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
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
May 28, 1995
THE PIPE 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
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.''
Brutal off-season drills ensued, with strict rules, including
punishment for tardiness. ''You just don't want to ever be
late,'' says senior center Chuck Langston. Spring practice was a
ceaseless, full-contact scrimmage.
But mostly, this presumed last stop for Schnellenberger is about
footprints, those he will leave for history. Oklahoma's
reputation and old-fashioned hard work are just along for the
ride. ''He once said to me, 'My clock is ticking, and I want to
win another national championship,'' says Sooner assistant coach
Gary Nord, who also worked for Schnellenberger at Louisville.
''He wants to be the only coach to win national titles at two
Schnellenberger's initial shot at fame went awry long ago. He
took Miami from mediocrity to that title in 1984 but left for a
United States Football League job that never materialized. Then,
in '85, he returned to his hometown to coach at Louisville. It
was on that occasion that he boldly stated, ''We are on a
collision course with the national championship; the only
variable is time.''
It turns out there were other variables, like the Cardinals'
lack of speed, size, money, facilities. But Schnellenberger did
get Louisville to 10-1-1 in 1990, including a 34-7 rout of
Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. Louisville finished No. 14 in the
country, a small miracle. But in 10 years there, Schnellenberger
was just 54-56-2.
His tour at Louisville ended last fall, after school president
Donald Swain pursued membership in a league that included
Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Tulane as
football partners. Schnellenberger said publicly he approved of
the plan but later objected. ''The university changed its
direction and moved to a conference that would no longer allow
us to compete for the national championship,'' Schnellenberger
says. Oklahoma athletic director Donnie Duncan approached
Schnellenberger about the Sooner job last December at a banquet
in New York City, and Schnellenberger was ready to jump, despite
having five years remaining on his contract.
Pursuit of a title is a more realistic goal at Oklahoma, where
talent still abounds, despite only 20 wins over the last three
seasons and a 1-10-1 record against Colorado and Nebraska during
Gibbs's six seasons. First the Sooners must buy into the
Schnellenberger plan, with its modern passing game and its
throwback discipline. ''Everything will work,'' says
Schnel-lenberger, ''as long as they believe in the head man.''
No small detail, for this is a dual comeback. The success in
Miami was a long time ago. It is not only Oklahoma's greatness
that Schnellenberger hopes to restore.
THE UNDERSTUDY Nine days after McCartney resigned, Simmons was
sitting alone in his Boulder office when Colorado athletic
director Bill Marolt walked in and explained that Neuheisel had
been selected as the new coach. Simmons trained his tired eyes
on Marolt. ''Why?'' he asked, incredulous.
''We believe Rick is the coach to take us into the next
century,'' Marolt said.
''Well, that's your decision,'' said Simmons.
Marolt told Simmons that Neuheisel wanted him to stay, to keep
coaching the defensive line, to keep recruiting players. ''I'm
not staying. How can I stay?'' said Simmons. The exchange lasted
only a few minutes. ''It was a very painful conversation,'' says
Marolt. Says Simmons, ''He got his guy.''
Simmons had suffered disappointment before. In 1987, after eight
years of coaching linebackers at West Virginia, he had been
passed over for the defensive coordinator's job by coach Don
Nehlen. Simmons then went to Colorado, which has one of the best
programs in the country, where he eventually was given the title
of assistant head coach. When McCartney left, Simmons felt he
deserved the top job. ''I felt I had done the things
necessary,'' he says.
The decision to bypass Simmons, who is black, was controversial.
After Neuheisel was hired, the Rainbow Coalition criticized
Colorado. For more than two weeks Simmons was silent as he
awaited word from Oklahoma State, where he had applied for the
job that became available when Pat Jones resigned. On Dec. 14
Simmons got the good word from incoming athletic director Terry
Don Phillips and bolted from his office into the two-story entry
foyer of Colorado's Dal Ward Center, shouting his thanks to the
heavens. Faith is at the center of the Simmons family, and in
this event Simmons's wife, Linda, saw providence. ''The Lord
found a better place for us,'' she says.
Oklahoma State football, though, cannot be described as heaven.
Simmons inherits a program that has had 18 wins in the last six
years. The Cowboys' most recent period of success--1984-88,
during which Oklahoma State won 44 games, including back-to-back
10-win seasons in '87 and '88-was followed by a crushing
four-year probation for recruiting violations. The Cowboys'
stadium is streaked with dark orange rust, the academic center
is stuffed into a wing of a dormitory, and season ticket sales
were down to 18,100 in '94 from a high of 28,000 in '85. Simmons
is essentially starting from scratch, with a dream and a slogan:
A team on the rise.
''Bob is selling hope now, which he has to do,'' says Jones, who
was 62-60-3 in 11 seasons with the Cowboys. ''You can do that
for about a year. There's got to be some pretty bold strokes to
bring it all back. If you try to compete with Oklahoma, somebody
will make a mistake and get you back on probation. I'd say the
best you can hope for is six or seven wins and maybe a bid to
the Alamo Bowl.''
Don't tell that to Simmons. He didn't wait 20 years to settle
for another man's standard. He was the first member of his
family to earn a college degree (from Bowling Green, in 1971),
and his father, Fred, an assembly-line worker at General Motors,
walked up and down North Lockwood Avenue in East Cleveland,
Ohio, waving his son's diploma in the air. Bob's goals are
simple: ''Win in the classroom, win on the field.''
The process starts with recruiting. Simmons has brought in,
among other strong prospects, R.W. McQuarters, a highly touted
defensive back from Tulsa who also will play basketball, and
Nathan Simmons, a running back from Boulder, who is the younger
of his two sons.
Schnellenberger and the Sooners are 90 minutes south, history
lying in wait. ''Howard is a name guy,'' says Simmons. ''That
doesn't back me off at all. They've got tradition, we've got
THE BOY WONDER In a dark meeting room a VCR plays images of a
spring scrimmage onto a white screen. Three Colorado
quarterbacks--junior Koy Detmer and sophomores John Hessler and
Ayyub Abdul-Rahmaan--sit on one side of the table, poised for a
grilling. Their new coach sits at the head of the table with a
towel around his neck, his face flushed from a lunchtime workout
and both feet on the table. He holds a remote in his right hand.
This is Neuheisel's classroom. Swift analyses (''You can't make
that throw'') blend with pop quizzes (''Koy, what's this
coverage?'') interspersed with icebreaking cackles (''Nice
throw, but we don't have that play.... We ought to put it in,
And there are indications of what separates him from much older
men. When the tape shows Abdul-Rahmaan fluttering a throw while
a linebacker charges into his face, Neuheisel, a former
quarterback at UCLA, stops the tape. ''Ayyub, you can't let
yourself see that pressure coming at you, you've got to feel
it,'' he says.
Abdul-Rahmaan: ''I know, but he was right there.''
Neuheisel: ''Believe me, I know. I've played the position. But
you've still got to learn to feel it.''
It doesn't seem as much like a quarterback meeting as it does
jock night at Houlihan's minus the Red Dog. But there is
learning afoot in the easy atmosphere of boys hanging out. If
Schnellenberger's style is boot camp, then Neuheisel's is summer
camp. Whatever works. ''This is what I've always wanted to do,''
he says. ''I want to do it full speed, all out, and let
everything fall where it falls. And I want it to be fun.''
This is what Marolt saw in Neuheisel when he interviewed him.
''I don't feel that you can maintain programs,'' Marolt says.
''We needed somebody who could look down the road and make it
Neuheisel brings to coaching a unique, almost cockeyed
combination of experience and joie de vivre. He was a walk-on at
UCLA who started in his senior year and led the Bruins to a 45-9
victory over Illinois in the Rose Bowl, in which he was named
MVP. ''I've been fifth string and starter and everything in
between,'' he says. ''I've been booed, I've been benched, I've
been a hero. There isn't a guy on this team whose situation I
haven't been in.''
Neuheisel also has been in several situations that none of his
players have experienced. He has been through law school, at
USC, and has played two years in the USFL. As a freshman at UCLA
he volunteered for duty on the kickoff return team--in the
wedge--and as a result spent a 49-14 loss to USC (read: many
kickoff returns) attempting to block future NFL linebacker Larry
Before his first start, against Georgia, the Bulldogs' mascot,
Uga IV, threw up on Neuheisel's shoes during the national
anthem. ''I said to him, 'You don't know how much I'd like to do
that, too,''' says Neuheisel. The only ordinary thing about
Neuheisel is that his parents are named Dick and Jane.
None of this is to say that he doesn't know his football. In
1988 at UCLA he tutored Troy Aikman in the fine points of
quarterbacking and boosted him to the top pick in the NFL draft.
''He drilled Troy's pants off the whole fall,'' says Alabama
assistant Homer Smith, who was then the offensive coordinator of
the Bruins. And last year Neuheisel made his mark at Colorado by
helping to transform Kordell Stewart into a second-round draft
choice from a nervous, inconsistent quarterback with a yearning
to run. Says Stewart, ''If I'd worked with him for four years,
it would have been lights out, big time. I would have been up
there with [No. 1 draft choice] Ki-Jana Carter.''
Like Steve Spurrier at Florida, Neuheisel will call his own
plays, which is a heavy load. He has never even been a
coordinator, and now he controls everything from alumni and
media relations to recruiting. ''It's amazing how many things
cross your desk that have nothing to do with football,'' says
Neuheisel. ''But I'm prepared for anything. As long as I get to
do things my own way.'' It helps that talent remains in place.
''He's not exactly coaching the little sisters of the poor out
there,'' says Simmons.
Neuheisel was in the coaches' room at Colorado's Folsom Field
before the Buffaloes played Iowa State on Nov. 19 when McCartney
told the staff he was resigning. Neuheisel worked that game in a
fog. He and his wife, Susan, had arranged for the installation
of new window coverings in their house, at considerable cost.
Now he was four quarters away from unemployment. ''I'm looking
over Mac's shoulder during that game, and all I can think is,
I've got to get to a phone to call off the window job,'' says
Today, windows. Tomorrow, Nebraska.