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.
November 9, 1981
"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.
So the former quarterback became a split end—and a pupil of his former favorite receiver. "I told Larry, 'I'm going to make myself like carbon paper and do everything you do,' " Rodrigue says. "As a quarterback, I knew the plays. I stood behind him in practice day after day and imitated him. We also spent a lot of time talking."
"I caught Frisbees on the beach with him for four or five hours a day," Brodsky says. "Chasing them into the surf. I was like Mike's Labrador."
The two receivers are now a matched pair. Both are quick, but neither is particularly fast, so they have taken to calling themselves the Average White Boys, a takeoff on the name of the rock group called the Average White Band. Brodsky, who's half Jewish and who likes to relax in country and western bars, also answers to the Jerusalem Cowboy. They play it loose, these two. "I think they're as good as any two professional receivers in the country," says Schnellenberger.
Lou Saban recruited well, leaving Schnellenberger with more than a strong arm and sure hands to put the Hurricane offense in motion. Among Saban's legacies is senior Dan Miller, a field goal kicker known to his teammates—and to his chagrin—as Big Foot. "Really, I've got a pretty small foot," says Miller. "Eight and a half regular...6½ in a football spike. The kicking shoe should fit tight." Miller is Miami's alltime leading scorer, with 217 points, and has twice saved the Hurricanes this year—once with 40 seconds left against Florida, when he kicked a 55-yard field goal for a 21-20 win, and again against Houston, when he had field goals of 44, 50, 34 and 32 yards in a 12-7 victory.
He began learning his craft by kicking footballs between two banana trees growing on a neighbor's property in Clewiston, Fla. "The leaves came straight across and formed sort of a crossbar," he says. "But, after a while, they cut the trees down because the balls were landing up next to their house. I've since spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on football fields practicing by myself. Some people take up tennis and golf. I took up kicking."
So did Greg LaBelle. LaBelle is a punter who cites his Tae Kwan Do karate as the key to his accomplishments. "It helped out my balance, my flexibility and my concentration," he says. "It helped me follow through. When I was a freshman, my follow-through was waist-high. Now it's over my head. Better hang time, better distance." After he took up karate in 1979 his punting average climbed from 35.8 yards to 40.6 in 1980.
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno came to Miami knowing he was up against more than Country Kelly, the Jerusalem Cowboy, Big Foot and a karate kicker. The Hurricanes had yielded an average of only 12.8 points a game in a schedule that included games with Florida (25.3-point average), Houston (19.3) and Mississippi State (21.7). Paterno also knew that the Hurricanes had lost to Texas 14-7 and to Mississippi State 14-10 because in both games a touchdown had been called back.
He was aware, too, that Miami has an All-America candidate in Free Safety Fred Marion. ("If there's a better safety in America, he's in the NFL," Schnellenberger says.) And another candidate in 6'3", 277-pound Defensive Tackle Lester Williams, who runs the 40 in 4.8. If Miami was soft anywhere; it was in pass protection. The Hurricanes had already lost their two best offensive linemen, John Canei and David Stewart, to knee injuries. Schnellenberger fitted 6'3", 251-pound Bill Welch, a junior-college transfer, into Stewart's shoes for the Penn State game, and that was a spot Paterno intended to probe. "We've got to get to Kelly," he said. "We've got to be able to do it without blitzing. He reads blitzes like a pro. He's a big league quarterback. We've got to beat people one-on-one. We've got to get to Kelly."
Clearly Paterno wasn't taking Miami lightly, despite the fact his defense had yielded but nine points a game while his offense was scoring 36.8 and averaging 440.7 yards a game in total offense. In Curt Warner, the 6-0 Nittany Lions had the third-leading rusher in the nation (167.6 yards per game), and in Sean Farrell and Mike Munchak, Paterno said he had maybe the two best offensive linemen ever to play at Penn State. He also thought that Brian Franco, the placekicker who had made 11 of 12 field-goal attempts, was probably better than the Nittany Lions' fabled Bahr brothers. All in all, even the close-lipped Paterno let it be known that this was perhaps the best team he had ever coached. "This is the fastest team we've ever had," he said over coffee the morning of the game. "They need a couple of real tough ball games to know how good they are."
What the Nittany Lions now know is that Miami is for real, and that they are no longer No. 1. Kelly ended up throwing for 220 yards and one touchdown. Penn State just couldn't get to him, largely because Welch, who was tested as Paterno had promised, passed with high marks from his own coach. "I thought his play was the most important thing out there," Schnellenberger said. That and the Hurricanes' defensive line, which cut the Lions off at the corners and corked up the middle. Warner, who was still suffering from a pulled left hamstring that had kept him out of the West Virginia game a week earlier, played only two quarters and was held to only 21 yards in 13 carries, and Penn State, which had been averaging 308.5 yards a game rushing, gained but 69 last Saturday afternoon.
The final difference was in the insteps. Franco missed four field-goal attempts, while Miller had three banana splits—two, of 28 and 42 yards, in the first quarter and a third, of 23 yards, in the fourth. Big Foot's last field goal, following a Penn State fumble at the Nittany Lions' 14-yard line, was ultimately the margin of victory. Meanwhile, LaBelle penned up Penn State with an average of 42.1 yards on seven punts, only two of which were run back—for a total of two yards.
The Miami touchdown came on a second-quarter Kelly-to-Brodsky pass play that covered 80 yards. Kelly had called an audible, and as he dropped back, he looked left to primary receiver Rodrigue. But Rodrigue was covered. Kelly seemed about to throw the ball away, when he looked to the right. "Thank the Lord he looked over here," said Brodsky, who was sailing up the sideline near the 50. Kelly hauled off and threw. "A great pass," said Brodsky. "He threw it inside, so I went inside, and it gave me momentum." Penn State Defensive Halfback Paul Lankford flew past Brodsky on the outside, unable to make the tackle, and away Brodsky went. Free Safety Mark Robinson gave chase and Brodsky knew he was coming.
"I said to myself, 'Larry, don't look back!' " Brodsky said. Suddenly he saw the five-yard line beneath him, and he dived. Robinson also dived, but too late. Brodsky was in. Rodrigue then caught Kelly's pass for the two-point conversion that made the score 14-0.
Trailing 17-0 in the fourth quarter and with pelting rain seeming to underscore the fact that its No. 1 ranking was going down the drain, Penn State staged a comeback that almost saved it from the fate of Michigan, Notre Dame, USC and Texas, its predecessors at the top of the wire service polls in this wild season. On the Nittany Lions' first possession of the final period, sophomore Quarterback Todd Blackledge ended an 80-yard, nine-play drive with a 13-yard scoring pass to Tight End Mike McCloskey. After Penn State's two-point conversion pass failed, Miami took over on its own 20, determined to stay on the ground and eat up the clock. But on the second play of the series the ball popped loose from the grasp of Halfback Smokey Roan when he was tackled on his own 28 and Nittany Lion safety Robinson snagged it in midair. Two plays later Blackledge found Warner's replacement, Jon Williams, in the left flat for a 26-yard TD pass. This time Blackledge hit Flanker Kenny Jackson for a two-point conversion, and with 6:53 still to play the Hurricanes' lead was down to three points.
And that's the way it stayed as Miami's defense capitalized on Penn State miscues. A bad pitch from Blackledge to Williams stopped the Nittany Lions on their next series, Miami's Middle Guard Tony Chickillo recovering his second fumble of the day on that play. But Penn State, which held Miami to only 52 yards rushing, stopped the Hurricanes on three straight rushes and, with 1:48 left, again got possession of the ball, on its own 32. Bang. Blackledge, who completed 26 of 39 passes for 358 yards, hit Williams for 12 yards. Maybe a No. 1 team would be able to hold on to the top spot for longer than three weeks this year. But on the next play, Miami Linebacker Scott Nicolas tipped a Blackledge pass, and Marion sealed the Hurricanes' victory by intercepting it. Schnellenberger had gotten what he came for.
And one more thing. On the wall of Schnellenberger's office there's a framed copy of the front page of The Miami Herald from the day after the Hurricanes beat Penn State in 1979. The headline reads: wow! UM STUNS PENN STATE. Schnellenberger had put it up there as a memento of a watershed moment in Miami football. Now he has another. The headline in Sunday's Herald read: UM SACKS NO. 1 PENN STATE.