Howard Schnellenberger, who died today at 87, had a brief but complex legacy at Oklahoma

His skills as a program builder never quite meshed at a program that already had six national championships and decades of excellence
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Howard Schnellenberger, one of the most accomplished coaches in football who made a vexing one-year stopover at Oklahoma, has died. He was 87.

Schnellenberger won three national championship as an Alabama assistant under Bear Bryant, then won two Super Bowls under Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins before building the Miami Hurricanes into a nouveau riche college football powerhouse by beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the 1983 National Championship.

He breathed life into the programs at Louisville and Florida Atlantic, as well, the latter as a college football startup.

Howard Schnellenberger

Howard Schnellenberger

But his one year at Oklahoma — 1995, when he replaced Gary Gibbs and directed the Sooners to an ignominious 5-5-1 season — was filled with controversy, silly one-liners, rumors and, ultimately, his forced resignation.

Schnellenberger’s football resume was nearly impeccable when new president David Boren, athletic director Donnie Duncan and a search committee hired him, but fans soon questioned if he was the right cultural fit at Oklahoma.

His arrival in December 1994 immediately created controversy: when Gibbs had been forced to resign and Schnellenberger was hired a month later, it was decided Gibbs would finish the season by leading the team in the Copper Bowl against BYU. But as the Sooners lost 31-6 to finish the season 6-6, Schnellenberger stole any possible thunder when he attended the game in person and even spoke with reporters and offered criticisms of the players' fitness and dedication to the program.

Schnellenberger, then 60, had a 99-85-2 record as head coach when he got to OU. Carrying himself with the airs of a distinguished Southern gentleman, he assured the gathering at his introductory press conference that books would be written, films would be made and obelisks would be erected to commemorate his time at Oklahoma.

“Howard is someone with whom our fans can identify,” Duncan said that day, “someone who could quickly win the hearts of our people and become one of us.”

That never happened. When Schnellenberger opened practices to the fan base, he insisted that they not bring drinks or sit down, since the players couldn’t.

In the drowning heat of an Oklahoma August, that tactic almost proved fatal and even led to two players — Brian Ailey and Aaron Findley — requiring hospitalization for severe dehydration. Ailey, who collapsed in the hallway of the Switzer Center after two days of particularly grueling preseason workouts (after a timed fitness run, the team lifted weights dressed in full pads), almost died and even filed a lawsuit against Schnellenberger and the university two years later (a federal judge eventually dismissed the suit).

Howard Schnellenberger and wife Beverlee at FAU

Howard Schnellenberger and wife Beverlee at FAU

Boren immediately ordered the team take more water breaks (Ailey said players had gotten one five-minute break during a two-hour practice), and Schnellenberger bristled at his president's mandate, which ultimately became the first step in Schnellenberger’s dismissal in December 1995.

The other big step was an inability to win games.

The 1995 Sooners returned 19 starters, including talent like Jerald Moore and James Allen at tailback, Stephen Alexander at tight end, JaJuan Penny and P.J. Mills at receiver and J.R. Conrad, Chuck Langston and Milt Overton on the offensive line. The defense featured future long-time NFL studs Kelly Gregg, Cedric Jones and Darrius Johnson, cornerback Larry Bush, and linebackers Tyrell Peters and Barron Tanner.

But while the Sooners started the year ranked No. 15 and climbed as high as No. 10 after a 3-0 non-conference start, the losses quickly began to pile up, and the program finished with just five wins — its lowest total since 1965, when OU finished 3-7-1. Schnellenberger’s only Oklahoma squad ended the year with a 2-5-1 record in the Big Eight Conference’s final season.

Schnellenberger embraced controversy, often with inflammatory remarks. Ahead of the Colorado game, when it was announced that Buffaloes quarterback Koy Detmer would miss the game, Schnellenberger said — during his weekly press luncheon — that he wished Detmer could play because “I don’t want a damn asterisk when we beat their ass.”

Colorado won 38-17, giving the Sooners their first loss of the season — but plenty more would follow. OU beat Iowa State, then tied Texas 24-24. The Sooners then lost 38-17 to Kansas in Norman and won 13-9 at Missouri before the season spiraled out of control.

As the quarterback competition between Eric Moore and Garrick McGee devolved, OU lost its last three games: 49-10 to Kansas State, 12-0 to Oklahoma State, and 37-0 to Nebraska. It was OU’s first loss to OSU in 20 years.

The Schnellenberger era at Oklahoma — the 100th season of OU football — was more complex than water breaks and 5-5-1.

For instance, it was Schnellenberger who first popularized the phrase “Sooner Nation” on the head coach's annual summer Sooner Caravan. 

Following the often tepid Gibbs era with equal parts Southern charm and brash overconfidence did give OU fans reason for hope, at least early on. 

Howard Schnellenberger at OU

Howard Schnellenberger at OU

And preceding the worst three-year stretch in program history — the late John Blake’s teams followed the Schnellenberger debacle by going 12-22 before Bob Stoops was hired — made Schnellenberger's time seem slightly more palatable to those counting wins and losses.

Howard Schnellenberger’s football legacy began and ended well beyond his 366 days in Norman.

Schnellenberger was born in Louisville and played tight end for Kentucky from 1952-55. His senior year at UK, he earned All-America accolades.

He went 41-16 at Miami after that school had decades of ineptitude. He took over his alma mater and went 54-56-2 — including five winning seasons and two bowl trips — from 1985-94. He literally built the program at Florida Atlantic from the ground up and led the Owls to an 11-3 record and FCS playoff run in 2003 before ushering them into Division I FBS football from 2005-2011.

Schnellenberger’s career record of 158-151-3 isn’t sparkling, but he did it at schools that either had nothing before he arrived or, in Oklahoma’s case, were in dire straits.

Perhaps the biggest reason the pipe-smoking, blazer-wearing, baritone-speaking Schnellenberger didn’t work out at Oklahoma: he repeatedly refused to embrace the rich heritage laid down before him by Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and others, and instead chose to lean on his well-earned reputation as a program builder.