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.