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Schnellenberger sets high bar for new team

Veteran coach wants fledgling FAU in Division I-A by 2004. His record suggests he can do it.

By KEITH NIEBUHR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 11, 2001


BOCA RATON -- If anything, Howard Schnellenberger, coach of Florida Atlantic's fledgling football program, is ambitious.

In 2002, he wants FAU to play three or more Division I-A opponents (already, the school has agreed to play Central Florida). By 2004, he believes the Owls might be ready to jump from Division I-AA to Division I-A. Soon after, he hopes a 41,000-seat on-campus stadium will be completed.

In time, the well-traveled coach is confident FAU, which begins play in three weeks, can be a major player on the national scene. And because the Schnellenberger name still carries weight, it is difficult to dismiss his optimism as cheap talk.

"I've never seen him fail," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, a longtime friend.

Schnellenberger, 100-77-3 as a college coach, has a history of building teams from the ground up.

In 1979, he took over a Miami program that averaged 13,000 fans at the Orange Bowl the year before his arrival and gave the Hurricanes their first national title in his fifth season. After leaving Miami, he led perennial doormat Louisville to its most successful decade.

Schnellenberger's 42 years of coaching also include successful stints as an assistant for the unbeaten Miami Dolphins of 1972 and three of Paul "Bear" Bryant's national championship teams at Alabama.

"If they will give him what he needs, I definitely think (he can be successful)," Bowden said. "He knows how to engineer a team, knows how to put one together. I think he's in an area where it's possible just because of the population."

When Schnellenberger was named director of football operations at FAU three years ago, he had no intention of returning to the sideline. But after conducting a brief coaching search, he concluded that because of his reputation and knowledge of Florida, he was the best man for the job.

This would appear to be his toughest task, but the 67-year-old, who last was a head coach in 1995 at Oklahoma (he resigned after one season), insists this situation is better than the ones he found at Miami and Louisville.

At FAU, he has helped raise more than $15-million. And the school recently completed a 60,000-square-foot athletic center that cost $8-million.

"It is easier to build a program from scratch than to resurrect a dying program," Schnellenberger said. "If there is (a negative) here, it doesn't come into my mind."

Instate recruiting is crucial to Schnellenberger's success.

Each year, about 200 Florida players sign with out-of-state Division I-A programs. To land the best of that group, the Owls will have to compete against schools such as Michigan State and West Virginia, which typically raid Florida for talent.

"We've already beaten them," Schnellenberger said.

Schnellenberger pitches four things to instate recruits: being a part of something new, playing at Pro Player Stadium, playing close to home and the chance to play early in their careers.

"We don't have to sell it," Schnellenberger said. "It's a reality. The other thing is, where can you go that's better than Boca Raton for college? We're doing the same thing we did at Miami. We drew a line north to Orlando and north to Tampa and called it the state of Miami. The old state of Miami is what we call Florida Atlantic territory now."

For FAU to jump to Division I-A, it must draw 17,000 paid fans per home game during the next four seasons. As of Friday, about 3,500 season tickets had been sold.

"The community has been very supportive," Schnellenberger said.

The Owls open the season Sept. 1 at home against Slippery Rock. In an open letter at FAU's athletic Web site (fausports.fansonly.com), Schnellenberger calls for "every football fan to support this newborn local team, a team that will make everyone in our beloved south Florida proud. I urge you, as a resident of "paradise', to latch on to the tail of a comet that comes by just once in a great while. ...

"Let our team feel your strength as Florida Atlantic University begins its ascent up the mountain."

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