The built-in storyline for Georgia’s game against Florida Atlantic would have been Mark Richt and his old college coach at Miami on opposite sidelines in Sanford Stadium.
Then Howard Schnellenberger announced the 2011 season would be his last. He retired from coaching after more than 50 years in the game.
The 78-year-old who guided the Hurricanes to their first national championship the year after Richt’s college career ended is now ambassador at large at Florida Atlantic, but says he’s not making the trip to Athens for Saturday’s game.
“I’ve got fundraising to do down here,” Schnellenberger said.
He works now out of the administration building and reports to the vice president for development, going from about 80 hours a week to about 60, he figures.
“They wanted to make me an ambassador,” he said. “I looked around and saw a bunch of seniors walking around shepherding these new freshmen coming on campus for orientation. They were ambassadors. I told the president I didn’t think I wanted to be ambassador but if he could make me ambassador at large like Geraldo Rivera than I’d consider that.”
Florida Atlantic, with an enrollment of 29,000, is located in Boca Raton, the same city where Richt went to high school.
Schnellenberger’s primary job is to raise money for the school and athletics.
“That’s been our shortfall,” he said. “That will allow us to have enough money in the bank when the Big East Conference thinks we’re good enough to come in there and then we can make that jump without having to borrow money to pay the initiation fee.”
That may be a long-range aspiration, but for now the Owls are trying to stay upright in the Sun Belt Conference.
After going 1-11 in Schnellenberger’s final season, Florida Atlantic and new coach Carl Pelini were predicted to finish ninth in the 10-team league.
Schnellenberger’s first college head coaching job was at Miami, where he arrived in 1979 when Richt and fellow quarterback Jim Kelly were already on the roster. Kelly, who became an NFL Hall of Famer, was the starter and Richt the backup.
“He was a great member of the team and a very good quarterback, but he didn’t get to play very much because Jim played most of it,” Schnellenberger said.
Richt started his senior season against Florida State in 1982 when Kelly was out with a separated shoulder, but Miami lost 24-7.
“We got beat pretty badly and then I went and brought in the third string quarterback Kyle Vanderwende up to play in the next games,” Schnellenbeger said
Richt and another player were suspended for that next game against Maryland for violating a team rule.
“Yeah, I know what he did,” said the gruff Schnellenberger, who described it only as “breaking a team rule.”
Schnellenberger, who played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky, remembers Richt the player as “a positive member of the football team, a winning player and helped us develop the football program and helped us win the national championship even though neither he nor Jim were there for the championship season in 1983.”
Richt said his relationship with Schnellenberger is “pretty good now. Back then I was scared to death of him. …He was a scary guy.”
Said Schnellenberger: “I doubt he was scared to death of me. They all kind of say that, but they all probably had a healthy respect.”
When Richt was inducted into the Palm Beach County Sports Hall of Fame in March, Schnellenberger said he sat with Richt and “we had a great evening over dinner.”
Schnellenberger went 41-16 at Miami and finished his career with a record of 158-51-3. He also was the head coach at Louisville, Oklahoma and finally Florida Atlantic.
His record with the Owls was 58-74. He started up the program in 1998 after being asked to by the school president.
“It was probably the most satisfying thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Schnellenberger said.
His teams won the 2007 New Orleans Bowl the and 2008 Motor City Bowl (“We were the only team in Florida to win back-to-back bowl games those two years”), but the wins declined each of the next three seasons.
Schnellenberger said a delay in getting an on-campus stadium had an impact in recruiting. The team was playing its home games at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, which was built for local high schools. Georgia freshman kicker Marshall Morgan, from Fort Lauderdale, said he has friends that go to FAU but he has never been to an Owls game.
Florida Atlantic opened 30,000-seat, $70 million FAU Stadium on Oct. 15, 2011. It’s capable of growing by another 10,000 seats.
“I’ve only heard good things about them,” said Georgia freshman quarterback Faton Bauta from West Palm Beach, Fla. “They recruited me a little bit, nothing too crazy.”
Games such as Saturday’s against Georgia — Florida Atlantic is getting $1 million — help pay the bills.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do, but it’s like any hungry man, a piece of white bread seems like a pretty good meal if you don’t have pork chops,” he said.
Schnellenberger won’t coach against Richt, but you can catch him later this fall at speaking engagements in Mobile, Ala., and Gainesville, Fla., or maybe at a chamber of commerce or corporate event around South Florida.
“Being the music man, I guess you’d want to call it,” he said, “getting the word out.”