Howard Schnellenberger, who guided the University of Miami football team to its first national championship and was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins during their perfect season, died Saturday, the Miami Herald reported. He was 87.
Schnellenberger fell at his Boynton Beach, Florida, home in August, suffering a subdural hematoma, ESPN reported.
The pipe-smoking, gravelly-voiced Schnellenberger looked more like a professor with a bushy mustache than a college football coach. He took over a moribund program at Miami in 1979 and turned it into a national contender, using the slogan “State of Miami” in his recruiting pitches to high school football players in South Florida. His dry wit masked an intensity and will to win that rubbed off on his players.
When Schnellenberger was introduced as the Hurricanes’ coach in January 1979, Fort Lauderdale News columnist Bernie Lincicome observed that the new coach “said this was the happiest day of his life with the emotion of a man whose house had just been repossessed.”
Very few teams won at Miami’s house over the next five seasons. The Hurricanes had back-to-back nine-victory seasons in 1981 and 1982, including a 17-14 win against No. 1 Penn State in 1981.
In 1983, the Hurricanes lost their first game but then went unbeaten the rest of the way, defeating Nebraska 31-30 in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984, to cap an 11-1 season.
That season cemented Miami as a college football power, as the program would win four more national titles (1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001).
“The fact that they had such long, long success, and the fact that they went from a program with very little history to one that has sustained history, is very significant,” Kent Stephens, the historian and curator of the College Football Hall of Fame, told The New York Times in 2017.
He left Miami after that victory to join the fledgling USFL but never coached in that league.
Schnellenberger, who coached at Louisville from 1985 to 1994, was also the first coach when Florida Atlantic University added football to its athletic program. He coached in Boca Raton from 2004 to 2011, taking the Owls to a bowl game in the program’s fourth year of existence. Schnellenberger also coached one season at Oklahoma in 1995.
Overall, Schellenberger had a 141-133-3 record in 24 seasons as a college coach.
The Times once called Schnellenberger the “Forrest Gump of football,” except “he actually would have coached the fictional Gump when the latter was returning kicks for Alabama.
Born in Saint Meinrad, Indiana, on March 16, 1934, Schnellenberger was the son of Lester Schnellenberger and Rosina Hoffman. He attended Flaget High School in Louisville, Kentucky, lettering in football, baseball and basketball.
After earning a scholarship at the University of Kentucky, Schnellenberger played college football for the Wildcats from 1952 to 1955. He played two years each under Paul “Bear” Bryant and Blanton Collier and won All-America honors as a tight end his senior season. Schnellenberger returned to Lexington in 1959 as an assistant to Collier, working on a staff that included future Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula and Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger.
Schnellenberger was reunited with Bryant when he became the University of Alabama’s offensive coordinator. He was part of a staff that won national titles in 1961, 1964 and 1965 and coached a young Joe Namath.
“Coach Bryant was always a mentor and friend, and one of my favorite memories is being tasked by Coach Bryant to recruit Joe Namath,” Schnellenberger said in June.
After five seasons at Alabama, Schnellenberger joined the Los Angeles Rams as an assistant coach in 1966. He was hired by Shula in 1970 and became the Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator through 1972, the season the squad became the only undefeated, untied team in NFL history.
Schnellenberger left the Dolphins to become the head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1973. He went 4-13 before being fired after an 0-3 start in 1974. He returned to Miami in 1975, reclaiming his post as offensive coordinator through the 1978 season.
Schnellenberger was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and Kentucky’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2005, and had his jersey retired by the school in 1992. He also was inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.