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A sneer builds in the corner of Howard Schnellenberger's right eye, then slowly becomes a piercing gaze directed at the empty football field in front of him. His schedule calls for his men to practice at Eastern Kentucky University by 5 p.m. sharp, but the drizzling rain apparently didn't get the memo. A wet field during practice can equal injuries, something the coach doesn't need 25 hours before kickoff. Standing below an overhang, Schnellenberger inserts a cherry-wood pipe into the corner of his pursed lips and packs down the contents with his thumb.
Before he can insert a match into the end of that well-traveled pipe, the rain seems to yield to the coach, as it has so many times that his staff tells a running joke about Schnellenberger controlling the weather. The wicked look fading, Schnellenberger struts onto the plush bluegrass and issues a bellowing command. "Let's go," he says, not looking back.
Immediately, 63 football players representing Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University spill onto the damp field. They will take on the Eastern Kentucky Colonels the next day, September 21, here in Richmond, Kentucky. To warm up, the Owls catch a few passes thrown in arcing spirals before Schnellenberger summons them with a whistle. His customary signal roars like an air horn. It reverberates off the grandstands, and the players crowd into a compact circle of navy-blue warm-ups around him. Players say that within those huddles, the 68-year-old coach replaces his gruff bark with a grandfatherly tone laced with praise. "He always has the greatest speeches. He's just an amazing motivator," says quarterback Jared Allen, who, like many of the players, describes the coach with pure admiration. "You hear that whistle and you come running. It's his way to call the troops."
Finding a topnotch field commander was critical to starting the football program last year at Florida Atlantic. Schnellenberger's many supporters believe he's the kind of veteran coach who can help make a name for a university that students frequently call "F-A-Who?" His résumé spans more than four decades and includes a role as an assistant coach in the Dolphins' undefeated 1972 season, the lead in the University of Miami's first national championship in 1983, and an undefeated record as head coach in four college bowl games.
But the university's marriage to all things Schnellenberger is a costly gamble that has so far scored few successes. The 38-year-old university has been unable to attract more than a few thousand fans to home games at Pro Player Stadium, had its plans for an on-campus stadium shot down, lost twice as many games as it has won, and attracted little positive attention. The team is winless in six tries so far this year, and the university expects the program, for the second season in a row, to lose millions of dollars.
Schnellenberger might become a hero if he turns things around, but a failure would be a distasteful way for a legend to leave the game. It would also be a serious wound to a school searching for a national identity -- as much in athletics as in academia. The coach, along with university leaders, vaguely promises to build a successful program within three years. Their plan includes qualifying for entry into the competitive world of Division I-A football, where schools can earn millions in television contracts. And they hope to draw far more fans than seems possible today, as the Owls play home games at Pro Player, a 45-minute drive from the Boca campus. So far, the team has struggled even against Division I-AA opponents and in attracting fans. Fewer than 8,000 people showed for the opening-day loss to Bethune-Cookman College this season, after the team averaged nearly 13,000 a game last year.
Controversy began even before the team took the field last season. Several professors feel spited because the football program was started without their input. "There was not really any genuine effort to draw the faculty into the process," chemistry Professor Mark Jackson says. "It was more of a political decision, and now there's been a backlash against football in some circles."
Problems escalated last year when budget cutbacks forced the university to drop classes. In response, many students have declined to support the team, protesting the fees that pay a third of the football budget. Florida Atlantic's newspaper, University Press, labeled Schnellenberger "washed up" in a May article and has called for his resignation. "Here we're spending millions to support football," says entertainment editor Dan Restrepo, "when students can't even get classes they need to graduate."
Moreover, Florida Atlantic outspends every other state-supported football program except the ones in Gainesville and Tallahassee, which have won four national championships between them. Last year, FAU spent $4.17 million on the Owls, who play in little-noticed Division I-AA. That's more than even the University of South Florida and University of Central Florida, which both have Division I-A programs. Indeed, Schnellenberger's budget could have paid the combined cost of storied football programs at Florida A&M University, Jacksonville University, and privately run Bethune-Cookman. Much of last year's budget paid to rent Pro Player, where the team draws as sparsely as a Florida Marlins batting practice.