Otto Von Habsburg died quietly on July 4th this year. The would-be monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose life spanned no fewer than four different historical eras, a single odd thread cast through World Wars, Cold Wars, and the emergence of a shockingly well-ordered world out of sheer chaos. Otto was generally regarded as a very genial thwarted emperor, spending his life bouncing from cushy exile to cushy exile, and ultimately rebounding from the horrors of World War Two to serve effectively in the European Parliament while spending his free time chilling at a Bavarian lakeside manor. Once when told of a soccer match between Austria and Hungary, he replied "And whom are we playing?" You can't be much more postmodern than the declassified monarch of a dead empire making jokes about that very much vanished empire, but Otto was, according to all reports, "mad chill for a Hapsburg."
Otto's gone now. His fellow travelers in aristocratic survival cases are few and far between, but one did announce his retirement yesterday in Boca Raton, Florida. Archduke Schnellenberger, crown prince of Miami-on-Louisville/Saxony, exiled Marquis of Norman, and holder of the imaginary title of the OverPope of the Miami Federales Federation, will step down from his position as OverDuke of Florida Atlantic football at the end of 2011.
He will assume a role as ambassador for the program, and do the things Schnellenberger excels at even at the age of 77: wearing dapper suits, eating pie with boosters, and looking as august as a Hungarian cavalryman poised to attack from a wind-swept hill. He gets to putter in grand fashion in Boca Raton for the rest of his life. Golf carts will fight for the honor of supporting his dignified mass. Babies will coo for a chance to touch his silvery coiffure. He'll wink, and dolphins will wink back.
It'll be a good life, but don't let the tree fall without counting its rings. Schnellenberger will leave after this season as a living, Old Spice-scented chunk of football history, a walking coelacanth who will finish with sixty years of transit through history with a resume unparalleled in its scope, depth, and bold juxtaposition of success and disaster. He was one of few coaches to be tutored by both Don Shula and Bear Bryant. He was the offensive coordinator for the only undefeated team in NFL history, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and He took two programs from the ashes (Miami, Louisville,) and also put one of them nose-first into the earth (one mediocre season at Oklahoma leading to the John Blake era.) Schnellenberger invented one program out of thin air, the Florida Atlantic University Owls, and led them to a Sun Belt championship and bowl victory.
He also left the Miami job for an imaginary team, one that never happened: the USFL's Miami franchise. It remains the greatest single coaching career decision tree blunder in college football history, as the Schnellenberger-built Miami franchise (and that is the right word) went on to win another three national titles, and Schnellenberger retreated home to Louisville to rebuild the Cardinals' football program for a decade. No one has ever made a greater career gamble, and no one suffered more as a result. At one point after the Oklahoma debacle (another bad gamble,) Schnellenberger was selling bonds for a living, and ultimately had to return to a Sun Belt job to get back in coaching.
That return proved to be a good investment, as Schnellenberger seemingly had the retirement plan built into the job description. He wasn't doing anything completely new in building a program, but he was never a stranger to innovation. The phrase "put a wall around [place]" comes from Schnellenberger's "State of Miami" recruiting strategy at Miami, the same strategy every school within geographic striking distance of talent used after Miami's championship run, and the one most schools still use today. Schnellenberger used pro-set passing to open up the field in an era of option-heavy offenses, and their Orange Bowl national title win over Nebraska remains one of the greatest collision of wildly different attacks you will ever see.
Above all, you will remember the suits, the anachronistic skin of a coaching generation long since shed for khakis, team shirts, and the crass trappings of the sleepless modern technocrat coach. We once got an email from a reader who was In New Orleans around the same time FAU was preparing for the New Orleans Bowl. The reader had seen Schnellenberger, standing outside a restaurant in the Quarter,wearing a blue sport coat, pink shirt, and white pants. Immaculate from cuff to collar, and striding with the deliberate purpose of a man with a bellyful of creole butter and spiced meats, he struck a match and lit a cigar. The reader sounded awestruck, and should have. It's not often you see real live nobility in the flesh, and it will get rarer and rarer still with the retirement of one of college football's last grand dukes.