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Florida Atlantic's gridiron general, the man in whom the university has invested its reputation and millions of dollars, remains confident. Schnellenberger says he's following the same plan he used at the University of Louisville, where he had three dismal years before posting a winning season in 1988. "Whatever time it takes," Schnellenberger says in his rumbling voice, exuding conviction. "This is a long-range thing. Anybody concerned about us not winning now has to understand that we're in this for the long haul."
Before the Eastern Kentucky game, backup quarterback Garrett Jahn calls the offense into a pregame huddle. He takes some loose change from his pocket and shoves it into the Kentucky bluegrass with his thumb. "I'm burying this 11 cents in the end zone because it symbolizes the 11 of us, and that we have to be in this end zone together all day." Allen, the starting quarterback, stands nearby, listening quietly.
Allen, whose parents drive to South Florida from their home in Oklahoma for nearly every game, has been the first-string team leader almost since the Owls' first day. The story of how he got the job is worthy of Schnellenberger's legacy. Players, staff members, newspaper articles from the time, and promotional materials handed out by the team say Schnellenberger called both Allen and Jahn into his office before the inaugural game. He offered them a coin toss to decide the starter. Allen lost but replaced Jahn after halftime in that 40-7 opening-day loss to Slippery Rock University, a Division II team that had never, in its 99-year history, beaten a Division I-AA school.
In his office recently, Schnellenberger flatly denied that story. He remembers calling in the two quarterbacks and plainly explaining that Jahn would start the first half, Allen the second.
If the tale of the coin toss is false, it has become another in an extensive catalog of yarns about Howard Schnellenberger. If true, it says a lot about an old-school coach brash enough to flip a coin to decide his most important player. Throughout his career, Schnellenberger's aggressive style has been his greatest professional strength -- but also his fatal flaw. It has helped him garner some of the best coaching jobs in the country but also may have cost him those positions. Schnellenberger has been fired at least twice: The University of Oklahoma sacked him in 1995 amid accusations of drunkenness and harsh treatment of players, and the Baltimore Colts dismissed him in 1974 after less than two seasons in which he tallied a dismal 4-13 record. And he has quit out of principle at least once, from the University of Louisville in 1994, when the school entered a second-rate athletic conference over his objection.
His intensity is obvious in his piercing, ice-blue eyes, which are set off against his silver hair. When he dresses up for fundraisers and game-day interviews, he puts a red satin handkerchief in the breast pocket of a blue blazer. He wears a Dolphins Super Bowl ring on the third finger of his right hand and a Hurricanes national championship ring on the same finger of his left hand. Schnellenberger's sonorous voice is reminiscent of James Earl Jones or perhaps Jesse Ventura, and he makes constant eye contact when he speaks. "The joy of coaching for me is to build a program, and that's why I'm here."
Such discipline is also evident in his personal life. Schnellenberger treated his three sons like "little soldiers," his son Tim recalls. The coach never showed emotion to the boys or sat down for chats. He also never attended his sons' football games, although all three dreamed of playing one day in the pros.
When Tim Schnellenberger, now 34, was a junior at Columbus High School in Miami, he says, he had a chance to become a starting quarterback. He would challenge Michael Shula, son of Dolphins' Coach Don Shula. Working as Shula's offensive coordinator at the time, Howard Schnellenberger didn't see a pro quarterback in his son. "He told me I was too slow, he told me I was too small, and he told me to quit because I would never make the pros," recalls Tim, who later became a Calvin Klein model and is now a real estate agent in Boca Raton. "It is to this day the most devastating thing that happened in my life."
A decade later, Howard Schnellenberger's brashness may have led to the worst failure of his career. In 1994, the University of Oklahoma Sooners gave him a five-year deal as head coach with a base salary of $125,000 a year, and at least at first, Oklahomans welcomed him as a football hero destined to rebuild their mediocre team. But soon, Schnellenberger and wife Beverlee clashed with football supporters and the media.
He managed a 5-5-1 record, the worst at Oklahoma for three decades. Meanwhile, accusations flew that Schnellenberger overworked his players to near-death during practice. Bryan Ailey, a freshman defensive tackle, says the coach denied players water during summer practices. Ailey sued the university and Schnellenberger for $40,000 in federal court in 1997, claiming players were abused on the practice field, but a judge threw out the case two years later.