Howard Schnellenberger initially turned down the University of Miami job on a Saturday afternoon while his wife was at the beauty parlor.
When his wife returned home, the former Baltimore Colts head coach and then-Miami Dolphins assistant told her about the job offer and his decision.
“Beverlee said, ‘Have you forgotten getting into fisticuffs with (Baltimore Colts owner Robert) Irsay and telling him to get his butt into the stands and let you coach?’ ” Schnellenberger said. ” ‘How you got fired, do you think there’s an NFL team that would even hire you?’ “
As we all know, Schnellenberger not only reconsidered — leading Miami to a 5-6 record in his first season in 1979 — he also built the foundation on which the Miami Hurricanes became one of the country’s elite football programs.
Schnellenberger’s 1983 Hurricanes, Miami’s first national championship team, will be honored Friday night when Miami and Florida Atlantic University open the season at Sun Life Stadium.
Florida Atlantic’s program was started by Schnellenberger, who arrived in Boca Raton in 1998. The Owls first game was in 2001.
“This game is the real beginning of something extraordinary,” Schnellenberger, 79, said Wednesday. “It’s the first one of the next four years, and it’s something that could continue into perpetuity.
“Like Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Oklahoma-Texas, rivalries have been the bread and butter of the great game of American football, and that’s what we’re playing into.”
Currently an assistant to the Florida Atlantic president, Schnellenberger’s heart will be with the Owls on Friday night. But a major part of him will bleed orange and green as he takes part in the 1983 reunion. Last week, he visited the White House as an assistant coach for the 1972 undefeated Dolphins.
When Schnellenberger took the Miami job, he told people the Hurricanes would win a national championship in five years. In his mind, Miami could be the East Coast’s University of Southern California.
“The Orange Bowl was the greatest asset you could have — a grand stadium with tradition,” Schnellenberger said. “Then there was a schedule that included schools like Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Ohio State … you could spend your lifetime putting together a schedule like that.”
He also focused on something previous coaches had not: recruiting in Miami.
“The previous assistants were from New Jersey, Pennsylvania … they were trying to get the best players, but they came back with the second-best.”
Schnellenberger also knew university powers had not decided against UM moving to I-AA, they just tabled the discussion for five years.
Schnellenberger needed each of those seasons to fulfill his prediction.
Players such as quarterback Jim Kelly and defensive tackle Jim Burt helped lead the Hurricanes to two nine-win seasons during Schnellenberger’s first four years, but they were gone by 1983.
Using a motto of, “Courage, commitment, continuity,” Schnellenberger chose Bernie Kosar over Vinny Testaverde as the starting quarterback 10 days before the 1983 season.
Miami opened the season at Florida. “We knew would have a terrible fight,” Schnellenberger said.
Although the Gators prevailed 28-3, the coach saw things differently.
“With the exception of score, we beat them,” said Schnellenberger, citing turnovers as the undoing despite Kosar completing 25 passes for more than 200 yards.
“I was elated — I praised them for outplaying the bastards. I told them I was not going to get them up at 4 a.m Sunday to practice and figure out how not to lose. I took them back home and treat it like we won.”
The Hurricanes pretty much sailed through the regular season before beating East Carolina 12-7 on Nov. 5 and winning 17-16 at Florida State on Jeff Davis’ game-winning field goal.
Then came the Orange Bowl meeting with top-ranked Nebraska.
“That was the best football team that’s ever been out together,” Schnellenberger said. “They had the Heisman Trophy winner in Mike Rozier, the Outland Trophy winner in Dean Steinkuhler. They had quarterback Turner Gill and receiver Irving Fryar, the first overall pick in the (1984) NFL Draft. And that’s not even talking about the defense!”
Schnellenberger and his staff believed the fifth-ranked Hurricanes could match up with the Cornhuskers, and even rated as the better passing team.
Before the Orange Bowl’s New Year Day evening kickoff, No. 2 Texas lost to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, No. 3 Auburn was defeated by Michigan in the Sugar Bowl and No. 4 Illinois was beaten by UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
The Hurricanes went on to win 31-30 when Nebraska failed on a two-point conversion in the final seconds.
Schnellenberger pointed to another play, however, as turning the tide in Miami’s favor, even though the “fumblerooski” resulted in a Nebraska touchdown that cut Miami’s second-quarter lead to 17-7.
“I had told the players that they ran the ‘fumblerooski’ once every three years, that it was a trick play, an unsportsmanlike play, an immoral play, a play of desperation,” Schnellenberger said. “When they ran it, players on our sideline were saying, ‘We got them beat! They ran the ‘fumblerooski!’ That play was supposed to demoralize us, but in actuality it invigorated us.”
Schnellenberger said he remembers every moment of being carried off the Orange Bowl turf.
“Is there a better feeling for a coach? Not in my world,” he said. “I remember the players picking me up … I almost slid off one shoulder .. then we got surrounded, stuck in traffic. I stayed as long as I could before I had to get my butt down.”