January 11th, 2016

Reed: HOF shouldn't exclude Schnellenberger

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Reed: HOF shouldn't exclude Schnellenberger
The College Football Hall of Fame should make an exception to its rules for Howard Schnellenberger, who is more than worthy of induction / photo and cover photo from Howard Schnellenberger’s Facebook page

The National Football Foundation recently announced the 2016 College Football Hall of Fame, and once again the organization selected a couple of coaches whose impact on the game can’t come close to Howard Schnellenberger’s. The longer this goes on, the more it becomes cruel and unusual punishment for a man whose very name is synonymous with the sport all over the country.

The new coaching inductees are Bill Bowes and Frank Girardi. We will now wait while you scratch your head trying to figure out who they are. Here’s a hint: Neither ever coached at college football’s upper level. They were outstanding coaches at New Hampshire and Lycoming College, respectively.

The intent here is not to belittle or demean them. Rather, the intent is to rant once again about the indignity and injustice being heaped on Schnellenberger simply because the College Football Hall of Fame has an eligibility rule that is biased, capricious and arbitrary.

Here it is:

A coach becomes eligible three years after retirement or immediately following retirement provided he is at least 70 years of age. Active coaches become eligible at 75 years of age. He must have been a head coach for a minimum of 10 years and coached at least 100 games with a .600 winning percentage.

That last part is the killer. In 26 seasons as a head coach at Miami, Louisville and Florida Atlantic, Schellnenberger had a 158-151-3 record. That’s barely over 50 percent. But the winning percentage isn’t nearly as important as the fact that Schnellenberger inherited programs at Miami and Louisville when they were on life support, and he built Florida Atlantic’s from scratch.

He didn’t have to take any of those jobs. At the time he coached his first game at Miami in 1979, Schnellenberger already had earned three national championship rings as one of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s top assistants at Alabama and two Super Bowl championship rings as Don Shula’s offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins.

In fact, Schnellenberger was with the Dolphins, helping Bob Griese lead them to the NFL’s only perfect season to date, when Bowes and Girardi began their head coaching careers at New Hampshire and Lycoming in 1972. Those two did great jobs at their small colleges, but does anybody really want to argue that they should be in the College Football Hall of Fame before Schnellenberger?

Maybe the Hall of Fame selection committee – which works in secret – is trying to punish Schnellenberger for his years in the NFL. He left Alabama to join Shula’s staff in Baltimore, where he coached Johnny Unitas and Earl Morrall. He then spent a few years under George Allen of the Los Angeles Rams before rejoining Shula with the Dolphins.

There also was an ugly stint as head coach of the Baltimore Colts after he left the Dolphins. He quit near the end of his second year because he no longer could tolerate the meddling of owner Robert Irsay. At least, however, he got to coach a young quarterback from LSU named Bert Jones, who, by the way, is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame’s 2016 class of inductees.

Schnellenberger was 45 when he BEGAN his college head coaching career, and his work over the next 30 years is legendary. A few years ago, the Orlando Sentinel ranked the best college coaches of all-time and put Schnellenberger in the top 20, ahead of Bo Schembechler and some other icons of which you may have heard.

It’s not a hard case to make.

After he took Miami from the dregs of Division I football to the 1983 national championship, Schnellenberger was the hottest coaching property in the nation and could have gone just about anywhere he wanted. Or he could have just stayed at Miami, where he had laid the foundation upon which Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson built national champion teams.

Instead, after an ill-considered move to the pro United States Football League blew up in his face, Schnellenberger took a job that was even more daunting than Miami. That’s why it took him longer to build Louisville from a D-I punching bag into a team good enough to beat Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.

His worst career decision came when Louisville joined Conference USA against his wishes, leading him to leave in a snit for Oklahoma. That was the only time in his career when he took over an established program, and it proved to be a horrible fit for both sides. After going 5-5-1, Schnellenberger quit and went into private business.

Nevertheless, he still had football in his heart. When Florida Atlantic came to him to ask for advice on starting a program, Schnellenberger studied the situation and decided the school couldn’t find anybody more qualified than him to be its first coach.

After three years in NCAA Division I-AA, the Owls moved up to D-I and joined the Sun Belt Conference. Schnellenberger took them to back-to-back bowl games and won both, giving him an all-time 6-0 record – including the historic upset of Nebraska in the 1983 Orange Bowl – in post-season play.

It’s easy to argue that college football has never seen a better program-builder than Schnellenberger. And think of all the new fans he brought to the game at every stop. Isn’t that more important than his winning percentage? And remember that he did it on the big stage, not at some off-the-beaten-path school where 5,000 is considered a monster crowd.

If ever a rule begged for an exception, it’s this one that’s keeping Schnellenberger out of the College Football Hall of Fame. What’s so magical about a winning percentage of at least 60 percent? Why not base it on a coach’s bowl record?

Or, better yet, why not just say that any coach who wins a national championship at any level is automatically eligible?

Add his NFL years to his college years – a coach’s entire body of work should mean something, right? – and it’s easy to make the case that Schnellenberger worked with more great quarterbacks than any other coach in history. The list includes Pat Trammell, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Roman Gabriel, Bob Griese, Bert Jones, Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Browning Nagle.

I will not give up this fight because it should be clear to every reasonable football fan that Schnellenberger is the exception to the rule. It’s a shame that the College Football Hall of Fame is more interested in doing the rigid thing than the right thing.

Some injustices can’t be corrected, but this one can.

 

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