BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Howard Schnellenberger's office at Florida Atlantic University could be a wing in a hall of fame. There are photos on the wall and mementoes related to Muhammad Ali, Bear Bryant, Don Shula and other luminaries.
Schnellenberger's life has a Forrest Gump quality to it He's known Ali for more than a half century since both are from Louisville, Ky. He won three national titles as an assistant under Bryant at Alabama in the 1960s. He served under Shula during the Miami Dolphins' undefeated season of 1972. And, of course, Schnellenberger was the first coach to lead the University of Miami to an NCAA football title, starting in 1983 a run of five by the school in two decades.
Schnellenberger, 77, soon will be taking a step back. He's not completely retiring, saying he plans to work "seven days a week" in his new role as an ambassador at Florida Atlantic. But he will coach his final game for the Owls at home Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe.
"It's been in my mind since I announced my retirement (from coaching)," Schnellenberger said of having done that last August. "It's coming down to the last game, just like I envisioned it would, with the exception of the won-loss record."
Schnellenberger, who once vowed that a down-and-out Hurricanes program would win a national title in his fifth season on the job and did just that, certainly didn't see the Owls being 1-10 in his 11th season as coach since he started the program from scratch. But at least they aren't 0-11, having finally broken through last Saturday with a 38-35 home win over Alabama-Birmingham.
"It's the worst feeling I've had as a football coach in my life," Schnellenberger, who has a 158-151-3 career college mark in 27 seasons at Miami, Louisville, Oklahoma and Florida Atlantic, said of the 0-10 start. "I had (bad) seasons that were not no-win seasons but they were at the beginning of a rebuilding situation not at the end of it It was the toughest thing I had to deal with. Winning (last week) was a reprieve emotionally that rivaled winning the national championship in an inverse manner."
Schnellenberger is getting philosophical. But he certainly doesn't deny winning the 1983 national title is the pinnacle of his career.
Schnellenberger took over a Miami program in 1979 that was so down school officials were ready to drop to the I-AA level. Schnellenberger initially turned down the job before changing his mind and accepting it.
"When he was offered the job he didn't know if he should take it," said Shula, 81, who had Schnellenberger as an assistant with the Dolphins from 1970-72 and 1974-78 and calls him an "old warhouse" for still being on the sideline 16 years after he retired. "I encouraged him to take it. I thought it was a great opportunity. You can recruit at the University of Miami. You can recruit anybody. And he realized it, and did a great job."
One reason Schnellenberger took the job was a belief he had been blackballed as a future NFL head coach after leading the Baltimore Colts to a 4-13 record in 1973 and part of 1974. Schnellenberger said Colts owner Robert Irsay "came down on the sideline and fired me" because Schnellenberger wouldn't play young Bert Jones at quarterback over veteran Marty Domres. Schnellenberger said Irsay was powerful enough to affect his future NFL career.
In the end, though, the most important recommendation to take over the Hurricanes came from Schnellenberger's wife, Beverlee.
"My wife told me she didn't want to move out of our (South Florida) house, and I got a 30,000 raise, from 60,000 to 90,000," Schnellenberger said.
So how low had football fallen in Coral Gables when the pipe-smoking Schnellenberger showed up?
"You'd go buy a Whopper and they'd give you a free ticket just to put butts in the seats," said Jay Brophy, a Hurricanes linebacker in 1979 and from 1981-83 who also played for the Dolphins from 1984-86. "On the field, we were at first a rag-tag bunch but he put a system in that worked."
Schnellenberger said it all was about recruiting.
"I just thank God that I had the foresight to see what the South Florida high school football talent pool was like," Schnellenberger said. "Miami had been recruiting Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey for years and no black kid would hardly think about going to Miami, a white, Jewish private school in Coral Gables. So, we were able to say, 'If you all come together, we can beat anybody in the nation."'
The Hurricanes sure did.
Schnellenberger said the reason he predicted Miami would win a national title in five years was because that's how long school officials had originally put off a possible move to Division I-AA. Instead, his fifth season saw the Hurricanes had gone 11-1 and become Division I-A champions with a dramatic 31-30 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
"That Nebraska game can't be overshadowed by anything that I possibly could do," Schnellenberger said.
But Schnellenberger didn't stick around for what would be one of the greatest runs in college football history. He took a job with a USFL team that was supposed to move from Washington to Miami. But when the league announced it was eventually going to go from a spring to a fall schedule (it folded before it did), the team ended up with new ownership in Orlando and Schnellenberger wasn't retained.
So it was Jimmy Johnson who would coach Miami to a national crown in 1987, Dennis Erickson who would hoist trophies in 1989 and 1991 and Larry Coker who would lead the 2001 team to a fifth school title.
"To this day, when you talk about The U, I don't think Howard Schnellenberger gets enough credit," Brophy said of the man who started a dynasty. "We were a bad team. He took a minimal salary and they told him they might have to go I-AA and look what he did.''
Brophy said he "wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for Howard Schnellenberger." He said he had a partying lifestyle, which included "booze and women" and it was Schnellenberger who held a scholarship for him to come back when he quit school and didn't play in 1980. Brophy played a key role on the team that upset heavily favored Nebraska for the national title.
Shula said he's "sure" Schnellenberger "regrets" leaving Miami. But Schnellenberger doesn't feel that way, saying his departure ending up being rewarding because he landed in his hometown for another successful rebuilding task.
At Louisville, Schnellenberger took over another rag-tag bunch and eventually won a major bowl, clobbering Alabama 34-7 in the Fiesta on Jan. 1, 1991. He coached the Cardinals from 1985-94.
Schnellenberger was lured to Oklahoma in 1995. But all that did was reinforce that he's not a caretaker of programs, he's a builder of them.
"We were not meant for each other" said Schnellenberger, who went 5-5-1 in his only season with the Sooners and clashed with the powers to be about wanting to do things his way at a school that already had won six national titles.
Schnellenberger eventually returned to South Florida to take over the ultimate building project. Florida Atlantic had never had a football program.
After several years of preparing, the Owls debuted in 2001 at the I-AA level. But they didn't stay there long, moving up to the big-school division and winning the 2007 New Orleans Bowl and 2008 Motor City Bowl.
"It's creating," Schnellenberger said of what he accomplished at the Boca Raton school. "It's giving birth to something That's in my flesh and blood."
Owls quarterback Graham Wilbert calls it "indescribable" what Schnellenberger has been able to do.
"It says a lot to think this guy can build this thing up from scratch," Wilbert said. "Not a lot of people thought it would be done."
Schnellenberger's crowning jewel on campus is 70 million, 30,000-seat FAU Stadium, which opened this season after years spent by the old coach trying to make it happen. Before, the Owls had played home games at an ill-suited high school stadium next to warehouses in Fort Lauderdale.
"Developing a football program without this stadium, this program is dead," Schnellenberger said.
Schnellenberger gets emotional when talking about the facility. Defensive lineman David Baptiste said he's "pretty sure he teared up being out there the first game" on Oct. 15.
Unfortunately for Schnellenberger, like so many other Florida Atlantic games this season, that one didn't turn out too well. The Owls were manhandled 20-0 by Western Kentucky.
But his players finally did get Schnellenberger a win this season. Now, they're trying to deliver him another.
"Coach Schnellenberger is a legend so we want to send him out on a good note," Baptiste said.
There are a lot of legends plastered on the wall in Schnellenberger's office. There's also one often seated at the desk.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson