LOUISVILLE (WAVE) - My fellow Americans, I rise again today to beseech the National Football Foundation to do the right thing by Howard Schnellenberger, one of the most successful and respected coaches in football history.
Hours before the national championship game between Alabama and Clemson on Monday, the NFF announced the group of former players and coaches that will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.
Once again, Schnellenberger was snubbed because he did not win at least 60 percent of his games as a head coach at Miami, Louisville, Oklahoma, and Florida Atlantic. But this time, the selection committee came up with a cruel twist for Schnellenberger, his family, and many supporters throughout the football world.
One of the two coaches selected for the Class of 2019 is Dennis Erickson, who is best known for the two national titles he won at Miami in 1987 and 1990. Yes, that’s the same Miami that was on life support when Schnellenberger took it over in 1977 and built it to the point that it shocked mighty Nebraska to win the 1983 national title.
In other words, the man who built the Miami program into a national power isn’t qualified for the College Football Hall of Fame, but one of the coaches who profited from his miraculous building job will be inducted. If Erickson doesn’t mention the Schnellenberger injustice in his acceptance speech, shame on him.
The truth is, the National Football Foundation is punishing Schnellenberger for being a builder. Except for the mistake he made in leaving Louisville for Oklahoma in a snit -- he opposed the university’s decision to join Conference USA -- Schnellenberger never accepted any of the offers dangled before him by established programs.
“Because I want to go some place where I can be the first Howard Schnellenberger instead of the next Knute Rockne,” Schnellenberger told me once.
In other words, he wanted to save programs or build new ones instead of maintaining winning traditions built by others. When a coach chooses this path, it is bound to hurt his career winning percentage because there will be many losses while he’s building.
He arrived at Miami at a time when the university was thinking of dropping football. He took the Louisville job when the university was thinking about either dropping the sport or moving down in classification. He went to Florida Atlantic to build a program from scratch.
The fact he succeeded at all three is testimony to his unique ability. No coach has done what Schnellenberger did. And yet instead of recognizing him for building three thriving D-I programs, the National Football Foundation sticks to its arbitrary and capricious criterion of a 60 percent winning percentage as a head coach.
Schnellenberger was 158-151-3 as a head coach. That’s not 60 percent, but it’s outstanding considering what he had to overcome at three of the places where he coached. He was 6-0 in bowl games. And what about the three national titles won by Alabama when he was a coordinator for Paul "Bear" Bryant in the early 1960s? Shouldn’t they count for something?
Of course they should. But for some odd reason, understandable only to thick-skulled football men, the National Football Foundation sticks to the 60 percent thing as if it were carved in stone. It should be noted that there are no such “magic” numbers for players.
In other words, a running back isn’t required to have gained a certain number of yards, or a receiver is not required to have a certain number of catches, and so on. That’s as it should be. Sometimes it’s impossible to measure a person’s contribution to a sport by statistics alone.
Schnellenberger recruited Joe Willie Namath out of Beaver Falls, Pa., to play at Alabama. How much impact did Namath have on Alabama’s history and tradition? Incalculable. He coached Jim Kelly at Miami and Jeff Brohm at Louisville.
His work in the NFL can’t be used to support his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Yet when evaluating his impact on football, it would be silly to ignore the fact he was the offensive coordinator for Don Shula’s back-to-back Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in 1972-1973, the first of which remains the last NFL team to go unbeaten.
I think the induction of Schnellenberger to the College Football Hall of Fame is such a no-brainer that it’s almost embarrassing to still be having this discussion. The selection of Erickson — who deserves it, by the way — is only another example of how illogical and unreasonable the National Football Foundation is being.
I’ve lobbied my friends Steve Hatchell, executive director of the NFF, and Archie Manning, the president, on Schnellenberger’s behalf. They seem sympathetic, but not enough to rescind the 60 per cent winning percentage criterion for a head coach.
So I’m at a loss about what, if anything, can be done while Schnellenberger, 84, still is around to enjoy the recognition he so richly deserves. All I know is that the man who saved Miami’s program and built it into a national power should be recognized before one of the several coaches who profited from his hard work and unique ability.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.