Instead of bringing his fabled pipe and ebbing fame to Oklahoma in search of a Sooner renaissance and a place in college football history, 61-year-old Howard Schnellenberger could already be a legend. Having guided Miami to a magical upset of Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, he could still be in Coral Gables, sitting behind a mammoth desk in the Hurricanes athletic department, ruling his own fiefdom as Paul Bryant—his coach and mentor—once did at Alabama, watching the national titles accrue like compound interest.
Bob Simmons has never had a national championship to call his own, but still he shouldn't be reduced to negotiating to blast the rust from the decaying girders of Lewis Field at Oklahoma State. After all, he spent 20 years as an assistant coach at four schools, the last seven at Colorado. And yet last November he watched as Rick Neuheisel, a fellow Colorado assistant with just a year's time in Boulder, got the job Simmons desperately wanted, which is why Simmons, 45, is now the new head man in Stillwater.
For his part, Neuheisel had hoped someday to succeed his college coach, Terry Donahue, at UCLA. That dream fell apart when Donahue didn't make him offensive coordinator in the winter of 1994. So Neuheisel went to Colorado to coach the Buffaloes' quarterbacks and wideouts. And in the third week of November he sat with Colorado assistants Simmons, Elliot Uzelac and Mike Hankwitz discussing the vacancy created by the sudden resignation of coach Bill McCartney. Uzelac turned to the 33-year-old Neuheisel and said, "Rick, are you going to go for it?" Neuheisel hadn't even considered the possibility of replacing McCartney, so the notion struck him like a bolt from the blue. "You know what?" Neuheisel said. "I think I am."
Schnellenberger, Simmons and Neuheisel are connected by a line that begins in the Flatiron foothills of Boulder, shoots eastward into Stillwater and turns sharply south to Norman. They coach three eighths of the Big Eight and face similarly daunting—though vastly different—tasks this season: Schnellenberger is trying to restore Oklahoma's glory; Simmons has been asked to build a program from ruins at Oklahoma State; and Neuheisel is entrusted with preserving Colorado's nouveau richness.
An Oklahoma spring scrimmage, heavy with contact and sweltering humidity, is barely 30 minutes old when senior wideout JaJuan Penny runs a streak pattern and dives for quarterback Eric Moore's throw, just missing it. Penny jogs back up the sideline and waves a replacement toward the huddle before veering off the field. Immediately the air is filled with a booming voice, like gravel rumbling off the back of a dump truck. "Penny!" shouts Schnellenberger from the middle of the field. "What are you doing? Get over here." Penny walks over, head bowed. The crowd of more than 5,000 ripples with applause.
"I did that for the benefit of the team, not the crowd," Schnellenberger says later. "Nobody takes himself out of a game. Nobody."
Schnellenberger is sitting in his office, puffing on his pipe, growling beneath his bushy mustache. The word Millersburg is spoken and left to hang in the air like the smoke. Millersburg was where Bryant took his Kentucky players for preseason camp in the summer of 1952. Schnellenberger, who was an 18-year-old Wildcat freshman then, says that Millersburg was tougher than the infamous Junction, Texas, death march that Bryant subjected his first team of Texas A&M players to two years later.
This is part of Schnellenberger's plan, to drill players as if it were 1952 again, as if he were on some mission to rescue college football from the hands of coaches who are milquetoast conciliators. His treatment of Penny broke about 14 rules pertaining to the coddling of modern athletes. No matter. "Football is the last place, outside of the military, where we have an opportunity to develop the proposition that the team is more important than the individual," says Schnellenberger.
He saw Oklahoma play in the Copper Bowl, on Dec. 29, 13 days after he was hired, when lame-duck coach Gary Gibbs's Sooners were trounced 31-6 by Brigham Young. "A low point in Oklahoma football history," says Schnellenberger. "But I suspected that under all those fat bodies, there were some athletes."