Schnellenberger, Florida Atlantic open new stadium
Take the skybox elevator to the top floor of the House that Howard Built, and it's easy to see why the Owls of Florida Atlantic University believe their football program is on the rise.
The view includes the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon, a bustling, rapidly growing campus to the right, and the school's newest structure directly below - a handsome 30,000-seat stadium that will open Saturday when the Owls play Western Kentucky.
This may not quite be the top of the college football world, but coach Howard Schnellenberger likes what he sees.
''Majestic,'' he says in that familiar baritone growl.
It has been a hard, humbling climb to reach this point. Schnellenberger built the state school's program from scratch beginning in 1998, and the Owls were rootless for a decade, playing home games at the Miami Dolphins' stadium, and then at a high school stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Crowds of less than 3,000 were common at first.
Florida Atlantic reached the Division I-AA semifinals, made the jump to the major-college level, joined the Sun Belt Conference and won two bowl games. But the program struggled for attention in the busy South Florida sports market, and last year attendance averaged only 14,025.
The Owls' new $70 million home makes it clear they're here to stay, however, and a near-sellout crowd is expected for the opener.
''I think the stadium's going to do what stadiums all over the country have done - add a great dimension to the vibrancy and potential of the university,'' Schnellenberger says.
He knows about building. Schnellenberger led the Miami Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983 and built Louisville into a top-25 team. Then he came out of retirement to join the Owls.
His goal at the outset was a 42,000-seat on-campus stadium with a roof. The school decided on a smaller, open-air design, but Schnellenberger has no complaints about the end result.
''My dream fell on deaf ears,'' he says, a smile lifting his mustache. ''Hallelujah, amen, glory be - the university dispelled my first thoughts and came up with their own.''
Even so, it was Schnellenberger who led the push to make the stadium a reality.
''Howard has been a great visionary throughout his career,'' athletic director Craig Angelos says. ''He has a certain talent of being able to cast a long vision that might seem impossible to some in the beginning, and as he starts moving forward, people get on board with it. That was his role and will be his legacy.''
With the program now on a firm foundation, the 77-year-old Schnellenberger will retire after the season. Angelos says his long list of possible successors includes former coaches Mike Leach, Randy Shannon and Jim Leavitt.
''I think we'll be able to attract great coach,'' Angelos says. ''This is a job I think a lot of people would love to have - one, because of a brand-new stadium, and two, because we're in the hotbed of some of the most talented players in the country. With that combination, we could be as good as anybody in the country in the next five to 10 years.''
Schnellenberger agrees. Ever since arriving in Boca Raton, he has claimed Florida Atlantic can eventually compete with the nation's elite programs, including Florida, Florida State and Miami.
''It certainly has as much of a chance as any young school in America to be the best team in America,'' Schnellenberger says. ''It has all of the natural resources that you need.''
Enrollment now exceeds 28,000 at the 50-year-old school, which prides itself on the diversity of its student body and offers more than 170 degree programs. But while the campus sits amid fertile recruiting territory, that's not where the football team played, and homely venues made the Owls a difficult sell to prep players.
That has changed.
''With recruiting, kids now know we have our own stadium, and that affects them,'' junior linebacker David Hinds says. ''Schnelly told us the vision he had, and that's the reason a lot of us in my class came here. He came through; we have our stadium.''
The extent of the home-field advantage will immediately be tested. The Owls played their first five games this season on the road and lost them all, including as heavy underdogs at Florida, Michigan State and Auburn.
Now they're favored for the first time while christening a new home.
''We're going to try to make a tradition not to ever lose in that stadium,'' sophomore linebacker Randell Johnson says.
''The rah-rah and all the noise is going to be on our side,'' Hinds says. ''That's going to be exciting to have. We're hoping to fill up the stadium and disrupt their team - put some fear in their tummies.''
Games could get noisy: The stadium's enclosed except for two corners, where royal palms and beach sand provide a subtropical flavor. There's also a large Tiki bar. The band and other students will sit in the end zone; VIPs can watch from a four-level press box that includes 24 luxury suites.
This week workers applied finishing touches, and the place smelled like paint, a reminder Schnellenberger and the Owls aren't quite done building.