Howard Schnellenberger, the legendary college football coach who won a national title at Miami before lifting the Louisville football program to heights previously thought unreachable, passed away Saturday morning at his Florida home. He was 87.
When Louisville hired Schnellenberger on Dec. 2, 1984 to be its new head football coach, the common thought was that the struggling program was in need of a miracle. Luckily, Schnellenberger was the man who had already made such a thing happen.
In 1979, Schnellenberger had taken over a Miami program that seemed to be on its last legs. He then pulled off what was deemed “The Miracle at Miami” by recruiting the city harder than any of his predecessors and installing a boot camp methodology and a pro style offense. Soon, the Hurricanes were experiencing the best days of their program’s history, capped off by a national championship in 1983.
Following that season, Schnellenberger tearfully announced that he was departing for the newly-formed United States Football League. There, he was set to become part-owner, general manager and head coach of The Spirit of Miami. Only one of the deal’s primary supporters backed out of the deal at the last minute, the franchise was moved to Orlando, and Schnellenberger was not retained.
After spending a year away from coaching, Schnellenberger was given an opportunity by a program in Louisville that, like Miami before it, had recently considered dropping football entirely.
‘’Very few coaches in their lifetime have an opportunity to take Cinderella to the ball twice,’’ Schnellenberger said during his introductory press conference. ‘’I’ve been there once and I think I have the opportunity to do it here again.’’
He then took things a step further and uttered what would become one of the most memorable quotes in U of L sports history.
“The University of Louisville is on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.”
The statement didn’t seem any less ridiculous after Schnellenberger’s first few seasons on the job than it did at that press conference. The Cardinals struggled to a 2-9 record in Schnellenberger’s debut season, and then won just one more game in each of his next two. Despite an 8-24-1 overall record through three seasons, the Cardinal head coach remained steadfast in his belief that great days were coming.
“You have to understand that what we’re doing here is the biggest thing that’s ever been done in college football,” Schnellenberger told the Associated Press after his team’s 3-7-1 season in 1987. “And when we make it happen, Paul Bryant going to Texas A&M and Alabama and winning national championships won’t be this big. Knute Rockne taking that little Catholic school on the plain in South Bend and making a nationally prominent program won’t be as big as this.”
That confidence began to carry over onto the field. Louisville went 8-3 in 1988, and then fielded another winning team in 1989, when the Cardinals went 6-5. Then, in 1990, Schnellenberger’s prophecy felt more like a potential reality than a hollow rallying cry for the first time.
Led by the play of star quarterback Browning Nagle, the 1990 Louisville team rolled to its best season in school history, a 10-1-1 campaign that was capped off by a 34-7 demolition of mighty Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. The victory marked the program’s first ever win in a New Year’s Day bowl, and resulted in its first ever appearance in a final Associated Press Top 25 poll (11th).
After a pair of down seasons in 1991 and 1992, the good times returned to the gridiron in 1993. Nagle’s heir apparent, local product Jeff Brohm, quarterbacked the Cardinals back into the national rankings after a 5-0 start that was highlighted by a 41-10 stomping of Texas and a 35-17 upset of No. 23 Arizona State. Louisville finished the season witha 9-3 record and ranked No. 24 after defeating Michigan State in the Liberty Bowl.
The Liberty Bowl win would prove to be the final high note for the Howard Schnellenberger era at Louisville. In 1994, U of L had made known its plans to join the newly-formed Conference USA in all sports. This included football, a sport in which the Cardinals had competed as an independent for the duration of Schnellenberger’s tenure.
Schnellenberger, who had been open and outspoken about his desire to not join Conference USA, accepted the head coaching job at Oklahoma on Dec. 17, 1994.
“I didn’t leave because of money,” Schnellenberger recalls. “I left because of that conference. I didn’t want to coach in a conference where I felt like we couldn’t compete for a national championship. That was always the goal.”
At Oklahoma, Schnellenberger drew the ire of his players right away with public criticisms of their lack of conditioning. He then drew the ire of his fan base after a lackluster performance in conference play that included embarrassing losses to both Kansas and Kansas State. After posting a 5-5-1 record, Schnellenberger resigned after just one season with the Sooners.
Despite his departure from the program (and the fact that he went to the University of Kentucky), Schnellenberger has remained consistently loved in Louisville. It’s a fact that both surprised and warmed the heart of the head coach in his later years.
“I divorced them when I took that job at Oklahoma, and it was the biggest mistake of my life, Schnellenberger said. “But when I came back to my hometown as a lost son, they turned me into a prodigal son. From the bottom of my heart, I thank Louisville fans for that. They never turned their backs on me, even though it may have seemed like I turned my back on them. They always loved me, and I’ll always love them.”
We’ll always love you, coach.