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Friday, September 21, 2001
Schnellenberger returns for more reasons to stay

By Geoffrey Norman
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Geoffrey Norman is working on a book about college football in the state of Florida. Each week during the 2001 season, he will send a letter to Page 2, in which he will try to make sense of the personalities, events and peculiar culture that make up Sunshine State football.

Dear Page 2:

On the evening of Sept. 9, back when the world was still a familiar place, Bethune-Cookman College played Florida Atlantic University in a football game. The usual billion people in China did not give a damn. And for this game, they were probably joined by millions of American fans.

There are hundreds of football games every season and only so many you can follow before you have to realize that you don't have a life and that you might be too far gone ever to get one.

Howard Schnellenberger
Howard Schnellenberger led Florida Atlantic's mostly freshmen and red-shirt freshman to an upset of Bethune-Cookman.
Still ... it was a game worth some study. Bethune, after all, is one of two African-American schools in Florida with powerhouse football programs. The other is Florida A&M, or FAMU as it is called these days. Both schools have rich football traditions. Bethune has been playing football -- good football -- for 75 years. Florida Atlantic had played exactly one football game before it took the field against Bethune. One week earlier, the FAU Owls had lost their inaugural game 40-7 to Slippery Rock -- a Division II school from Pennsylvania, for those of you who do have a life.

Bethune was ranked No. 22 among Division I-AA schools after winning its opener 35-24 over Morgan State. Quarterback Allen Suber rolled for more than 300 yards of total offense working from the wishbone, and Bethune looked formidable. FAU, on the other hand, was playing, almost entirely, freshmen and redshirt freshmen. And 13 of its players had been declared academically ineligible an hour before the kickoff of the Slippery Rock game.

Three of these players had been reinstated, but the Owls were demoralized and short on experience and mature bodies. The multitudes who came out for the game in Daytona -- well, seven or eight thousand, anyway -- doubtless expected a rout.

For the visitors from Boca Raton, their sturdiest asset appeared to be the man on the sideline. The Owls had themselves a coach who knows something about football in Florida. Howard Schnellenberger was head coach of the Miami Hurricanes when they won the national championship in 1983. That team was the first from Florida to finish No. 1, and it was packed with players from Florida. As was the team that Schnellenberger passed along to Jimmy Johnson, who won another national championship a couple of years later. They were, unsurprisingly, very good players. What got people's attention was that so many of them were from in-state.

This was a new thing at Miami, where coaches had been accustomed to flying up to Pennsylvania and Ohio to work the high school games, the coaches, the players and the parents to get some football players to come down to Florida. Penn State and Ohio State were trying to seduce the same players, and Miami wound up mostly with the leavings, as well as the occasional Jim Kelly.

Sun Tan U. was an underachieving school, accustomed to 6-4 seasons when Schnellenberger arrived. He had been an assistant on the Miami Dolphins' staff, a perfect temperamental fit with his boss, Don Shula, and his time in Florida had given him an insight: You didn't have to fly to the mill towns to find football players. Florida was crawling with them.

You could walk to practice fields and recruit football players who would make Miami a dominant team. And if you had to really travel, you could get in your car and drive north from Coral Gables and make your pitch to some kid and be home in time for dinner.

Florida had the players. Loads of them. The trick was to keep them there

After Schnellenberger left Miami, he kept on recruiting players from Florida, using them to rebuild other programs. In six years, thanks to a lot of Florida talent, he took Louisville from a typical 2-9 season to 10-1-1 and a Fiesta Bowl victory over Alabama (where Schnellenberger had once been an assistant coach and his boss had been Bear Bryant, who had also been his coach at Kentucky).

Football has been good to a lot of kids here. It's been a generation since that national championship team, and the kids at these high schools have seen a lot of football players they know leave and go to the big schools. They watched them play on television and win championships and sometimes go on to the pros. These guys come home and the younger kids can see what football did for them.
Howard Schnellenberger

After Louisville, Schnellenberger had a short, less than happy, run at troubled Oklahoma. A 5-5 season there in 1995 seemed like the last act. He came back to Miami to see if he could succeed at something he had never tried -- not coaching football.

A couple of years later, he got a call. FAU, a school of some 20,000 students, was ready for some football. Would he, Schnellenberger, serve as something called "director of football operations?" His job would be to get the program started, you see, show people the ropes. He would stroke local alums and get them to open their checkbooks, which was important since the program was required to be self-financing.

He took the job and, with almost geometric inevitability, became head coach. He was recruiting again, and he figured he would stick with what had worked for him before. He went after players from Florida. Of the first 57 players he signed, 50 were from Florida. He also raised some $14 million.

And his guys went up to Daytona and beat Bethune 31-28. Forget Fresno State, this might have been the most shocking upset of the day.

On Monday morning, I asked him why he thought Florida produced so many football players.

"Well," he said, in voice that recalled a flat file on a piece of raw steel, "there is the climate."

You don't expect football coaches to be sociologists and, thank God, they aren't.

"It's a good place for outdoor sports," he continued.

Oh.

"And football has always been important here. It's a southern state, and there is a love affair in the South for college football."

Indeed. Professional sports -- including, of all things, hockey -- have made it to the South over the last couple of decades. But for a long time, college football ruled and there were no rivals or pretenders. High school football was almost as big as the college game. This was true when Florida was a small state, and Orlando was a little crossroads agricultural town. When the boom hit Florida, and 1,000 people a day started coming into the state, the football infrastructure was there. Florida is the fourth largest state in the Union.

"So," Schnellenberger went on, "you've got a lot of influence from outside the South, because it is Florida, where you've got all these new people coming in. I know some high schools with coaches who have spent 20 years coaching up North, retired, and come down here and started coaching again. That's a lot of experience.

"With all these people coming down here, you've got new high schools going up as fast as they can build them. And because it is Florida, with this football tradition, one of the first things they do is put together a football team. You have old rivalries and new rivalries developing.

"And, you know, football has been good to a lot of kids here. It's been a generation since that national championship team, and the kids at these high schools have seen a lot of football players they know leave and go to the big schools. They watched them play on television and win championships and sometimes go on to the pros. These guys come home and the younger kids can see what football did for them."

Now, they can see that there is one more place where they can play and not have to leave home. Florida Atlantic plans on eventually going I-A. So does Florida International, which hasn't played a game yet. Don Strock, the quarterback who for years backed up Dan Marino at the Dolphins, is putting the program together there. They don't play football yet at West Florida in Pensacola, but give it time. You can easily envision a day when Florida will have a half-dozen I-A teams, all of them recruiting the state, keeping the players at home, and winning football games.

"That," Schnellenberger said, "is the best recruiting tool. Good players want to play for winning teams. They want a chance to play for the national championship. If they can do it close to home, then so much the better."

And he ought to know. He started it.

Sincerely,
Geoffrey Norman