Maybe Howard Schnellenberger wasn’t over-doing it.
Maybe he was on to something.
After he became coach of the University of Louisville football team in 1985, Schnellenberger made that famously bold prediction that the Cardinals were “on a collision course with a national championship. The only variable is time.”
The Sugar Bowl on Sunday night leant weight to such talk. Led by Coach Charlie Strong and sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals easily beat a Florida Gators team that was considered among the best in the nation.
It was a major upset. You bet Schnellenberger was watching. And he’s still talking up UofL’s prospects.
“This team is poised now to become the dominant team in football,” Schnellenberger told WFPL in a phone interview. “It hasn’t happened yet, but they have the team, they have the experience.”
It’s easy now to list UofL’s advantages: an impending move to the Atlantic Coast Conference, a 55,000-seat stadium and a quarterback who next season will be a Heisman Trophy contender.
These weren’t so when Schnellenberger arrived. Louisville played in Cardinal Stadium at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center and boasted of few top-tier players.
“Cardinal Stadium was not on campus. It was a baseball venue,” he said.
A minor-league baseball venue, to be specific. The stadium had no upper deck; the scoreboard was “antiquated,” Schnellenberger said.
Schnellenberger had coached the Miami Hurricanes to a national title. He knew top-caliber football. In 1985, Louisville wasn’t it.
“It was very striking when I got there,” he said. “I had underestimated where the team was at that juncture.”
Schnellenberger and his staff recruited. They advocated. They pushed.
In 1990, Schnellenberger’s Cardinals defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide to win the Fiesta Bowl, UofL’s first major bowl game. Like Wednesday night’s game, the Fiesta Bowl was a big moment for Louisville football.
“The Alabama game came at the most urgent time, when we were hoping and praying that we were ready to step into the big time,” Schnellenberger recalled.
The Fiesta Bowl victory “got us to the point where the people of Louisville, the administration and the fans had enough confidence that they built Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.”
Schnellenberger never coach the Cardinals in that stadium. He left in 1995 for the Oklahoma Sooners and later the Florida Atlantic Owls, from which he retired in 2011.
His “collision course” comment decades ago came with that qualifier — “The only variable is time.”
To Schnellenberger, the collision appears imminent. He cites current coach Charlie Strong and his decision to stick with Louisville instead of leaving for Tennessee, Bridgewater’s abilities, the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the experience of having handled a top team on a national stage.
To the old coach, these add up to “a viable chance — a real chance — to contend for a national championship.”
Time will tell, of course.