Florida Atlantic's multimillion-dollar investment in a legendary coach has so far been a bust

Schnellenberger doesn't wear headphones or call most plays, instead frequently relying on his assistants. He shows little emotion during the game, occasionally clapping his hands together for a big offensive play as he paces the sideline. Sometimes, when the team is on offense, Schnellenberger takes quarterback Allen aside during time-outs. "He'll tell me to pull together, that I can do it," Allen says. "It's always encouraging."

The Owls' opening drive against Eastern Kentucky stalls with only four yards to go. Allen throws an incomplete pass; then two attempts to run the ball gain nothing. Schnellenberger's team settles for a field goal from the two-yard line.

In the second quarter, Florida Atlantic recovers a fumble and turns it into another field goal. But Eastern Kentucky answers on the next possession by driving confidently down the field, capping the effort with a ten-yard touchdown run. Then, with time running out in the half, Eastern Kentucky rumbles over FAU's defense to the 28-yard line. With nine seconds left, the Colonels kick a field goal, making the score 10-6 for Eastern Kentucky.

Colby Katz
Florida Atlantic paid nearly $80,000 to rent Pro Player Stadium for its opening-day loss, but only 8,000 fans showed. Far right, cornerback Lee Pasick finds himself on the bench after starting last year.
Colby Katz
Florida Atlantic paid nearly $80,000 to rent Pro Player Stadium for its opening-day loss, but only 8,000 fans showed. Far right, cornerback Lee Pasick finds himself on the bench after starting last year.

Just four points behind one of the toughest Division I-AA teams in the country, the second-year team from Boca doesn't seem dispirited heading into the locker room. Despite the Owls' dismal record and lack of a touchdown against the Colonels, Schnellenberger jogs toward the tunnel amid camera flashes.

Schnellenberger's style didn't serve him well when he began raising money to start the football program, says Boca stockbroker Howard Guggenheim, a long-time financial supporter of the university. Guggenheim says he met with Schnellenberger shortly after the coach started fundraising efforts. "He said he hadn't gotten very far," Guggenheim recalls. "That's when I offered to help out."

Schnellenberger doesn't remember it that way. He says he had already been successful raising cash when Guggenheim offered to donate $50,000. The coach had solicited money at Rotary clubs, at a celebrity fishing tournament he organized, on the golf course (even though he hates the game), and from a tree stump he dragged into the campus cafeteria. "Right at the beginning, the fundraising went very well," Schnellenberger says.

Either way, the school has managed to raise more than $15 million for the team in just seven years, allowing it to spend money like a first-rate football program. The money allowed the university to sign a three-year contract with Pro Player, home to the Dolphins and Marlins. The contract cost the school $640,000 last year. That's more than the $558,000 payroll for the team's 11 coaches.

Florida Atlantic won't reveal who has donated money. State law allows the university to raise cash using a private charity, the Florida Atlantic University Foundation, which doesn't have to abide by open-records laws even though it uses university employees and campus offices. The foundation, which also raises money for other athletic and academic programs, indicated on tax forms last year that it paid Schnellenberger $50,000, making his total salary nearly $250,000. But state law allows the foundation to keep arrangements with donors private -- such as trading perks for contributions. Guggenheim, the foundation's president, says no back-room agreements have been made. "No deals, no deals. None. Do you hear me?" he says with conviction. However, the university has rewarded top donors with a sports-bar-like lounge in the athletic department and seats on the $50,000-per-game chartered planes the team uses for travel.

The foundation has also allowed a convicted felon on the board. Sixty-two-year-old Herb Gimelstob served two years in federal prison, starting in 1974, for stealing $400,000 in tin ingots from a port in Newark. Before his conviction, Gimelstob owned property with a top-ranking member of the Bruno crime family; the two were also partners in a real estate company. After moving to Florida in 1979, Gimelstob built a billion-dollar real estate empire in less than two decades out of a doublewide trailer in Boca Raton. He also spent three years as president of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County starting in 1995.

Gimelstob, vice chairman of the university's foundation, won't talk about his dark past. "Didn't you call me about a football story?" he asks with a New Jersey accent. "Let's stay with football." As to Schnellenberger's spending, Gimelstob says: "Everything this university does is first class, and this football program will be first class."

Seventy-year-old Guggenheim, the son of German immigrants who escaped the Holocaust, says a football scholarship to the University of Toledo made college possible for him. The stockbroker says he wants to help give other students the same chance. "Have you ever seen students come out of a biology class and say, 'Wow, was I excited'?" Guggenheim asks rhetorically. "Of course not, but football gets them riled up about their school."

Likewise, few wealthy donors will get pumped up over academic programs if they can instead support football, Guggenheim says. "I have no interest in philosophy. You come to me, or most of these donors, and say, 'Let's raise money for philosophy' and I'd say, 'Go someplace else.'"

Earlier this year, Schnellenberger and his assistant coaches divvied up a list of 1,000 high school recruits. For the couple of hundred or so they had a shot at recruiting, the coaches made plans to call, write, and get to know their pastors on a first-name basis. But in the pecking order of Sunshine State football, Florida Atlantic has, so far, been relegated to the bottom. The coaches, who recruit only south of Interstate 4, know most top prospects won't consider the school. "We have to rule the best out right at the beginning," Kurt Van Valkenburg, assistant coach for recruitment and defense, says while spitting Copenhagen into a Styrofoam coffee cup in the football office before practice. "We're not gonna get them unless they've got some special tie with us."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help