Howard Schnellenberger, whose football coaching career spanned more than half a century, has died at the age of 87.
Schnellenberger is best remembered for his long and successful career coaching in college, but he also had stints in the NFL, most notably as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1973 and 1974, and offensive coordinator of the 1972 Dolphins, the only undefeated, untied team in NFL history.
An All-American end at Kentucky in the 1950s, Schnellenberger started his coaching career at his alma mater and then became offensive coordinator at Alabama under Bear Bryant, who coached him at Kentucky, in 1961. After five years at Alabama, Schnellenberger went to work for Hall of Fame coach George Allen on the staff of the Los Angeles Rams, and then took another job for a Hall of Fame coach, Don Shula, on the Miami Dolphins.
With the Dolphins Schnellenberger earned a reputation as one of the best assistants in football, culminating in the only perfect season in NFL history in 1972, and that got him hired by the Colts in 1973. His tenure in Baltimore was ill-fated, as he butted heads with team owner Robert Irsay. After a dispute between Schnellenberger and Irsay over who should be the Colts’ starting quarterback, Irsay walked into the Colts’ locker room following the third game of the 1974 season and informed the players he had fired Schnellenberger — something Irsay hadn’t bothered to tell Schnellenberger, who found out about it when he heard Irsay addressing the players.
“I have just fired the coach,” Irsay said. “There was no other way. The Baltimore Colts will go on that field to win even if I have to play myself.”
Shula soon re-hired Schnellenberger, who spent four more seasons as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Miami Hurricanes. That was where Schnellenberger had his greatest success. The Hurricanes program was struggling when Schnellenberger arrived and hadn’t finished in the Top 20 in more than a decade, but Schnellenberger engineered a turnaround that saw the Hurricanes win the national championship in his fifth season.
After that national championship, Schnellenberger shocked the football world by resigning to become head coach of a new Miami team in the United States Football League, but the deal collapsed, Miami never joined the USFL, and Schnellenberger never coached in the upstart league.
Schnellenberger still had plenty more coaching left in him however, spending a decade as head coach at Louisville, one year at Oklahoma and then a decade at Florida Atlantic before he finally retired in 2011. Florida Atlantic now plays on Howard Schnellenberger Field.