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Billy Reed: A tribute to Howard Schnellenberger, the very image of the stereotypical coach, and great man

If I were making a movie and needed somebody to play a stereotypical football coach, I wouldn’t have gone to Central Casting. I would have sought Howard Schnellenberger, he of the gravelly voice, bushy mustache, and constant pipe-smoking.

That was the man I met in 1984 when Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., who had gone to school with him at the University of Kentucky in the 1950s, was recruiting him to be the head coach at the University of Louisville.

Nobody thought U of L, who had considered moving down to NCAA Division II in football, had a chance to hire the man who had led the Miami Hurricanes to the 1983 national championship.

But Gov. Brown assured me that wasn’t case. He said Howard was genuinely interested. At one point, he asked if I would be willing to meet Howard and have a talk with him. And that’s how we came to meet.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

As indicated earlier, Schnellenberger was a formidable, even intimidating, presence. I was sports editor of The Courier-Journal at the time, and I expected him to ask if I would be a “homer” for his program if he took the job.

Instead, he only asked if (a) I liked college football, and (b) could he expect his games to be covered. The answers were yes and yes.

So he took the job in December, 1984, and I got to cover him in his first two seasons. But in the summer of 1986, Barry Bingham Sr., owner of the Courier-Journal & Times, along with WHAS radio and TV, put the properties up for sale.

He was forced by his daughter Sallie to take the highest bid for each, which meant the papers were sold to Gannett, which Mr. Bingham Sr. abhorred. I soon saw why – Gannett was committed to great profit more than great journalism – and so I left the C-J at the end of 1986.

Howard hated to see me go. He often said, “You helped bring me here and now you’ve bailed out on me.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I wrote about him often for The Lexington Herald and Sports Illustrated.

Truth be told, Howard was, literally, one of my earliest sports heroes.

In the fall of 1953, he was a sophomore end for what was to be Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s last UK team. The Wildcats took an 0-2 record into a game against powerful Florida at Stoll Field. Everybody was surprised when Bryant started sophomore Bob Hardy at quarterback.

It was the first UK game I saw in person, and we had seats in the end-zone bleachers. Hardy led the Wildcats to a 26-13 victory and threw at least one TD pass to Schellenberger. He made the catch in the end-zone behind which we were sitting.

After he graduated as an All-American in 1955, Howard began his coaching career as a member of Coach Blanton Collier’s UK staff in 1958. But when Bryant called to offer him a job on his Alabama staff, Howard was gone in a New York minute.

The road to the 1983 national title at Miami included three national championship teams at Alabama and the job as offensive coordinator for Don Shula’s unbeaten 1972 Super Bowl championship with the Miami Dolphins.

He was successful at every stop, with the exception of stint as head coach with the Baltimore Colts in which he clashed with owner Robert Irsay. When he took the University of Miami job in 1979, the Hurricanes were in horrible shape and there was as much skepticism as when he took the U of L job five years later.

Behind his formidable façade, Howard could be a softie, although he didn’t want anybody to know. He had a good sense of humor that would put a twinkle in his eyes. I always enjoyed being around him in those private moments when he was just a guy talking football and telling stories.

Howard Schnellenberger (HowardSchellberger.com photo)

He and his wife Beverlee were a true love story. They worshipped each other and supported each other at every turn. Although some U of L fans were miffed when Beverlee would show up on the sidelines in a fur coat to lead cheers, nobody dared say a word to Howard.

After leaving U of L in 1994 due to a dispute with President Donald Swain over joining Conference USA, Howard coached one unhappy year at Oklahoma, where he had a 5-5-1 record and a lot of problems.

He resigned and went into private business for a few years, but returned to coaching when Florida Atlantic University hired him to build its fledgling program.

I suppose the last time I saw him alive was when he invited Bob Hardy and me to come to Florida Atlantic and see the stadium he was building. It was wonderful for me to spend time with the heroes of my first UK football game in 1953.

Now he is being mourned by UK, U of L, Alabama, the Miami Dolphins, and Florida Atlantic. He was 87. Every one of those places became better places because of Howard’s time there. His legacy is formidable.

In recent years, I’ve kept up with Howard mainly due to Beverlee’s Facebook posts. My heart and prayers certainly go out to her because of their unique love affair.

Howard Schnellenberger was a football man through and through. A coach’s coach, if you will. And if he had ever been asked to play himself in a movie, I’m confident he would have been nominated for an Oscar.

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One Comment

  1. Donald Leffler says:

    I remember when coach Schnellenberger was selling the idea of a stadium. I bought into it and bought 4 seats before the first nail was driven into Papa John’s. I sold two of them and enjoyed several years in the crunch zone. In adddition to being a coach he was a helluva salesman.

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