Penn State’s Joe Paterno is not the only grandpa still coaching. This Saturday Auburn will play Florida Atlantic University, coached by 77 year old Howard Schnellenberger. For the young folks reading this column, Schnellenberger is a coaching legend.
Known as “the program builder,” Howard built successful programs at down and out places like Louisville and Miami. That’s right the famous Miami Hurricanes were in danger of closing down their lowly football program when Howard Schnellenberger arrived on the scene in 1979.
He left the Canes after winning a national championship to take the Louisville job; another downtrodden program. Had he stayed some feel he might have led Miami to 10 national championships.
He has won numerous coach of the year honors during his career; and he was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins during their historic 17-0 record setting year in 1972. In addition he had stints as head coach at Oklahoma and with the Baltimore Colts.
In 1998 ,when he was 64 years old he started the FAU program completely from scratch. Howard led the Owls to the 1-AA national championship game in 2003. In 2005 his team joined the Sun Belt (an FBS Conference) two years later FAU won the Conference Championship.
My interest in Coach Schnellenberger ‘s career goes back to January 3rd, 1984. I will always remember that morning. I got up expecting to see the Auburn Tigers crowned National Champions. They were ranked No. 3 and had beaten Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. No. 1 Nebraska and No.2 Texas had both lost their bowl games. So like every one else in the Auburn family, I had gone to bed knowing that Auburn would surely be crowned National Champions.
Not only should Auburn have moved up to No.1 because the previous No. 1 and No. 2 lost in front of them, but they had completed the toughest schedule in the nation, including wins over nine bowl teams. The NCAA still ranks that Auburn season as one of the top 4 toughest strength of schedules in the history of College football. Fifteen different organizations recognized Auburn as The National Champions including the New York Times and the Billingsley report which bases their selection on records, computer rankings, and strength of schedule.
However, Miami backed into an Orange Bowl win over Nebraska when the Huskers chose not to kick a point after; giving the Canes a one point upset victory. The sports writers of the Associated Press (AP) went with the media Cinderella darling and leaped frog the No.5 Canes to the top spot. At that time the AP Poll was the one that mattered.
The pollsters knew they had voted with their hearts instead of their heads because they started the next preseason poll off by placing Auburn No. 1 and Miami No. 10. There was much debate in the off season over who should have been No. 1. So both Auburn and Miami agreed to play each other in the new made for TV game called the “Kick off Classic.”
Coach Pat Dye’s preseason No.1 Tigers met the new Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson’s 10thranked Hurricanes in the 1984 Classic. The Tigers lost in a close one 20-18 and finished the season at 9-4 and ranked 14th. Miami finished ranked 18th nationally with an 8-5 record.
But that game never settled anything for me, I wanted to see Auburn play a Howard Schnellenberger team.
This weekend, I will finally get that chance. Unfortunately this is not the way I wanted it to play out. I wanted to get Howard at his best and many people see this game as just a cup cake for Auburn. After all the Owls fly into Jordan-Hare at 0-2 and fresh off a 44-0 drubbing by Michigan State. In addition the great program builder has announced he will be officially retiring at the end of the year.
So this season is Howard’s last hurrah. The final chapter of 52 years of a coaching legend is being played out this fall. And one of the pages in that last chapter will take place on Pat Dye Field Saturday night.
I will be there to watch the old field general pace the sidelines one more time. Yet this is not how I envisioned it. This is not the game I have waited for, this is not Miami; but it is Howard Schnellenberger, it will have to do.
Yes Howard Schnellenberger is finally here at Jordan-Hare Stadium, 28 years after one of his teams was awarded a mythical national championship … a championship that I will go to my grave believing was rightfully Auburn’s.
So you’ll have to forgive me when I say, ” This is not just a cupcake game to me. I really want to see the Tigers beat Howard – and the Owls he flew in on too!”