He has a voice that even James Earl Jones would envy. Deep. Soothing. Slow. Think of a 45 played at 331/3 rpm.
Yet it's his words, not his tone, that make people sit up and pay attention to Howard Schnellenberger, the big-time football coach at small-time Florida Atlantic, a commuter school of 26,000 students in Boca Raton. "Florida Atlantic has the most potential of any football program in the United States," he says. "Much more potential than Michigan or Miami."
The natural reaction to those statements is to think that the 70-year-old Schnellenberger has lost it. Or that he's smoking something other than tobacco in that filthy old pipe of his. But Schnellenberger has always had big dreams.
After 10 years in the NFL, as a Miami Dolphins assistant and coach of the Baltimore Colts, he took over a floundering University of Miami program in 1979. Four years later the Hurricanes won the national championship. He has similar aspirations for Florida Atlantic and points to the school's recruiting base--the talent-laden region from Orlando to the Keys--in saying that it's only a matter of time before the Owls become a power.
"Florida Atlantic will be playing for the national championship by 2008," he says, repeating a claim he made in 1998, when he left a job as a municipal bonds trader to start the program. "The national championship has to be your ultimate goal."
After his success at Miami and a one-year stint with the USFL--he was supposed to coach a team in Miami, but the franchise never got off the ground--he returned to his hometown to coach Louisville. In his sixth season the Cardinals beat Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.
What he's doing at Florida Atlantic is no pipe dream either. In their fourth season of play, their first in Division I-A, the Owls opened with a pair of impressive wins: 35-28 at Hawaii and 20-13 over three-time defending Sun Belt champion North Texas, making Florida Atlantic 19-18 since the program started.
Progress has been made off the field as well. After not having a place on campus to even "hang a jockstrap," as he likes to say, Schnellenberger raised more than $15 million and spearheaded the building of the 54,000-square-foot Oxley Athletic Center, which opened in 2001 with locker rooms, training and weight rooms, coaches' offices and meeting rooms for use by several Florida Atlantic teams. "He knows how to speak to people," says senior quarterback Jared Allen. "People buy into his vision. That's what happened at Miami, Louisville and now at FAU."
The biggest beneficiary of Schnellenberger's efforts may be the coach himself. He took the Florida Atlantic job in 1998 with his reputation tarnished by his only failed stint as a college coach. After taking over at Oklahoma in '95 and, predictably, boasting that "books and movies would be written about the Sooner Nation," he resigned following a 55-1 season amid accusations of alcohol and player abuse--charges he vigorously denies and were never substantiated.
Then in February 2003, his 43-year-old son, Stephen, went into cardiac arrest following surgery to remove his colon and a tumor next to his liver. Stephen suffered irreparable brain damage and has been hospitalized ever since. For Schnellenberger, taking Florida Atlantic to the next level has been therapeutic. "He's most happy when he's coaching," says the youngest of his three sons, Tim, 36. "I want him to continue coaching until he cannot physically do it anymore."
There is still much work to do. Schnellenberger is pushing for the construction of an on-campus domed stadium to open in 2007. There are plans for such a multipurpose facility, but no approval for the $90 million project yet. "The stadium will be built," he says. "The stadium will build itself."
There he goes again. ‚ñ†
Moving on Up
In addition to Florida Atlantic, five other programs made the jump from I-AA to I-A over the last five years. Here's how they've fared.