UK alum Howard Schnellenberger says the Wildcats can succeed in basketball and football.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Some University of Kentucky football alums are avoiding Commonwealth Stadium. Others are howling at the Wildcats' 1-6 start. Many have changed the channel to basketball.
Howard Schnellenberger is a University of Kentucky alumnus who knows why college football programs win – and why they stumble. Schnellenberger, now 78 and retired, knows it is folly to believe a coaching change is the only thing needed to fix UK football. The issues are considerably more substantial.
"They have to do what Louisville did (in 1984), take a long hard look at themselves, admit they have a problem and need help, the way an alcoholic does," Schnellenberger said.
"They have to commit themselves to getting well, refuse to surrender and place their trust in a higher power. They have to go through the entire 12-step program like we did in Louisville. It's not easy to admit, but it has to be done.
"They have to get the right group of people leading the charge, develop the zeal to line up behind the recovery and climb to the top of the mountain. Everybody has to get behind the person in charge with an undisputed unison. They have to give the football program the resources to be great. That's where it starts."
What Schnellenberger suggested, of course, is that Kentucky needs to find the next Howard Schnellenberger – a tough and tested coach, eager to spray hyperbole at skeptics who insist Kentucky is helpless to succeed in the Southeastern Conference.
Schnellenberger believes in Hollywood and the star system. Find your guy, preferably a veteran coach, like he was when he came to Louisville. Pay him well, perhaps more than the market says you should.
Creates a buzz. Starts the conversation. Feeds the optimism. Builds the storyline.
"I bargained and bargained and bargained before I finally got everything I felt that I needed at Louisville," he said. "But I knew you can't allow a coach to feel stifled."
Many sprayed skepticism at Schnellenberger from the moment he arrived at U of L from Miami in December 1984. He didn't listen. He didn't have time. He was consumed with upgrading the practice facilities, football complex, recruiting, schedule, coaching staff, weight room, media coverage and every other part of his outrageous quest to collide with a national championship.
He needed four seasons to get Louisville on the right side of .500, six to get to the Fiesta Bowl. But Schnellenberger changed the perception of Louisville football forever. Did the same thing for the Miami Hurricanes, too.
"It won't be easy," Schnellenberger said. "It wasn't easy for us. You have to have an inner circle that stays strong and stands with you. When you go 2-9, 3-8 and 3-7-1, some will become weak and no longer believe."
That's correct. He remembers his record over his first three seasons at Louisville without a prompt. But over his final seven seasons, Schnellenberger won 14 more than he lost, including two bowl games. Basketball people threatened by the growth of football learned not to be threatened any more.
Schnellenberger wonders if that is the case at Kentucky, the school where he earned a degree in 1956. What Kentucky fans and administrators have to do, Schnellenberger said, is embrace football with the same love, love, love they show basketball.
"Don't worry about basketball," Schnellenberger. "Basketball can take of itself. Basketball will always be great at Kentucky.
"But you can have two sweethearts. Just because one succeeds doesn't mean the other one can't. For too long they've had a divided kingdom down there. They don't have unanimity on what has to be done to succeed."
The skeptic in me could not resist. I questioned Schnellenberger's ability to deliver at Louisville. He proved me wrong. I question whether Kentucky can flip the script in a league where Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana State and other proven football-obsessed programs live. This is a more daunting assignment than the ones he faced at Miami and Louisville.
"Heavens, yes," Schnellenberger said. "Ordinary programs become good programs and then great programs all the time. Look around. The program has to go through that painful period of cobalt radiation. But eventually you come out of it stronger, ready to succeed."