On Howard Schenellenberger, a bowl upset and a tiresome blueprint

Hearing the news of Howard Schnellenberger’s death took me back to one of the biggest bowl upsets I ever covered. And looking back at the surroundings of that bowl game, it was a reminder of how much politics veers into sports – and how change sometimes feels imperceptible at best.

Schnellenberger, who died at age 87, was involved in college football for most of his life. He played for Paul “Bear” Bryant at Kentucky, then later joined Bryant’s Alabama staff. On the other side of the ball was Gene Stallings; more on that later.

Schnellenberger brought the Louisville program into prominence, won a national championship at Miami and started the Florida Atlantic program when the school didn’t have a place to – in his words – “hang a jockstrap.”

Schnellenberger smoked a pipe, wore suspenders, had a mustache borrowed from Captain Kangaroo and said things like “hang a jockstrap.” Which meant he was a refreshing throwback in a world full of college coaching automotons.

Going into the 1991 Fiesta Bowl, his Louisville team was a nine-point underdog to Alabama, led by Gene Stallings in his first year as the Tide’s head coach. Chris Anderson was Alabama’s running back. Gary Hollingsworth was the quarterback. Alabama won seven of its last eight, and probably was a bit overconfident.

The bookies blew that point spread. Said Schnellenberger, “That was laziness on the part of people who make the odds.” Louisville, with no shortage of arrogance, slaughtered Alabama 34-7, whose defense was itself a bit lazy and lackadaisical. I cringe to read my column from that day, when I said it went from the Fiesta Bowl to the Fiasco Bowl to the Siesta Bowl.  

In 1984, Schnellenberger had won the national title game with Miami and said “we just dusted off the old blueprint.”

He dusted it well – and often. He never lost a bowl game, going 6-0, the only coach to have gone undefeated in that many bowls.

As I figurately dusted off the old clippings from the ’91 Fiesta Bowl, I discovered a thread that ran through the week.

Arizona, which proved again last November it was hardly a bastion of liberal thinking, had voted in the early 1990s against the Martin Luther King holiday. Because of that, the NFL was threatening to yank an upcoming Super Bowl away from the state; protests were expected to take place around the Fiesta Bowl as well.

On Saturday morning, Schellenberger’s death shared the news with another story. Because Georgia just passed new election laws that most fair-minded people would recognize as voter suppression in a knee-jerk reaction to this past November’s election, the Major League Baseball Players Association may begin discussion to move this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta.

Yes, I too grow weary of politics bleeding into sports.

But I’m more weary of the sort of racist thinking that can’t accept a holiday to honor the memory of a courageous leader or the legitimacy of an election.

Damn, am I weary of that old blueprint.

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