Welcome back to another installment of Action’s Bookclub, where I’m attempting to fill some of the offseason emptiness in our collective soul by reading the literary contributions of college coaches. They’ve mostly been... not great!
Urban Meyer and Nick Saban wrote self-help books for corporate middle managers. Lou Holtz is Lou Holtz. Joe Paterno wrote a halfway decent book that is obviously overshadowed by the present-day understanding of Joe Paterno’s career.
I need something good this week.
I need a hero.
[greatness starts pouring in through the air vents of the room]
I need Howard Schnellenberger.
The former head coach of Miami, Louisville, Florida Atlantic and (briefly) Oklahoma is no stranger to the readership of this website, and with good cause: he’s an absolute treasure, an iconic coach and swaggering personality from the days before top-level coaches became mostly joyless automatons.
His 2014 book, Passing The Torch: Building Winning Football Programs... With a Dose Of Swagger Along The Way, is a delightful read, as you’d expect, and I could run through it cover-to-cover here, but in the interest of space and time, I’ll narrow my focus to what’s obviously his best period - his five-year run turning the Miami Hurricanes into national champions.
Let’s review some highlights.
MIAMI WAS AN UPHILL CLIMB
Program-building became a hallmark of Schnellenberger’s career, with his ushering of Louisville out of independent obscurity and his overseeing the creation of FAU’s football program. It’s easy to forget, considering their dominance in the 1980s, that Miami was equally as large a climb.
The Board of Trustees was not confident about the viability of the football program. They had briefly considered dropping the program altogether and were now secretly contemplating a move down to Division I-AA. I was not happy at all with that idea and immediately brought it up. The board went back into session and voted to table any consideration of that notion for five years, the length of my contract.
Within five years, of course, he’d have made that notion seem ridiculous. I mean, just think - they might never have won an ACC title if this happened!
FINDING THE BRIGHT SIDE IN SOMEONE ELSE BREAKING THE RULES
Schnellenberger took over the program from Lou Saban, whose misdeeds during his tenure would ultimately result in NCAA sanctions.
Lou Saban did a wrecking job and a construction job in Miami. He’d broken every NCAA rule and left me a giant NCAA headache that resulted in the only sanctions ever against one of my teams. But he attracted some highly talented people... They had recruited a lot of good players. Their defense was awesome.
See? There’s a benefit to the guy before you being dirty. Matt Luke should be more grateful.
JOE PATERNO RECRUITED JIM KELLY AS A LINEBACKER
Kelly grew up in the same western Pennsylvania region that produced Unitas, Namath and Joe Montana. He threw for 44 touchdowns and almost 4,000 yards in high school and his East Brady team was undefeated in his last two seasons. Kelly wanted to attend Penn State, but when Joe Paterno talked to him about becoming a linebacker, he decided to play for Miami.
Kelly was a five-time NFL Pro Bowler, a four-time AFC champion, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During the seasons Kelly played in college, Paterno’s QB was Todd Blackledge.
OKAY LET’S TALK STYLE, THOUGH
He recounts a 1979 win over 19th-ranked Penn State in Happy Valley.
I found that sideline style, something I am always asked about, during [that game]. That was a miserably cold day. I knew I was going to freeze, and I decided to wear a leather car coat that stretched to my knees. It had a sheepskin lining and it was very distinctive. Once we won the game, the outfit was almost a good luck charm. I wore suits from that day forward. I realized my clothing made a statement. In a golf shirt and coach’s pants you blend into the crowd. You look like one of the troops instead of the commander-in-chief.
I decided I would be honoring the greats like Bryant and General Robert Neyland if I dressed up. Stick a pipe in my mouth and I could be General Douglas MacArthur.
My biggest disappointment with this book is that it doesn’t continue from here as 200 pages of sartorial proclamations.
ALSO, ABOUT THE PIPE
Wherever we were recruiting, I had a little plan to get at least two home visits if I was going to need them. The first time I forgot my pipe and had to return to a house to retrieve it, it was probably by accident. It turned out to be a pretty good deal, so it did it more that once.
You walk into a player’s house with a pipe and they are not going to ask you to put it out. I would sit down in the best chair they had in the living room or parlor if you will. During the conversation, if I thought I was going to need another visit to close the deal, I would either put my pipe in an ashtray or place a pouch of tobacco on a table and leave the house. It gave me a reason to visit the home again and talk to the kid again.
Schnellenberger was decades ahead of George Costanza.
LET’S TAKE A MOMENT TO HAND THIS ONE TO FLORIDA FANS
Discussing a season-ending game against Florida in Gainesville, when the Canes already had a Peach Bowl bid locked up:
We were leading 28-7 late and the locals were none to happy with the new kings of the hill. They retaliated by pelting us with citrus, including tangerines, apparently brought to the stadium in celebration of their upcoming trip to a lesser bowl by that name. We learned later that students cored the fruit, filled it with liquor and froze it before taking it to the game. Once they drained their refreshment, they had cannonball-sized refuse that they used like artillery as the game wound down. One of our assistants was struck in the head and knocked out.
Miami wasn’t the only program innovating in that era.
TOSS SOMETHING IN JUST FOR ME, YOUR OLD BUDDY ACTION COOKBOOK
How about this stat? We allowed teams to score just 10 points in the fourth quarter all season [in the 1983 national championship season]. Those three points by Florida in the opener, and then one touchdown by Cincinnati
IN CONCLUSION, TELL US WHAT YOU THINK OF YOUR SUCCESSOR
After winning the school’s first national championship in 1983, Schnellenberger opted to leave the school, pursuing a job in the ultimately ill-fated USFL.
Jimmy Johnson would be the beneficiary of a lot of talent. Quarterbacks Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde, wide receiver Eddie Brown and fullback Alonzo Highsmith were all coming back. Johnson inherited linebackers Winston Moss and Randy Shannon on the other side of the ball. And we had just recruited the best class any school had ever brought in. I left him 57 freshmen, including wide receiver Michael Irvin and seven others who would go on to be drafted in the NFL. They would stake Johnson to 52 wins over that period, including a 12-0 championship season in 1987.
Okay, but what are you trying to say-
He had a lot of success at Miami, but he was a big disappointment to me on two fronts. He tarnished the image of the school, and he would turn out to be an ingrate.
Okay, but what are you trying to say-
Miami became the subject of ridicule. My old friend [University president whom he has already expressed severe disdain for in this book] Tad Foote gave the team a 42-page code of conduct to follow. It included the expectation that players follow all federal, state and local laws. I think Foote was missing me about that time, but I was well along on a new adventure.
There’s more to this book than I’ve been able to summarize here, but between this and last week’s review of Joe Paterno’s “Jackie Sherrill is an asshole” section, I have to say: coaching books are at their best when they focus on airing decades-old grievances, and not when they’re trying to lead corporate teambuilding exercises.
Current coaches, I implore you: write a book about how you feel about Tommy Tuberville and I will buy it.