By LARRY VAUGHT
Howard Schnellenberger has one strong recommendation for the University of Kentucky if it does decide to make a coaching change. “If they do decide make change, they have to decide what they have done in the past will not get it done,” said Schnellenberger.
Kentucky fans certainly would agree with that based on the lack of consistent success UK has had in the Southeastern Conference. Schnellenberger is also someone who not only understands the UK program, but knows about success in difficult circumstances.
Schnellenberger, 78, is a Louisville native who earned All-American honors as an end at Kentucky in 1955. He worked two years under head coach Blanton Collier at UK. He also worked under his college coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, as an offensive coordinator at Alabama and helped the Crimson Tide win three national titles before leaving for the NFL. He guided Miami (Fla.) to the 1983 national championship and was head coach at Louisville from 1985-1994. His 1991 team beat Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. He left Louisville for Oklahoma and ended his coaching career by starting the program at Florida Atlantic before retiring at the end of last season.
“Miami was going to drop to Division I-AA before I got there and it was about the same way at Louisville,” Schnellenberger said. “Both were on their last gasp. They both called a timeout and tried to analyze what to do and who to bring in. In both cases, they brought in somebody that was bigger than the job. That’s one part of the equation at Kentucky. Bring in someone with a proven track record and has a reason for wanting the job. If you give me 20 minutes with a coaching candidate, I can convince him why Kentucky is a good job.”
What? Kentucky, a lower level SEC team, a good job for a big-name team?
“Kentucky has every natural resource you need to be good,” Schnellenberger said. “There should be no inferiority complex at Kentucky. If the university will focus its resources financially, spiritually and psychologically for the development of a great football program with the right guy in charge that brings a lot of confidence with him and a lot of public awareness to the university, then they have a chance to succeed.
“The worst thing that can happen to a program is going 4-8, 6-6, 5-7, maybe 7-5. Just good enough to every once in a while have a winning season. Those are the ones that limp along and there’s no way they will take the next leap up.”
Schnellenberger won’t buy the theory that Kentucky doesn’t produce enough Division I football players for the Cats to succeed. He noted that programs like West Virginia, Wisconsin and even Louisville face the same issues and win.
“Lexington is half a day’s drive from half the population in the United States. You just have to go out and get the kids. Louisville does that now and you can cherry pick from Chicago to Detroit to Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Atlanta to Memphis to Birmingham. They are all close enough to Kentucky to get kids to come if the right man is in charge,” Schnellenberger said.
What about facilities? Kentucky’s are not the equal to many in the SEC.
“Bull—-. Facilities are the last thing you need. At Miami we had the worst facilities of any top 100 team in the country and we won the national championship. At Louisville, look at where we were before they got Papa John’s (Cardinal) Stadium and we beat Alabama,” Schnellenberger said. “People make the difference. Kentucky is in the greatest conference in the world. It’s people that make a difference because you have the schedule to sell. But it is not just coaching. It takes the president, board of trustees, donors. They all have to be on board. They all have to get together and see what they want.”
So how would Schnellenberger sell a top coach on coming to Kentucky?
“First, you are in the most productive, financially sound conference in all of them. The university is an outstanding academic institution. You are sitting in a great geographical area. And you are fortified by the best basketball team in America.”
What? Are you saying Kentucky basketball helps Kentucky football rather than hurts it as many always claim?
“At Louisville, I used the basketball program. Can you imagine bringing football players in from Florida and bringing them into Rupp Arena on any given game and see the pageantry and excitement and all that. That is a recruiting opportunity that is unprecedented. Only a few schools have that kind of stage. You have all kinds of stuff going at Kentucky.”
Except maybe the perception of UK football.
“Most people think Kentucky is about like Vanderbilt, Tulane. Maybe not quite like Georgia Tech,” Schnellenberger admitted. “Middle to lower division of SEC at best.”
With social media that makes it easy to stay in touch with family members and faster travel, Schnellenberger says “any school in America has a legitimate chance to be the best team in America.”
“I don’t see a drawback at all except the psychology of the university and the attitude toward football,” the former coach said. “It’s not hard to change. You have got to have leadership at the top. A couple of pied pipers and a music man. You can develop that.”