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I took this job with the idea of building a national champion. I think we've progressed toward that goal. I envision this athletic department, someday, as comparing with those of Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Penn State. We're moving steadily in that direction. I think we're close to being able to play with any team in the nation. Our game tomorrow will be on national television against the No. 1 team in the nation. If we can pull it off, then everybody in the country—even the casual fan—will know that we're for real. That's the significance of this game for us. We're just liable to win it. I'm enjoying this. This thing tomorrow is going to be fun." Those were the words of Howard Schnellenberger, football coach at the University of Miami, last Friday, the day before his Hurricanes met undefeated Penn State in Miami.
Fun was hardly the word to describe what Schnellenberger had the next day in the Orange Bowl. In a game whipped by gusts of wind up to 23 mph and lashed by intermittent showers—a game that left a dozen Penn State players sobbing in their locker room and the Miami celebrants roistering merrily in theirs—the Hurricanes, un-ranked by AP and SI, defeated the Nittany Lions 17-14 and thus showed themselves to be, as Schnellenberger knew they could and thought they would, a team whose emergence as a major power is at hand.
The very idea of Miami playing tough against one of the best football teams in the country would have seemed, at best, absurd just a few years ago. In the course of the 1970s, for instance, the Hurricanes played difficult schedules—coaches of highly ranked teams tended to sign them up as a sort of weekend of R & R before facing serious rivals. Miami was 42-67 during that 10-year stretch, as Notre Dame and Alabama mauled them fairly regularly, and they never were better than 6-5 in any year. Then all of that suddenly began to change.
In 1979 Miami Coach Lou Saban left, and in came the 44-year-old Schnellenberger, who wore an uncoachly mustache, smoked a pipe, gave orders in a basso profundo voice and brought with him all the wile and experience of 20 years of coaching: first as an assistant under Blanton Collier at Kentucky; then under Bear Bryant at Alabama, where Schnellenberger ran the Tide offense in the heady days of Joe Namath; then as an assistant to George Allen with the Rams; and then as offensive coordinator under Don Shula in Miami, where Schnellenberger was in charge of the offense during the Dolphins' glory years of the early 1970s. He became the head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1973 but ran aground there in 1974 when owner Robert Irsay summarily canned him.
"I got fired on the sidelines during a game with the Philadelphia Eagles," Schnellenberger recalls. "Mr. Irsay wanted me to put Bert Jones [who was then a second-year pro backing up Marty Domres] in the game. I had already told Jones he was going in on the next series of downs, and Mr. Irsay comes up to me in front of my team and directs me to put him in. I said, 'Mr. Irsay, I was going to do it, but I can't do it now because you've said it in front of my team, and if I do it now I've lost my football team.' We lost the game and he fired me."
Schnellenberger rejoined Shula in 1975 and stayed with the Dolphins until the Hurricanes called in 1979. He brought with him to Coral Gables the Dolphins' offense, for which he takes no credit. "Shula learned it from Weeb Ewbank," he says. "Ewbank learned it from Paul Brown. Where the hell Brown got it, I don't know. Now we run the Dolphin offense, or 85% of what they do." Schnellenberger also brought with him a Dolphin, Quarterback Coach Earl Morrall, and they were not at Miami long before they discovered the arm they needed to propel their pass-oriented offense and the receivers to run its sophisticated patterns.
The quarterback discovery came in the 1979 game against Penn State, of all teams, in University Park, Pa., of all places. Schnellenberger had begun that season with Mike Rodrigue, then a sophomore, as his signal-caller, but he had figured there would come a time when Jim (Country) Kelly, a strong-armed freshman, would be ready to take over. Kelly is from East Brady, Pa.—the Nittany Lions had recruited him, but they saw the 6'3", 210-pound prospect as a linebacker, so Kelly had said, "No thanks"—and while Kelly had no college experience going into the Penn State game, Schnellenberger thought he might seize the occasion, in front of family and friends, and rise to it.
Two hours before the game, Schnellenberger told Kelly he was starting. "My heart went to my toes," Kelly recalls. More than that, says Schnellenberger, "He promptly went to the bathroom and threw up." He also threw for three touchdowns and completed 18 of 30 passes for 280 yards to help upset the Nittany Lions 26-10.
So Schnellenberger had himself a genuine quarterback, not to mention a victory over Penn State. "That was a real turning point, a real kickoff, for what we've been able to do since," says Schnellenberger, under whom the Hurricanes have gone from 5-6 in 1979 to 9-3 in '80 to 5-2 so far in '81.
Not incidentally, Schnellenberger also eventually got himself a fine receiver out of that Penn State game, one capable of complementing the outstanding Larry Brodsky, whose father, Joe, is the coach of the Hurricanes' offensive backs. Before this season, having finally resigned himself to the fact that the No. 1 quarterback job would never again be his, Rodrigue suggested to Schnellenberger that he become a receiver. That was just what Schnellenberger had had in mind. "But I'm glad Mike asked," he says.