Passing the Torch
Building Winning Football Programs… with a Dose of Swagger Along the Way
by Howard Schnellenberger with Ron Smith
One of the most colorful and successful football coaches of the last half-century is ready to tell his story for the first time. Howard Schnellenberger learned his trade from two of the all-time greats, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Don Shula, winning championships with each mentor. Schnellenberger then took the football torch that was passed to him and became a transformative head coach at three universities. All three have now nominated him for the College Football Hall of Fame.
For all his personal triumphs, there have also been instances of crashing and burning. He was fired as head coach of the Baltimore Colts after a sideline showdown with the owner of the team. He walked away from the University of Miami to try to make his fortune in the ill-fated USFL. A move to the University of Oklahoma ended in humiliation. The coach talks about the wise decisions and the poor decisions he has made, and he shares the lessons he learned along the way.
Schnellenberger’s career has brought him into combat alongside or across the field from many of the greats. His high school teammate was the future Heisman Trophy winner and Green Bay Packer star Paul Hornung. Schnellenberger was an All-American player at Kentucky in 1955 at a time when players played both offense and defense. He later recruited or coached a stunning array of quarterbacks, including Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler, Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Bert Jones, Roman Gabriel, Bob Griese and Earl Morrall.
Schnellenberger served as offensive coordinator while helping Alabama and Bryant claim national championships in 1961, 1964 and 1965.
His early career also included serving as offensive coordinator for Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins in 1972 during the only perfect season in NFL history.
Schnellenberger took over a University of Miami program that was contemplating dropping the sport in 1979 and instead led them to 46 wins in five years and a national championship in 1983. He established a swagger at the U and set the school on a path to five national championships in two decades.
He dabbled with Donald Trump and the upstart United States Football League that sued the NFL for antitrust violations. In 1985 he returned to his hometown and took over another struggling program at the University of Louisville. After three losing seasons, he built them into a football power. His time there was capped by a 10-1-1 record in 1990 that included a Fiesta Bowl victory over Alabama.
He retired from coaching in 1995, having been part of four college national championships. Coach Schnellenberger managed an encore performance, though, that is a crowning achievement. He came out of retirement in 1998 at age 64 to start a football program at Florida Atlantic University. His team became the youngest program ever to receive a bowl invitation. He won that game and was awarded the Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year award. The next year his Owls won another bowl game, making the coach 6-0 and the winningest undefeated coach in bowl history.
Coach Schnellenberger retired again after the 2011 season, but not before building a 30,000 seat on-campus football stadium at Florida Atlantic University. A statue of the coach stands guard at the FAU stadium. In Louisville, a 55,000 seat stadium is part of the Howard L. Schnellenberger Football Complex that he fought to have built in that city.
Schnellenberger saved football at two proud universities. He launched football at a third. He has sent more than 100 college stars on to professional football careers. His stories about those players and the secrets to his remarkable success are the subject of this memoir.
About the Authors
Howard L. Schnellenberger retired from the sidelines in 2011 after 29 years as a head coach and 18 more as an assistant coach. He continued to work at Florida Atlantic University as an Ambassador At Large until his death in 2021.
Ronald C. Smith has a journalism degree from Boston University, a master’s in education from Converse College and a law degree from Florida State University. Ron was executive city editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, managing editor of the Chattanooga Times and editor in chief of the Boca Raton News. He is now a prosecuting attorney living and working in South Florida.