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.
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 boysor 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.
Worse, others involved with the Sooners alleged that Schnellenberger constantly smelled of alcohol. Long-time Oklahoma football donor Geneva Sarratt says players, their parents, team staff, and supporters kept making the same claims. "He was probably a little drunk here and there, yes," Sarratt says from her home in Edmond, Oklahoma. Still, Sarratt, wife of oil-company owner Charlie Sarratt, claims Schnellenberger's heart was in the job. "He might have had a problem for a while, but did it affect his job? I don't know. It didn't affect his intensity."
Supporters say the alcohol rumors were part of a smear campaign to drive away Schnellenberger. Some argue he was a target of criticism because he didn't have a connection to the football-hungry state. Others contend his personality rubbed Oklahomans the wrong way. Donnie Duncan, the former Sooner athletic director who hired Schnellenberger, says the media and football supporters misinterpreted the coach's brazen attitude. "Howard Schnellenberger is a very strong personality," Duncan says from his new post at the Big 12 Conference headquarters in Dallas. "It's unfortunate that he just can't take an eraser and erase the Oklahoma part of his résumé."
Schnellenberger says he agreed to resign in part because of the smear campaign but mainly because he knew he wasn't the first choice of David Boren, who became the Oklahoma University president the same year Schnellenberger came to town. "I've been coaching long enough to know that if you're not the president's choice," Schnellenberger says, "then you better get out." Boren, a former governor and U.S. senator, hasn't spoken publicly about Schnellenberger's departure and didn't return phone calls seeking comment for this article.
The forced resignation was enough to persuade Schnellenberger, a man who had always been defined by football, to retire. At age 65, he took an extensive exam to become a stockbroker and started selling bonds while living in a home he kept in Miami Lakes. But selling investors wasn't like recruiting football players. "Wasn't very much fun, I'll tell you that," he says.
So, Anthony Catanese, the Florida Atlantic president who dreamed up the idea of a football team, didn't have a hard time persuading Schnellenberger to become head of football operations in 1998. They agreed upon a seven-year contract that pays Schnellenberger just shy of $200,000 a year. And a year after he signed up, Schnellenberger agreed to also coach the team. Since then, the coach has paid $285,000 for a waterfront condo in Boca and opened a steak joint in Plantation that bears his name.
By all accounts, the challenge of building a team in Boca fit his background perfectly: Schnellenberger saved the University of Miami team from extinction and brought it to a national championship in 1983, then won two bowl games after turning around the football team at Louisville.
If he was a drinker when he came to Florida Atlantic, which he denies, perhaps he gave it up last year when he went on a doctor-endorsed diet, cutting out carbohydrates and starches while sticking with his favorite pork chops and steaks. He lost 27 pounds; the sans-a-belt pants he wears to practice now fit better across the middle of his belly.
He hasn't given up the pipe, which has left a terra cotta-colored stain along the bottom of his spring-roll-shaped white moustache. "Oh, I don't smoke a pipe," he quips in his office, smirking at the rules that say he can't smoke in campus buildings. Yet the nutty aroma of pipe tobacco carries into the hallway, and he brings the smell with him on road trips. On the team excursion to Eastern Kentucky, Schnellenberger pulled out the pipe in the Embassy Suites lobby, in the locker room, and on the buses transporting the team. No one, apparently, tells him he can't smoke.
Likewise, it seems no one informs him when his pants snag in the cowboy boots he wears on game day. Katrina McCormic, the team's sports information director, once suggested he pull his bunched-up slacks from the black boots. But she says she won't do it again after the coach's cool reception of her idea. At Eastern Kentucky, Schnellenberger walked onto the field with one pant leg hanging long and the other tangled in the top of a boot.
In the first half versus Eastern Kentucky's Colonels, Schnellenberger's team plays like the product of an organization that only a legendary coach could build. The players know the importance of this road trip. They haven't won a game yet this year, after a 4-6 record in their first season. Challenging Eastern Kentucky for the first time marks the beginning of the toughest part of this year's schedule, which includes games against Division I-A Troy State and Connecticut. Losing in Kentucky could be another step toward the unthinkable: a winless season.
On the opening drive, Eastern Kentucky moves into Florida Atlantic territory and takes a risk on fourth down, 34 yards from the end zone. But Owl cornerback Willie Hughley gets a hand in front of an arcing pass destined for a receiver in the corner of the end zone, sending the ball into the grass. Allen takes over at quarterback and answers with a wafting 56-yard pass to the team's star, wide receiver Brittney Tellis, who goes out of bounds four yards from the end zone.
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.
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."
Florida Atlantic competes for recruits in a state that's home not only to the biggest and best college football teams in the country but also to a plethora of programs that are at least respectable. Meanwhile, Florida International University in Miami debuted a football program this year that competes with Florida Atlantic for local recruits. Florida International also has plans to play in Division I-A in a few years, meaning that Florida Atlantic, if it reaches that level, could be one of seven Division I-A teams in Florida vying for the top recruits.
Florida Atlantic's selling point has always been Schnellenberger: the man, the legend, and the 43 years worth of coaching connections. Jovonny Ward, a 20-year-old free safety for Florida Atlantic, remembers when Schnellenberger walked into his parents' home in Miami. "He's like an antique or something," Ward says. "He's like this big presence, like the old-school coaches used to be. And he's right in front of me."
Allen, who fits the stereotype of a 21-year-old quarterback with his handsome squared face and scruffy chin, was the team's only out-of-state player last year and is one of only four this year. The QB's high school coach in Oklahoma, an old friend of assistant coach Van Valkenburg's, recommended the rookie team. "I had never heard of FAU or Boca Raton, I have to admit," Allen says. He took a trip to Boca two years ago to meet with Schnellenberger, who gave him an ultimatum: sign with the team by the end of the visit or forget about a proffered scholarship. With no other such offers, Allen took the deal.
Tellis, the team's top offensive threat, settled for the Owls after being selected a Miami-Dade County all-star from Northwestern High School. He says he came to Florida Atlantic because of the coach's propensity for passing plays. Schnellenberger uses the old-style pro set, meaning receivers like Tellis get more playing time than they would at most second-tier colleges, which often concentrate on the run. But for all his obvious talents pulling in footballs, his diminutive size -- five feet, nine inches and 170 pounds -- certainly hurt Tellis' chances of playing for a topnotch school.
Considering the current team, it's unclear whether the Schnellenberger sales pitch works. The university's miserable record isn't necessarily an indication, Owls coaches insist. Current players would be sitting on the bench at an established football program for two or three years before the starters graduate.
In addition, some current players may lose their scholarships because the Owls must make openings for freshmen. Cornerback Lee Pasick has learned how that may work. Defensive player of the year at his high school in Sarasota, Pasick started every game last year. This year, Schnellenberger has allowed younger players to try out for his spot. "I'm not happy not starting," Pasick says, referring to the fact that he was benched for this year's first two games. "But it's encouraging that guys behind me stepped up."
Florida Atlantic may have looked well-coached after the first half of the game versus Eastern Kentucky, but the second half makes the Owls seem less than prepared for Division I-A. In fact, it makes them appear less than ready for Division I-AA.
Starting at Florida Atlantic's 20-yard line, quarterback Allen throws two passes that fail to find the hands of wide receiver Larry Taylor; one bounces off Taylor's shoulder pad, and the second sails over his head. Eastern Kentucky's new game plan seems to be to double-team Tellis, which leaves Allen with few options. On the third down, coaches take too long to send Allen a play, and the Owls must call a time-out. Then, when the offense finally lines up, a lineman flinches, sending the offense five yards deeper into its own territory. Finally, Allen tries spiraling a pass into the outstretched hands of Tellis, but two Eastern Kentucky players sandwich the short receiver, and the pass falls into the grass.
On fourth and 15, Schnellenberger sends out Andy Rosas, who's still recovering from a concussion he suffered in the first game of the season, to punt from the end zone. A crimson swarm of Eastern Kentucky players surrounds Rosas, blocking the kick. The ball rolls dangerously through the end zone, out of the hands of Eastern Kentucky defenders, then wobbles under the goal post and out of play. Eastern Kentucky gets the ball and two points for a safety.
The game doesn't improve for Florida Atlantic during the rest of the half. Facing a successful double-team defense and a painful groin injury, Tellis catches only one pass for 16 yards. An ineffective running game totals only 25 yards for the day. Allen completes just 11 of his 28 passes, but Schnellenberger sticks with him, leaving Jahn on the sidelines. The team fails to score a touchdown all day, so the offense never collects the backup QB's 11 cents. The final score: Eastern Kentucky 19, Florida Atlantic 6.
Heading to the locker room, Allen continues to compliment his coach. "He just kept telling me, 'We need two drives, just two drives,'" Allen says, his white jersey caught in a shoulder pad, black paint running below his eyes. "'We just need that first one to break the ice,' that's what he kept saying."
In the locker room, Schnellenberger sounds furious. "I want to see you," he yells. Players covered in Kentucky bluegrass stains and streaked with sweat crowd around him. The coach, with hands on hips and looking at the floor, paces once to the left, once to the right, once to the left. "Guys, let's all kneel down," he bellows, and the locker room fills with the sounds of knee pads smacking the tile floor. The hot air, humid from the running showers, smells of Ben Gay, sweat, and grass, the earthy aroma of a football team.
"Everyone listen to what I have to say. If you have something to say, wait until I'm done, because I have some things I have to say," says the coach, his puffy cheeks a livid ruby. "The coaching staff you've got around you is all we got when we get back to Florida because everyone else is going to think we're shit. I don't know what the hell happened in the second half, but I know we're better than this."
Wisps of gray hair on his forehead, the coach doesn't belittle the players after the embarrassing game. He doesn't insult them, although it would be easy to do so after their lackluster performance. He sounds disappointed, maybe let down by the men he relies upon,but not disillusioned or cynical. He looks them in the eye, as he always does, his voice reverberating off the tile walls. "I'm not going to give up, and I hope everyone in this room will not give up. You haven't played very well, but I have confidence in you, and I hope you have confidence in yourself."
Schnellenberger ends his speech with the Lord's Prayer. His booming baritone rumbles above the voices of the six dozen assistant coaches and players like that of a soloist in a church choir. Outside in the stadium, a sprinkling of rain falls on the empty field.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.