‘He was my idol.’ Tom Hammond mourns death of ex-UK star who was his childhood hero.

In the years in which he served as the broadcast host for NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage, Tom Hammond would sometimes be distracted from his duties by a deeply resonant, gravelly voice calling his name.

When he heard that familiar baritone, Hammond knew before he looked it was Howard Schnellenberger.

“I would look up and there would be Howard in the (Churchill Downs) stands, waving at me,” Hammond recalls.

When Schnellenberger died late last month at the age of 87, most of us remembered him from his coaching days, particularly his roles in revitalizing the college football programs at Miami (1979 through 1983) and Louisville (1985 through 1994).

Others recalled Schnellenberger as the offensive coordinator for the NFL’s undefeated champion Miami Dolphins in 1972.

Hammond, 76, has a very different recollection of Schnellenberger.

As a boy growing up in Lexington in the 1950s, Hammond hero-worshiped Schnellenberger. Back then, Schnellenberger was an All-America end catching passes from quarterback Bob Hardy for the Kentucky Wildcats.

“My Dad (Claude Hammond) played football at UK, he was a teammate of (quarterback) Ermal Allen (who lettered at UK from 1939-41),” Hammond says. “Because of that tie-in, I was more of a UK football fan rather than a basketball fan.”

Through family connections — Hammond’s grandfather, Thomas Poe Cooper, was the dean of UK’s School of Agriculture — the future sportscaster could sometimes get sideline passes for Wildcats football games.

“One of my prized souvenirs was a Bob Hardy chinstrap,” Hammond recalls. “His favorite passing target was Schnellenberger.”

A product of Flaget High School in Louisville, Schnellenberger played his first two seasons at UK (1952 and ‘53) for Bear Bryant. However, Schnellenberger enjoyed his greatest success under Bryant’s successor as Kentucky head man, Blanton Collier.

In 1954, in his most famous moment as a Wildcat, Schnellenberger caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Hardy during a rainstorm that allowed Kentucky to beat Tennessee 14-13 in Knoxville.

The following season as a UK senior, Schnellenberger was voted a first-team All-American by The Associated Press. He ended his Wildcats career with 44 receptions for 618 yards and 11 touchdowns.

When Hammond became a football end himself, playing for Roy Walton at Lafayette High School, he chose the No. 84. “Because (Schnellenberger) was my idol, I copied his number,” Hammond says.

Decades later, after both Hammond and Schnellenberger rose to national prominence in their respective professions, their paths would cross.

“When I met him, I told him about (me wearing his) number,” Hammond says of Schnellenberger. “He was tickled. (He) always brought it up.”

Then-University of Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger, left, and then-University of Kentucky football coach Bill Curry were photographed on June 25, 1993, after a news conference announcing the two schools had agreed to resume playing each other starting in 1994.
Then-University of Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger, left, and then-University of Kentucky football coach Bill Curry were photographed on June 25, 1993, after a news conference announcing the two schools had agreed to resume playing each other starting in 1994.

As an NBC television play-by-play announcer, Hammond was assigned to broadcast the 1991 Fiesta Bowl that yielded one of Schnellenberger’s signature coaching achievements.

Having rebuilt a moribund Louisville football program, Schnellenberger coached U of L to a stunning 34-7 victory over traditional football kingpin Alabama.

“I spent a good deal of time with (Schnellenberger) and (wife) Beverlee as I prepared for the NBC Fiesta Bowl broadcast,” Hammond notes.

Across his years broadcasting NFL games for NBC, Hammond worked with analysts such as Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Kelly, who had each played for Schnellenberger at various stages in their careers.

Keuchenberg had been a standout guard for the unbeaten Dolphins. Kelly, the former Buffalo Bills star, had played quarterback for Schnellenberger in college at Miami.

“Many good (Schnellenberger) stories,” Hammond says. “But some of the best stories came from Joe Namath, who was at Alabama when Howard was an assistant there.”

As the story is relayed by Hammond, Namath’s original idea was to play college football at Maryland. When that plan fell through, then-Alabama head man Bryant dispatched then-Crimson Tide assistant Schnellenberger to Namath’s hometown, Beaver Falls, Pa., to reel in the star quarterback.

“Schnellenberger completely charmed Joe’s mother,” Hammond says, “and before you knew it, she had gone upstairs and packed (Namath’s) suitcase and off he and Howard went to Tuscaloosa.”

Once there, Schnellenberger escorted Namath to the top of Bryant’s famous coaching tower — the on-high spot from which the coach viewed Crimson Tide practices — to introduce the two.

Says Hammond: “Apparently, Bear had told Schnellenberger and (fellow Alabama assistant) Dude Hennessey not to let Joe leave until he signed — and sign he did.”

Lexington native Tom Hammond was the longtime host of NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage.
Lexington native Tom Hammond was the longtime host of NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage.

As was the case for many who have ties to UK, Schnellenberger’s death prompted Hammond to ponder how the destiny of the Wildcats football program might have been different if the coach had ever gotten the chance to be head man at his alma mater.

Schnellenberger interviewed with Kentucky at least twice, in 1981 after Fran Curci was fired, and in 1996 following the dismissal of Bill Curry.

UK hired Jerry Claiborne in its ‘81 search, then Hal Mumme in ‘96.

“I’ve often wondered,” Hammond says, “what the course of UK football would have been if (Schnellenberger) had become head coach.”

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