Gators kick off vs. coaching legend

Florida versus Florida Atlantic Saturday at Florida Field marks the beginning of the Will Muschamp era and the last season of Howard Schnellenberger’s coaching career.

The Florida Atlantic head coach is heading into his 11th year at the Boca Raton, Fla., school. Schnellenberger has brought the program full circle from taking the job in 1999 to winning a Sun Belt Championship in 2007.

His marriage of 52 years matches his time in college football. Emotions are bound to play a part this year, Schnellenberger said.

“I’m going to keep it like the seasons we have had in the past,” he said. “You can’t quite do that. It is going to be the last time you will have a chance to play Florida. This will be the last time you play Michigan State and on and on and on. For that reason it is going to become more nostalgic after each game.”

Schnellenberger gained fame for leading the Miami Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983 with an 11-1 record and 31-30 win in the Orange Bowl against the undefeated Nebraska Cornhuskers, eleven years after helping coach the Miami Dolphins to the NFL’s only unbeaten season in history in 1972.

“You look at what he has accomplished as a head coach, even as an offensive coach, then going to Louisville and really getting that program on the map and heading in the right direction and now what he’s done at Florida Atlantic,” Muschamp said. “He has taken them to bowl games, winning bowl games, and pretty much proving to be a pretty consistent winner in their league and [starting] that program. It says a lot for what he has done.”

This decision warranted “quite a bit of” deliberation, Schnellenberger said. He said this appeared to be the most sensible time to make the retirement announcement.

During the 1980s as head coach of the University of Miami, Schnellenberger’s relationship with Florida reached a boiling point. The coach posted a 3-2 against the Gators, including the infamous 31-7 Florida loss at the Swamp in 1980.

Trailing late 28-7, Florida fans decided to throw peaches at the Hurricanes players. As a result, Schnellenberger proceeded to call a timeout and tack on a meaningless field goal on the last play of the game.

All history aside, a coaching connection exists between Schnellenberger and Muschamp. As a graduate assistant at Auburn, the Gators head coach worked with defensive coordinator Bill Oliver. Oliver served on Paul “Bear” Bryant’s staff at Alabama in the 1960s.

“I have great respect of Schnellenberger as a man who has done an awful lot for the coaching profession,” Muschamp said. “I felt that he was the best developer of quarterbacks and teacher of the quarterback going through the 80’s and where he is today. So, I have great respect for him and the football team that he’s bringing here.”

Although Schnellenberger retires at the end of the season, the coach will stay involved in some capacity with the rising FAU athletic program.

The Owls open up their new on-campus stadium after their grueling four-game road stretch against UF, Michigan State, Auburn and Louisiana-Lafayette. The 30,000-seat stadium overlooks the water, which is 1.2 miles from campus.

“The stadium has been our pride and joy,” Schenllenberger said. “We are going to open it up on the 15th of October against Western Kentucky. It is a beautiful stadium.”

Florida Field enters its 81st year in service for the Gators. Muschamp comes to Florida looking to make the Gators a “hard-working, blue collar” unit. Schnellenberger gave some advice to the coach.

“Throw the ball to us and open up a hole for us every once in awhile,” Schnellenberger said. “I wish him the very best of luck at Florida. Florida has been very special to us when I was at the University of Miami and the University of Louisville. It has evolved into one of the great programs in the nation.”