Howard Schnellenberger, who built the offense for the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ unbeaten Super Bowl champions, then revived downtrodden football programs as head coach at the Universities of Miami and Louisville, died on Saturday. He was 87.
His death was announced by Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, whose football program he had created. The university did not say where he died or give the cause.
Brash and supremely confident and a distinctive figure on the sidelines, usually wearing a sports jacket and tie and sporting a bushy mustache, Schnellenberger was eager to defy the odds.
And he was very much the taskmaster.
“Football is the last place, outside of the military, where we have an opportunity to develop the proposition that the team is more important than the individual,” he told Sports Illustrated after putting his 1995 Oklahoma Sooners — the third of four college teams he coached — through a grueling spring workout.
Schnellenberger was the offensive coordinator under Coach Don Shula for the 17-0 Dolphins of 1972, assembling a unit featuring Bob Griese and Earl Morrall at quarterback, Larry Csonka at fullback, Mercury Morris at running back and Paul Warfield at wide receiver.
He embarked on his collegiate head-coaching career in January 1979, when the Miami Hurricanes hired him to take over a football program that was in disarray. Two weeks earlier, Lou Saban, the latest of several head coaches Miami had gone through in the 1970s, had suddenly departed for Army.
In his five seasons with the Hurricanes, Schnellenberger focused on recruiting players from Florida high schools, proclaiming that “the State of Miami,” delineated by an imaginary line that ran from Tampa eastward, would be the northern boundary of his prime recruiting territory. And he installed professional-type offensive and defensive schemes.
The rebuilding program reached its pinnacle when quarterback Bernie Kosar (who was from Ohio) led the Hurricanes to an 11-1 record and a No. 1 ranking for the 1983 season, capped by a 31-30 victory over the previously undefeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
After posting a 41-16 record at Miami, Schnellenberger left in 1984 for a prospective head-coaching post in the short-lived United States Football League. But that deal collapsed, and in 1985 he returned to Louisville, where he had grown up, to coach the Cardinals.
He said he was unfazed by the challenge of reviving a football program that had long been in the shadow of the school’s basketball squads.
“We’re on a collision course with the national championship,” he said at his introductory news conference. “The only variable is time.”
He coached Louisville to a pair of bowl victories, most notably a 34-7 rout of Alabama in the 1991 New Year’s Day Fiesta Bowl, the climax of a 10-1-1 season.
Schnellenberger became the head coach at Oklahoma in 1995. But the Sooners went only 5-5-1, and he resigned.
He retired after that, but Florida Atlantic University hired him in 1998 to raise funds for the creation of a football program. He began recruiting players as the head coach a year later, and his first team took the field in 2001, in Division 1-AA. Florida Atlantic transitioned to the higher Division 1-A in 2004 and won the 2007 New Orleans Bowl and the 2008 Motor City Bowl at that level.
Howard Leslie Schnellenberger was born on March 16, 1934, in Saint Meinrad, Ind. He was of German-American descent. His father was a truck driver, and his mother worked in a munitions plant during World War II.
He played for Kentucky under Bear Bryant and Blanton Collier, as an end, and was named a first-team All-American by The Associated Press in 1955. He was an assistant coach under Collier at Kentucky in 1959 and 1960 and under Bryant at Alabama from 1961 through 1965.
Schnellenberger recruited Joe Namath and Ken Stabler for the Crimson Tide. When he went to Beaver Falls, Pa., to induce Namath to play for Bryant, he once told The Sun Sentinel of South Florida, “a three-day recruiting trip turned into 10 days,” since Namath and his family took some persuading.
“I was out of money and had to buy him a plane ticket to return with me,” he recalled. “I wrote a bad check to Eastern Airlines to get both of us to Alabama.”
When Stabler asked Schnellenberger to bring a small gift for his mother when he was wooing Stabler for Bryant, Schnellenberger recalled, “I took his mom a fifth of bourbon.”
Schnellenberger was an offensive coach on Bryant’s national championship Alabama teams of 1961, ’64 and ’65. He became the receivers coach for George Allen’s Los Angeles Rams in 1966, then was hired by Shula as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator in 1970.
Coming off the Dolphins’ unbeaten season, he was named the Baltimore Colts’ head coach in 1973. But after the Colts went 4-10 and then got off to an 0-3 start the next season, he was fired. He was the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator again from 1975 to 1978.
Schnellenberger had a career record of 158-151-3 as a collegiate head coach. He was 6-0 in bowl games, coaching Miami, Louisville and Florida Atlantic to two bowl triumphs apiece. He retired a second and final time after Florida Atlantic’s 2011 season.
He is survived by his wife, Beverlee; his sons Stuart and Timothy; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His son Stephen died in 2008.
Miami and Florida Atlantic met for the first time in August 2013. The Hurricanes won, 34-6, with Schnellenberger and players from his 1983 Miami team on hand to mark the 30th anniversary of their national championship season. Schnellenberger was both a winner and a loser at that 2013 matchup: He was the honorary captain for both teams.