Coach continues Louisville's climb to top of college football


October 23, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Three years after prodigal son Howard Schnellenberger returned to Louisville and vowed to turn a near-moribund program into "the greatest football story ever written," alumni and well-wishers built an impressive mound outside the practice field in the Cardinals' team colors of red, white and black, topped off by a flagpole.

Since Schnellenberger, fresh from leading the University of Miami to a national championship, was 8-24-1 in his first three years at Louisville, cynics christened the new monument "Mount Schnellenberger."

Cartoonists had a field day portraying the pipe-smoking coach as a modern-day Moses, shouting his football commandments from on high.

Well, Schnellenberger has yet to part the seas, or even the Ohio River, but he already has performed a number of minor miracles by transforming "Loserville" into a winning program.

Best remembered in Baltimore for being fired by Colts owner Bob Irsay at halftime of a 1974 game for failing to bench veteran quarterback Marty Domres in favor of Bert Jones, Schnellenberger turned the Cardinals into winners in his fourth year, going 8-3.

In 1990, Louisville, behind quarterback Browning Nagle, finished 10-1, earned a No. 12 ranking and stunned Alabama, 34-7, in the Fiesta Bowl -- the Crimson Tide's last defeat.

After two down years, the Cardinals are again making noise. They have won six of their first seven games, positioning themselves for another postseason bid. Representatives of the Liberty and Independence bowls will be on hand today when No. 20 Louisville plays host to Navy.

"Unless you know how bad things were around here before, you can't understand the miraculous changes Howard has brought about," said Ron Steiner, chief liaison to Schnellenberger, with whom he also worked in rebuilding the Miami Hurricanes.

"Miami was tough, but this was even more like 'Mission Impossible,' " added Steiner. "At least Miami had a football tradition. Here, they were threatening to drop football entirely. The school leaders had to decide to do away with it or seriously try to go big-time.

"Howard was caught up in the romance of coming home and making positive changes, but he also wanted to go a place where he could build a 'franchise.' There are no pro football or basketball teams here vying for attention. If you can win, you become the hometown team. And that's what he's done."

The beginning was anything but encouraging. After first viewing the motley team he inherited from Bob Weber in 1985, Schnellenberger slumped in his office chair and considered quitting on the spot.

"I've got statistics that would prove the team I was left was the worst in the country," Schnellenberger said. "I had to stop practice every 20 minutes. At best, I had two legitimate Division I players -- Ernest Givins and Bruce Armstrong."

But the community was committed to producing a winning football program and backed it with a steady flow of cash. The Cardinals, averaging more than 36,000 a game, now boast a state-of-the art football complex and plush office facilities. The recruiting budget allows coaches to scout throughout the country.

It took only four months to reach a $15 million goal in private funding toward financing a $53 million, 50,000-seat on-campus stadium with sky boxes covering one side of the field. The grand opening is scheduled for Aug. 31, 1996, against rival Kentucky.

That in itself is an amazing feat: the two biggest state schools last met in 1924. They will renew the series in Lexington the next two seasons, before shifting to Louisville.

"That was one of my three goals when I got here," said Schnellenberger, listing a new stadium and another national championship as his other prime objectives. "Playing Kentucky [his alma mater] will guarantee sellouts whenever we meet, but also will revitalize interest in football throughout the state."

Schnellenberger has taken few detours in his life since traveling some 40 miles down old Route 60 in 1953 to play at Kentucky.

After an unsuccessful bid to make it in the pros as a tight end, he turned to coaching and helped mold championship teams under Bear Bryant at Alabama. He spent four years as an assistant to Miami coach Don Shula, highlighted by the unbeaten 1972 Dolphins team.

He then got his first crack at being a head coach. Unfortunately for Schnellenberger, he hooked up with the Colts in 1973, a year after Irsay had acquired the team.

"I look back on that now as a valuable learning experience," Schnellenberger said. "I learned that being fired isn't the worst thing in the world. It gave me an inner strength that has carried me through the last 20 years."

It also taught Schnellenberger that "if you're going to be responsible for the final result, you better have the authority to affect the final result. In a word -- control."

After five more years as a Dolphins assistant, he followed through with that philosophy when he took the head coaching job at the University of Miami in 1979.

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