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Howard Schnellenberger Gets a Bum Rap

I see a lot of posts poking fun at Schnelly for being a drinking man. Is that really fair? Where does this reputation come from? I've pondered this issue, and despite Howard's current antics I have come to think that this is an unfair characterization.

First, let's review Schnelly's history. He was recruited by Bear Bryant to Kentucky, and played for Blanton Collier (who would coach the Browns to an NFL championship) after Bryant split. He then played CFL ball, and joined Bryant's staff at Alabama. His claim to fame at Bama came from being the coach who recruited Namath to Tuscaloosa. He was the chief offensive assistant on two MNC teams. His first encounter with Texas came in the Bama loss to the '64 Horns in the Orange Bowl.

The important thing to remember from this era was that the Tide actually had a sophisticated passing attack for a college team (i.e. they would send out two receivers on a pass play, and sometimes one on a running play), and that the Bryant-led squad mastered the technique of water deprivation training. Basically, this theory (unadopted by any other sport in history that involved running) was that football teams needed tough players to be successful, and allowing players to drink water during practice made them soft. During two-a-days in August, southern coaches would carefully ration out the water, and would treat cramping with verbal beratement and encouragement to pursue a career as a castrati. This technique did weed out weaker players (plus those whose bodies tended to efficient perspiration), but there were a couple of unintended side effects. First, the depriving of water reduced players' weights. Second, the single platoon substitution rules of that era, combined with the semi-euphoric/semi-stupored mental situation players found themselves in limited the complexity of schemes coaches could run. Basically, no player has an advantage in smarts or savviness when the view on the field is hazy around the edges, your tongue feels coated in sand, and the hash marks seem to be rippling.

This training technique vanished in the mid-60's, and none too soon. The point of all this (remember for later) is that Schnelly made his bones in this system, and somewhere deep inside probably still feels there is something to it.

Schnellenberger then went from being Bryant's protege, to studying under another giant of the era- Don Shula.

Schnellenberger was an assistant with the Colts, then the Dolphins, and then head coach of the Colts. He then took the head coaching job for the Hurricanes. He mined the Ohio Valley for a couple more QBs- Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar, and built the juggernaut we have all come to despise. You know how sometimes you look at a coaching staff of a long-ago team, and marvel at all of the talent it had as assistant coaches? That's not the case with the '83 Hurricanes. Howard Schnellenberger was the only name anybody would recognize.

Schnelly did something odd next. He quit Miami to coach in the USFL, which then collapsed. He then took on the task of rebuilding Louisville, in his home state of Kentucky. He was head coach there from 1985 to 1994. It was a tough job, since Louisville was an independent in an era where there were not many reasons to be independent. He took that program to a level it could survive at, setting the groundwork for it to join a BCS conference (sort of- it's the Big east) years later. It was a hard job, and he got off to a slow start, beating only the occasional weak school at first. His first win over a big name state school was at UNC in 1988, beating Mack Brown in his inaugural season there, 38 - 34.

In 1991, Schnelly took the Cardinals to their highest ranking ever at that time (#14), a 10 - 1 - 1 record, and a win over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. After the '94 season, Howard replaced Gary Gibbs at OU. Up until this point, Schnellenberger's reputation was as a confident old-school (yes, he was old school 13 years ago) coach, with a very high tolerance for risk, a huge ego, and accomplishments to match that ego. Something happened at OU. For the first time in his college career, Schnellenberger was fired.

The Sooners went 5 - 5 - 1 in 1995. They started 4 -1 - 1, with a stirring comeback to tie Texas in the RRS after falling behind 0 - 17. Then they collapsed, and the team seems to have quit the last few games, losing to KSU 10 -48, OSU 0 - 12, and NU 0 -37. There are two sides to the story of what happened. Schnelly says the players quit, and weren't committed to his conditioning expectations. The Sooners say he was a damned drunk. Let's examine that.

First off, is there anything wrong with drinking whiskey, or whisky? Obviously not. How about for football coaches? Of course not. They spend so many hours watching tape and game planning, how can you begrudge them a little taste? Just put the reel on the projector, pour a couple of fingers, maybe add a splash, let the sip linger on the tongue a few seconds, and roll the film.

I do think that the Okies may not have understood what Schnellenberger was drinking. Due to the peculiar liquor laws of their state, they understand drinking to be that wretched 3.2 beer (what we call "Coors"), or cheap rum they buy in Dallas and mix with Coca-Cola at the Cotton Bowl. Schnellenberger was from Kentucky, and he knew better I suspect.

Schnellenberger really is old school. He knows, like an old Navy captain, that a well stocked bar is a necessary part of an office. He knows that you hire a teetotaler as your defensive coordinator before you hire a margarita drinker (he knows that the guys who prefer Irish whisky need to coach offense). I suspect that this drinking business is a red herring from Oklahoma.

Besides, do we really buy this indignation from the Okies about their coach's moral lapses?

Let me ask you this. Which coach in the College Football Hall of Fame would you be least surprised to hear was picked up in a meth lab raid? Switzer, right (especially since statistically, said raid would be more likely to be in Oklahoma...etc.)? Yet there is no righteous indignation about Switzer's (many) moral failings.

Schnellenberger's big failing was going 5 - 5 - 1, with the team quitting on him. The Sooners realized that he would need at least three years to right the ship, so they fired him and replaced him with John Blake so they could get the Schooner going again.

So, now Howard is returning to Austin for his third visit. He is talking big, because he believes big, and he has accomplished big. The Owls of FAU will be well-prepared, and well-conditioned. Let's hope the Horns prevail, and remember that Schnellenberger is a guy to laugh with, not at.