On-campus stadium in hand, FAU faces Schnellenberger’s last ride

For more than 13 years, Howard Schnellenberger has devoted his career to getting the Florida Atlantic football program off the ground.

He spent two years as the school's director of football operations, though there was no official football team, and has since been the only coach the program has ever known. He's led the charge to get an on-campus stadium -- the Owls will play their first season in it this fall -- and made Florida Atlantic a known commodity in both the state and around the country with a Sun Belt Conference championship and two bowl wins.

So could this be the final year for Schnellenberger, a legendary head coach who recruited Joe Namath to Alabama in 1961, made the Miami Hurricanes a national champion in 1983 and has an entire football complex named after him on the University of Louisville campus?

He's still weighing his options.

"It's not something that's on my mind, but something that will be known as time goes on," Schnellenberger said. "Our job is to get this team ready and be the best team we can be; win our conference again, play in a bowl game and bring home the third victory in a row from a bowl standpoint.

"It's something that when the time comes I will know it and everyone else will know it. At 78 years old, things move quickly."

Schnellenberger wasn't ready to say the outcome of this season would sway him one way or the other, especially since the Owls have had just two winning campaigns -- the last in 2008 -- during their six seasons in the Sun Belt. Since 2008, the Owls have struggled to 5-7 and 4-8 records. But Schnellenberger said he feels like this year's team has the ability to turn those losses into wins.

"Even though we haven't won those games where we should have won, according to our way of thinking, and came up short as far as bowl competition is concerned, we are in a position where we can make up enough ground where we have a good chance to be competitive in the conference with a legitimate chance to win it and a legitimate chance to be bowl eligible and win the bowl game," Schnellenberger said. "Obviously, we have to do all that on the football field, but there's no question that from a team standpoint, we have a enough players coming back that give us good experience."

And having an on-campus stadium should be extra motivation.

When Schnelenberger came to Florida Atlantic in 1998, one of the first things he proposed was an on-campus stadium. He had made a similar proposal during his tenure at Louisville from 1985-94. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium wasn't built until 1998, but the university dubbed the entire facility the Howard L. Schnellenberger Football Complex.

Schnellenberger understood the importance of an on-campus stadium from his days with Miami in the late 70s and early 80s. The Hurricanes played at the Orange Bowl and Schnellenberger said one of his first games -- a bout against Notre Dame -- had to be moved because fans wouldn't travel to the Orange Bowl despite the Irish being one of the most recognizable teams in college football.

He said he didn't want Florida Atlantic to have the same hangup.

"I've been right in the middle of this thing for all these years and can see the significance of playing their home games on campus," Schnellenberger said. "It was absolutely obvious to us that a stadium needed to be built on our campus because no college football team wants to be off their own campus. The ones that are off campus certainly wish that they we on campus and that is true of the great teams as well.  Football is supposed to be played on campus so the university can celebrate football on their campus just like the Ivy Leagues did back before the turn of the century."

Schnellenberger said he also owed the facility to his players. From the time he recruited his first class for the 2001 season, he promised the players an on-campus stadium. The stadium will ultimately have a room dedicated to those players who came to FAU because of Schnellenberger's vision and helped recruit others to take the same chance.

"I had to do some mea culpas through the first five classes who will not have played in the stadium," he said. "It's been the missing part in our program that we have here and this will help us develop and reach what we're man enough to reach as far as conference play and caliber of play and number of wins and bowls we play in and that kind of thing."

Seeing his dream of an on-campus stadium realized in one of the pinnacle's of Schnellenberger's career. And despite being 78 and feeling the pull of retirement, Schnellenberger hasn't lost his passion for the game.

"Sometimes it's more fun and sometimes it's not half as much fun," Schnellenberger said of coaching. "The fun is in the success."

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