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If you follow sports for a long enough time, you end up with 4 or 5 moments that seem to stay permanently etched in your memory. Some are due to last-second heroics, while others are just the confluence of several interesting people at a particular point in time.
The passing this morning of legendary football coach Howard Schnellenberger brought back one of those for me. At the time, Schnellenberger was at the University of Miami before it was “The U”, and he was in the process of creating that transition for the Hurricanes.
He took over Miami in 1979, and in year 2 got his team to a bowl game, beating this group of upstarts from Virginia Tech in the Peach Bowl to finish 9-3. Three years later, “The U” was born, as Miami and Schnellenberger went 11-1 and won a national title by beating Nebraska.
The year before winning the national title, Miami faced Virginia Tech for the second time in three years in Blacksburg. It was a warm September afternoon, and Miami was favored due to a high-powered offense led by quarterback Jim Kelly. The Hokies were a typical Bill Dooley team, with a strong running attack led by players like Tony Paige and Cyrus Lawrence, and a stout defense with the likes of Bruce Smith and Padro Phillips.
Miami did win that day, 14-8. But some things also happened I doubt anyone expected.
The moment I remember took place shortly after the game. Back then, there were no formal press conferences or restrictions on who you could talk with after a game. If you wanted to ask a question of a player, you went in the locker room and asked.
For Miami, the visitor’s locker room was just under the East stands down near the corner of the South end zone. The question of the day regarded an injury to Kelly, who was sacked midway through the game by the Virginia Tech defense and had to leave the game. Since he didn’t return, we all wanted to know how bad the injury was.
It didn’t take long to figure out. Kelly was sitting in a chair and looked to be very uncomfortable. A further clue was two big offensive linemen assigned to stand in front of their quarterback and stop anyone from asking any questions.
With that avenue blocked, the media formed around Schnellenberger, standing outside in the hot sun. As is usually the case, there were some general questions asked before one came about the status of Kelly, and the coach gave the usual coachspeak about how he didn’t know the details, would have to talk to the team doctors, etc.
Being young and filled with more aggression than common sense, I blurted out “but what if he can’t come back for the rest of the season? He looked pretty bad in the locker room.”
I might as well have waved a red flag in front of a bull. Schnellenberger was not pleased.
“I’m not going to answer any hypothetical questions,” he snapped at me with a look that suggested I run the stairs of the stadium a few thousand times.
The next morning, I picked up all the state newspapers and was mildly amused to see just about everyone had a paragraph saying “Schnellenberger gruffly responded to a question about Kelly’s status by saying ‘I’m not going to answer any hypothetical questions,’” causing me to tell my wife “hey, that was me who asked that.”
“That’s nice, dear” was her response.
But that week we all found out why Schnellenberger was so irritable when asked about Kelly. It turned out the Miami starting QB who would go on to fame with the Buffalo Bills had played his last college football game. Ever. On the turf at Lane Stadium. His injury was so severe, he was out for the season.
There was one other player interviewed that day, although I don’t remember anything he said. It was the backup QB who came in for Kelly.
His name was Mark Richt. Yes, that Mark Richt.
I watched Richt coach at Georgia for years before ever realizing it was the same guy. Much like I did a story on a graduate assistant for Virginia Tech’s football program when I was a senior in Blacksburg, and didn’t realize it was Bruce Arians until about 35 years later.
But I will always remember the look Schnellenberger gave me that September day at Lane. He may have been 6-0 in bowl games, won 158 games as a head coach in college, and even been the head coach of the Baltimore Colts when they were the Baltimore Colts for two years. But it’s that look he gave me back in the fall of 1982 I’ll always remember.
Rest in peace, coach.
I was at that game and I'm 63 and can't remember if I ate breakfast or not but remember the sack. Some of my favorite memories of VT games involve Bruuuuuuce. Some other memories involve Dooley who I was never a fan of.