00 a.m. were all too common in Schnellenberger’s master plan, followed by what Fitzpatrick described as “three-a-days”: three practices, fully padded, in the sweltering heat. Yet, as Bailey said, these practices were the building blocks in Schnellenberger’s plan, and the players trusted Schnellenberger to see the plan through. “Everything was premeditated, not only for that moment but for a month, a year, five years down the road. There was nothing done that didn’t affect that moment or the future,” Bailey said.

“[Schnellenberger] was the same to everyone,” Bailey continued. “The players made the decision to be [at Miami] and he took the ‘why’ out of it.”

The players’ trust in the plan reached its apex in 1983. Coming off of a seven-win season in 1982, Schnellenberger dubbed this season, “The Culmination,” according to Fitzpatrick. That season resulted in 11 wins, and a national championship victory over Nebraska in what The New York Times deemed an “upset.” But if you ask Fitzpatrick, the victory was already in the plans.

“That entire season, our mentality wasn’t just about winning; it was about how much we would win by, and it was because of Coach Schnellenberger and believing in his process and hanging on to every word he said to us,” Fitzpatrick said. “We knew we were prepared, so it didn’t matter who we played. It could’ve been the Russians, and we would’ve got after them.”

There were tense moments, such as the second game of the 1983 season against Houston. Miami lost to rival University of Florida the previous week and according to Fitzpatrick, Schnellenberger told his players after the game that they would have won if there was more time on the clock. The Houston game began with Houston’s run-heavy offense marching right down the field and scoring a touchdown. The defense went to the sideline and Schnellenberger said, “I thought we promised each other this wasn’t going to happen.” Fitzpatrick said that they looked into Schnellenberger’s eyes and saw the trust and determination from Schnellenberger. From that point on, Houston’s offense never went past midfield, and Miami would win 29-7.

Bailey said that Schnellenberger taught him how to be a man and that his lessons would carry over into a post-football career. “I don’t remember telling myself while I was there that what he [Schnellenberger] taught me would change my life, it’s only after you leave there that you realize that every lesson he taught you could be applied to life, if you figured it out,” Bailey said. 

Fitzpatrick had a similar perspective but illustrated it through a story. Fitzpatrick and Bailey played on opposite sides of the ball, and would often go against each other in practice. After practice, Fitzpatrick would sit next to Bailey in the locker room, jerseys soaked in a combination of sweat and blood, and ask him why they would tear each other up this way. Bailey looked back at him and uttered a word that Fitzpatrick used to describe Coach Schnellenberger.


Cardinal Saint

Former Miami Sports Information Director and current Executive Director of the Louisville Sports Commission Karl Schmitt would describe Schnellenberger as curious. “He wanted to know what made people tick and how to make something better,” he said. 

This drive led Schnellenberger back to his home state of Kentucky after a Miami-based United States Football League team couldn’t make it off the ground. He became the head coach at the University of Louisville, which Schmitt said was always seen as Kentucky’s “little brother.” According to Schmitt, Schnellenberger had to pester and prod at the Wildcats for five years before the AD at the time, C.M. Newton, finally agreed. 

Schnellenberger understood how important it was for the two football teams to play, especially for a program that was near its financial deathbed such as Louisville. “[Schnellenberger] was a mastermind in marketing and promotion,” said Schmitt. “He recognized that the best promotional tool for football at Louisville and in the entire state was a series with Kentucky.”

Before he could schedule these games, however, Schnellenberger had to get an entirely new group to buy into the plan he envisioned for the Cardinals. For West Palm Beach native Craig Swabek, a former player and assistant coach under Schnellenberger, the buy-in was easy. “He was this larger-than-life figure, having been so revered at Miami, so the fact that he wanted me to come play for him was exciting,” Swabek said.

For former Louisville offensive lineman and current Vice President of Football Development for the NFL Roman Oben, this larger-than-life figure came with some intimidation. “You’re seeing this older guy with the pipe and deep voice, but what was alluring recruits to come to Louisville was buying into the vision,” Oben said. This vision was similar to the vision Schnellenberger had at Miami: to build and make history.

The Louisville football team made history in 1990, as Schnellenberger led the Cardinals to their first bowl game victory since 1977 in a 34-7 Fiesta Bowl rout of the Alabama Crimson Tide, the same Crimson Tide where Schnellenberger worked under Bear Bryant and recruited Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. 

Yet the Cardinals believed they were more than prepared to battle with the Tide and come out victorious. “We were having feisty practices when Alabama was doing walkthroughs in shorts and t-shirts. He [Schnellenberger] had the team ready to be unleashed on the field, and that’s what happened,” Swabek said.

Oben didn’t play in that bowl game but agreed with how Schnellenberger prepared his players for games, lessons that he’ll remember for the rest of his life. From the spring drills and camps Oben described as “rigorous” to the infamous “Toilet Bowl,” which Oben describes as a 100-play scrimmage for all of the players that didn’t play in the previous game on Saturday, Schnellenberger had his teams ready to win football games. “If you came out of Louisville during that period, you knew you could play against everybody,” Oben said. “Coach Schnellenberger had a phrase: callusing yourself. You have to get calluses on your hands, and when you’re grinded down, that’s when we find out what you’re made of.”

The War Horse’s Final Ride

Former FAU President Anthony Catanese, Ph.D was in need of a spark, something that would unite the seven campuses and get FAU to grow beyond the label of “commuter school,” which he hated. The Board of Trustees, a group of people appointed by the governor and student government who make all of the managerial decisions at FAU, originally wasn’t pleased with the idea. “They [other football programs in Florida] didn’t want any competition,” Catanese said. Eventually, the board acquiesced, and granted Catanese his wish. Now, he needed some advice on how to begin this program. 

Which leads us to Uncle Tai’s, an authentic Chinese restaurant that closed in 2018. Catanese met with Schnellenberger over crispy beef to discuss Catanese’s plans for starting a football program. Catanese said Schnellenberger asked him a set of questions:

“How much money you got,” Schnellenberger asked.

Zero. The pair would have to raise over $10 million to build facilities and hire coaches.

Schnellenberger continued. “How many players [do] you have?”

None. Schnellenberger would have to recruit his own players.

“Well, do you have a football stadium,” Schnellenberger asked.

Not at all. This program would literally be starting from scratch, which piqued Schnellenberger’s interest. “I’ll take the job,” Schnellenberger told Catanese. He wasn’t even offered it yet. Catanese asked Schnellenberger why he chose to take on this large of a construction project. Schnellenberger just resigned from the University of Oklahoma after just one season, and didn’t necessarily need to take this job.

“I can come to Florida Atlantic and start everything from scratch. I can do everything the way I think it should be done, and get the coaches and money I think we need,” Schnellenberger would tell Catanese, according to Catanese.

Catanese thought he was having lunch with Schnellenberger asking for advice. He left with Schnellenberger as his head coach.

Schnellenberger was named the Head Coach in 1999 of the fledgling FAU football program. “The old warhorse has risen again, and he is ready for battle,” Schnellenberger would tell reporters for the Orlando Sentinel. Schnellenberger began a fundraising process that eventually raised $13 million for the beginning of the program and the construction of the Tom Oxley athletic complex. Schnellenberger’s task was similar to what he previously did at Miami and Louisville: build, but this time from the absolute bottom. Among the goals Schnellenberger and Catanese outlined at their press conference: joining the Division One football programs by 2003, and an $80 million domed football stadium.

“I am confident that Schnellenberger is the right man to lead our team onto the field and into the 21st century,” said Catanese to the Orlando Sentinel. 

Tyrone Higgins was one of the first players to sign with FAU. Although he initially intended on playing at the University of Miami, the linebacker was enticed by the aura of Schnellenberger and getting some of the same coaching that the vaunted UM teams had in the ‘80s. “He had a great reputation in South Florida, and wanted to play a physical brand of football, something that I enjoyed.”

The practices the first Owls went through were “grueling,” as Higgins put it. The first scrimmage Schnellenberger had players run 220 plays, then after the scrimmage run “gassers” – sprints down the entire field and back, then again. The team did that 12 times. Schnellenberger made sure his teams weren’t out of shape, nor were they unprepared. “If you could complete a Howard Schnellenberger program, you were a tough guy,” Higgins said. Contact in practice wasn’t just normal, it was celebrated. Linebackers hit each other in drills until some were bleeding, then after practice would have meetings watching film of the opposing team until midnight. But that’s how Schnellenberger chose to build the Owls, on toughness and preparation. This would have them ready for anything, Higgins said. “We would line up against people who were bigger and faster, but we would just be tougher and win the game.”

Beginning with 25 signed players and the Tom Oxley Center, Schnellenberger went 17-18 at the FCS level, defeating opponents such as then 22nd-ranked Bethune-Cookman. In 2003, the Owls moved up to the Division One level: just as Schnellenberger predicted.

In 2005, the FAU Owls were preparing to face the University of Kansas, led by star defensive back and eventual NFL Pro Bowler Aqib Talib. The Owls needed all the preparation they could get, and the scout team wasn’t practicing as hard as they should have. Kris Bartels, who walked on to the FAU football team in 2003, noticed this and made a split decision. “I went up and asked Coach if I could return a kick on the scout team,” he said. Schnellenberger agreed, and Bartels received the kickoff and sprinted as fast as he could. Schnellenberger noticed, and the next week Bartels was on the kickoff return team. Now, that may seem like a small story, but for Bartels, it reminded him of what Schnellenberger was all about.

“[Schnellenberger] wanted to see someone get the job done. Those little interactions demonstrated his toughness and grit,” he said. This toughness was especially needed for an FAU team that would regularly schedule opponents who were from larger schools such as Clemson, Oklahoma State, and Minnesota. What some would call a murderer’s row of opening season opponents, Schnellenberger called “Advanced Warfare Training.”

That’s right. Advanced. Warfare. Training.

“We would go play teams like Minnesota, Oklahoma State, and Kansas and just get demolished,” Bartels said. “If we were able to get out of those games healthy and put up a fight, then we’d learn how to handle battle adversity and be better off for us.” This adversity eventually led to the 2007 season, where FAU went 8-5 and defeated Memphis 44-27 in their first-ever bowl game.

“You could see how much he cared about the players, and we believed in him and bought into his process,” Bartels said. “Through that process, he gave us confidence, and he was always making calm calculated decisions.”

Lasting Legacy

Howard Schnellenberger retired from coaching in 2011, but the legacy he left on these three programs will live forever. From his personality (every player could mimic Schnellenberger’s heavy Southern accent) to the brutal practice memories, to the laughs (Swabek vividly remembers when Schnellenberger kicked Mick Jagger out of the locker room), the impact Schnellenberger had was monumental.

Schnellenberger regularly held meetings with sportswriters who covered FAU’s football team, such as then-University Press writer Ed Gauna. Gauna would head to the Tom Oxley Athletic Facility at Florida Atlantic University around the middle of the day and sit at a large oval table in Schnellenberger’s office among other professional writers. At the head, was the pipe-smoking, legendary coach, surrounded by memorabilia from all of Schnellenberger’s legendary stops. 

Although he was initially intimidated, Gauna said that Schnellenberger made every writer who stepped into the office feel at home. “He almost spoke in poems at times,” Gauna said. “[Schnellenberger] encouraged us to ask as many questions as we could, he really was a true professional.”

“He gave me a chance,” said Fitzpatrick. “When I heard the news of his passing, it felt like I lost my father, that’s how much he meant to me.”

“I just hope he realizes how many young men he positively affected,” said Oben.

“He gave you a great foundation of living an ethical life,” said Swabek.

The foundations that these players took from their time with Schnellenberger translated to their post-football careers. Oben is the VP of Football Development for the National Football League. Swabek is a play-by-play commentator for Louisville football, and Bartels does color commentary for FAU football games. Higgins is the head football coach at Palm Beach Gardens High School, and he’s noticed some lessons from Schnellenberger in his coaching style.

“We’re in the process of building a program, and to build a good program toughness has to be a way of life,” Higgins said. “You have to know and do your job, and that’s where you can even the playing field.”

Schnellenberger may not be in the College Football Hall of Fame, but the three programs he built have withstood the test of time. A prime example of that is the field that’s named after him at FAU. Don Bailey Jr. remembers one of his last conversations with Schnellenberger, walking up the steps of FAU Stadium with him. As they walked, Schnellenberger began talking about how many steps it took to reach the top of the stadium, which feels fitting of a man like Schnellenberger. Beginning at ground zero with three programs, Schnellenberger took each step into building lasting football programs, and at the top, were the players he coached along the way.

Many of the players and people interviewed used multiple words to describe Schnellenberger: “legend,” “consistent,” “amazing,” but Catanese couldn’t sum it up in just one word, he needed a phrase.

“Greatest of all time.”


Joseph Acosta is the Business Manager of the FAU University Press. For all inquiries regarding this story or any other stories, email him at [email protected] or tweet him @acosta32_jp.