WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Howard Schnellenberger has an autobiography coming out Sept. 1 titled Passing the Torch. The only greater wish I could imagine would be an audiobook with the coach himself booming out every word.
This guy has more epic tales to tell than Mark Twain, and almost as many unforgettable characters to introduce on the river of his life.
Schnellenberger played and worked for Bear Bryant. He recruited Joe Namath to Alabama, at one point writing bad checks to transport the star prospect to Tuscaloosa before somebody else could snap him up. Schnellenberger was the offensive coordinator for Don Shula's perfect 1972 Dolphins, too, and the visionary who started the University of Miami's national championship tradition.
Add it all up, with the resurrection of Louisville's program and the birthing of Florida Atlantic's thrown in, and there is only one big-time minus.
Schnellenberger, 80, keeps getting passed over for induction to the College Football Hall of Fame. There is no real logic to that, but there is a technical reason.
The National Football Foundation requires that coaches have a .600 career winning percentage in order to be eligible. Schnellenberger got off to a great start at Miami (41-16 and a national title in 1983), but his willingness to take on the long, hard work of building other programs from the bottom left his college career record at 158-151-3, barely over .500.
There's a way to bypass this problem. The Hall of Fame has a special committee that examines "unique cases." If anyone in college coaching has ever been more unique than Schnellenberger, or more famous, for that matter, at the peak of his powers, it must be a very short list.
Two coaches made the grade when the 2014 induction class was announced on May 22 -- Oregon's Mike Bellotti and Appalachian State's Jerry Moore. The former won a couple of Pacific-10 championships in 14 years of major-college coaching. The latter won three consecutive national titles with a powerhouse small-school program but never had a winning record in five seasons at Texas Tech.
Successful coaches, sure, but hardly on a scale beyond Schnellenberger's reach.
Why, even Darrell Mudra is in the Hall of Fame. Florida State fans remember him going 4-18 in two lousy years as the Seminoles' boss in the mid-1970s, and with the peculiar habit of watching games from the press box rather than the sidelines. Mudra got to the requisite .600 percentage by rolling up victories at Adams State, North Dakota State, Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Northern Iowa.
Schnellenberger, a former NFL head coach at Baltimore, didn't drop down to that small-college level until he was 67, and that was to inaugurate the program at FAU. Even then, he had the Owls up to FBS status by their fifth season of existence. The easy way just never had much of an appeal.
That's really the point here. Schnellenberger shouldn't be punished by the Hall's eligibility criteria for taking on the worst jobs and transforming them into something grand. Miami football had lagged so badly before Schnellenberger's arrival that not even a visit by Notre Dame could guarantee 25,000 fans at the Orange Bowl in 1975.
Louisville, likewise, was an overlooked independent until Schnellenberger arrived to push the Cardinals to a Fiesta Bowl rout of Alabama. This fall Louisville begins play in the ACC, operating from a fieldhouse and training facility that is dedicated to Schnellenberger's name.
The FAU epilogue to this story features the construction of an on-campus stadium that only Schnellenberger could have made happen. Miami could have had one, too, if school officials had trusted his instincts and direction.
Look to the Bear for Schnellenberger's inspiration in all things.
Maryland was coming off a 1-7-1 season when Bryant arrived there in 1945. The Terrapins promptly went 6-2-1 and lost their hot young coach to Kentucky.
The Wildcats never had won more than six games in a season to that point, but Bryant led them to 7-3 in his first season. From 1949-51, Kentucky played in the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl all in a row. The program hasn't been to a major bowl since.
Texas A&M got a similar boost from the Bear, and next came Alabama, which was 4-24-2 in the three seasons prior to Bryant's hiring with a 17-game losing streak included in that skid. Three seasons into the Bryant Era, the Crimson Tide was 11-0 and celebrating a national championship.
Schnellenberger showed the same boldness in signing up for ugly assignments, and the similar belief that he could turn any situation around. Other than stubbing his toe during one 5-5-1 season at Oklahoma, it worked. Not on the scale of Bryant's success, of course, but it worked.
If the Hall of Fame can't see the value in that, then the people who run that show are outsmarting themselves. That's a shame for Schnellenberger, who belongs on any list of men who have made college football shine.
Sports on 08/01/2014
Print Headline: Schnellenberger should be in Hall of Fame