I remarked that the weather in Detroit couldn’t be preferable to that in Boca Raton, Fla., to which he growled, “For a football coach, home for the holidays is no place to be.”
It’s always fun to interview Schnellenberger, and the highlight of this chat came when I asked him what it was that enabled him to get so many people, so many fan bases, to believe in his championship visions for programs that were so far down in the depths. His answer ran a little more than five minutes, and was far too long to transcribe here, but it is easy to paraphrase and went something like this: I was fortunate to have coached with Blanton Collier, Bear Bryant, Don Shula and George Allen so people must have assumed I knew a thing or two about football.
After pointing out to me that his FAU Owls can, with a win in the Motor City Bowl, be the only Florida school with two straight bowl wins, Schnellenberger warmed to the task of discussing his old school:
Q: I don’t know how closely you’ve followed Louisville, but what has been your view on things here?
A: It’s unfortunate that they had a great coach leave two seasons ago, and it wouldn’t appear that it should necessarily follow that there would be that big a dropoff if he had been doing things to ensure that there would be stability moving forward. If that was not the case, then it obviously means that you would have to stop this downward spiral with some major turn of events and it’s hard to find out what that is.
Q: Well, in general, how do you turn something like that around?
A: I know that the only way you can get it done is by first making sure that the staff you have is capable of doing what you want to get done and that they’re loyal enough to go through the fire with you and have a special personality that enables them to accentuate everything the head coach does and believes in. But it’s going to have to come to winning some major games to give this thing a chance to reverse.
Q: You’ve talked about the rough years you had at the start here and at Miami. What were you able to do to keep people upbeat?
A: Sometimes it’s best to have fallen into the depths of despair. What I mean by that, there’s very few alcoholics that ever recovered and became productive members of society unless they hit rock bottom. The same thing is true in this kind of situation. I know at Miami and Louisville they had publicly acclaimed that they had hit the very bottom and they were going to hire somebody that they felt very good about and do the things financially and psychologically that would be necessary to develop the program, and working together over a period of time, you can right a ship.
(Columnist’s note: U of L’s Steve Kragthorpe has caught some flack for his ship-and-captain imagery. Why is it when Shnellenberger uses it, you find yourself instinctively, almost reflexingly asking, “Where’s the damn boat?”)
Q: So to move then to Louisville today —
A: Teams that go along at 6-6 or 5-7 or 7-5 and the coach hasn’t been there long enough for him to be made the front of the reason for why it’s failing, it’s tough during those particular times. And unless somebody on the administrative side is strong in providing time and resources, it probably won’t get turned around.
Q: From the wider view, you were the first to hold Louisville out there as a potential national player, what did you see in it then, and is it still there now?
A: I believed several things when I went to Louisville. First was that we had to go to Florida and get immediate help, and thank goodness I had been in Florida a while and coaches there thought highly of me and listened to us when we talked about Louisville being resurgent. But other things proved to be true. Players from Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland liked the idea of coming south to play, and we were enough south that we had some success there. And in the south, Atlanta, Birmingham, other parts of Georgia, you found some players who liked the idea of coming north.
The other big thing is that if you draw a circle eight hours from Louisville in all directions, you encompass about half the population of the United States. New York, Detroit, Chicago, out to St. Louis, Memphis, down to Atlanta, over to Washington, D.C. And that’s a good thing geographically.
Q: So what does it take at a Louisville or anywhere to get a program up to the elite level?
A: If you can make them believe. If you believe it yourself, then stand up there and tell the world you believe, and convince people to join you, not only the administration and coaches and players but the students and fans and business people and benefactors, if they can all come together under one drive to make the thing work, then you have a shot to make it happen. But you know, Louisville was 2-9 my first year, 3-7 the second and 3-7-1 the third and it was the third year before we ever beat a Division I team. So it took a lot of faith on a lot of people’s part. But you only get that patience if you’ve hit rock bottom. And I don’t think Louisville has hit rock bottom yet.
It may be they’re close enough to make the cut this year, that may very well be, but we’ll have to see.