Coach Schnellenberger’s wife shares stories, letters that show the couple’s enduring affection
By Brian Biggane
He played end on one Canadian Football League team; she was a majorette in the band of another. Their chance meeting in August 1958 led to a marriage that is still going strong more than 61 years later.
“It’s a love story — we have a beautiful love story,” said Beverlee Schnellenberger, sitting in her east Boynton Beach home as she reflected on her life with Howard, the most iconic football coach in South Florida other than the late Don Shula.
“I’m so happy I asked him to marry me.”
Every marriage has its highs and lows. For the Schnellenbergers, the highs include Howard’s three national championships as an assistant at Alabama, the “perfect season” as offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins in 1972, and his national title as head coach at the University of Miami in 1983.
The most difficult times have come more recently. Howard, 86, hit his head in a fall last July and suffered a subdural hematoma. After two surgeries, he is living in a Boca Raton rehab center, where he is working to regain his cognitive abilities.
Howard, who first came to Boca Raton to start the Florida Atlantic University football program more than 20 years ago, expressed his feelings about Beverlee when he dedicated his 2014 autobiography, Passing the Torch, to her:
“Beverlee has been mother and father, counselor, accountant, banker, mechanic, cook and housekeeper, and she has done it all in a loving way that allowed me to be free to do my thing in football without feeling bad about spending time on the job.”
Longtime friend and FAU supporter Dick Schmidt said the pair’s enduring love is something to behold.
“I’ve seen a couple that is as much in love as they were when they first met,” Schmidt said. “They’re just a terrific couple. And both very unique.”
“I’ve never seen a couple more committed to each other,” said Don Bailey, who was Howard’s first Dade County recruit to UM in 1979 and has been the analyst on Hurricanes radio broadcasts for 19 years. “Both of them always set the example of how you’re supposed to be.”
Love at first sight
A star end in high school in Louisville who played for the incomparable Paul “Bear” Bryant at Kentucky, Howard was in his second year with the BC Lions when a teammate, Joe Poirier, arranged for some players to meet a few young ladies at the Berkeley Hotel after a preseason game in Montreal in 1958. Poirier and Beverlee both grew up in the area.00
The meeting was brief, but Beverlee, now 83, was impressed.
A month later she and two friends drove cross-country to Vancouver, where she had been asked to be a caretaker to a friend of her parents. Beverlee and Howard met again and something clicked.
“I fell in love with him immediately,” she said. “I knew he was the one. I was 21, and from the boys I’d dated I knew he was the one.”
They started dating, and before long it was time to pop the question. So she did.
“I fell in love with him so much that I said, ‘Will you marry me?’ And he said no. But he said I could go visit him in Kentucky for Christmas.”
When Beverlee arrived in Louisville she anticipated a return proposal, but when Christmas came he presented her with a box holding two cashmere sweaters.
“I was so disappointed and so ungrateful I went to his sister’s room, where I was staying, and cried. I said, ‘Your brother doesn’t love me like I love him.’”
A week later they went out for pizza and when he went to pay, he asked for her help finding the right change.
“So I looked in his hand and there was a diamond ring. I was so excited I started to cry.”
Soon they set off for Montreal to ask her father’s permission. He gave it and they began planning the wedding, but a few days later, Howard got an offer from Blanton Collier to become an assistant coach at Kentucky. He left immediately, meaning in the 10 months between their meeting and the wedding they were together only a handful of days.
They filled those days apart with some phone calls but mostly letters — dozens and dozens of letters.
“I would write a letter and he would respond,” Beverlee said. “I’ve kept the ones he sent to me, but most of the ones I wrote he threw away. I kept those I had all these years.”
Some are informative, some more romantic; they fill a thick red scrapbook Beverlee keeps close and, especially now, leafs through on occasion as a way of remembering that special time in her life.
When time came to set a wedding date, they chose the first Saturday in May, when Montreal is finally getting around to spring. That also happens to be the biggest day of the year in Howard’s native Louisville.
“Being a Canadian girl I had no idea the Kentucky Derby was a big deal, and he didn’t say anything,” Beverlee remembered. “So it was sad that none of his friends came to Montreal.”
Poirier, by then Howard’s former teammate, was persuaded to be best man. “To this day we say we had to rent a best man,” she said.
Family ups and downs
Soon Beverlee was settling into the role of football wife, one she would play for most of the next 50-plus years.
“Our family life and our love life was one great big football season,” she said. “It was all football. Thank goodness I had three sons. It was a love affair with football, and your husband, and the family, and it was a beautiful experience.”
That family grew when Beverlee gave birth to their first son, Stephen, in 1960 while Howard was at Kentucky. Stuart came a year later and Tim in 1967.
The family has also had its ups and downs. Tim became a successful international model, becoming the spokesman and lead model for the Calvin Klein Obsession fragrance. But he and Stephen also battled drug abuse as teenagers, prompting intervention from their parents in both cases.
Stuart, who is in the concrete business, graduated with a finance degree from Miami when his father was coaching there.
“But we always worked it out together,” Beverlee said of the family problems. “We didn’t fight about it. Got through it with counseling, meetings, understanding the disease, working as a family. Because it is a family disease; it’s not just the person who has it.”
Tim used his own experiences to start a rehab center, Healing Properties in Delray Beach, in 2002. “That’s why Tim got so involved in rehab, because he’s been there, done that and didn’t want anyone to go through what he went through,” Beverlee said.
Stephen was diagnosed with cancer in his mid-40s and died in 2008 at the age of 48.
“When our son died, when he was real sick, that’s what brings a family close, and that’s what brings a husband and wife close,” Beverlee said. “Because they work it out.”
After two years at Kentucky, Howard got an offer to reunite with Bear Bryant at Alabama. He wasn’t there long when Bryant needed someone to travel to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to recruit a hotshot quarterback named Joe Namath. Because Howard had played at Kentucky with Namath’s brother Frank, Bryant picked Howard to go.
“Coach Bryant said don’t come back until you have him,” Beverlee said. “He was supposed to be there for one day but stayed three or four, ran out of money, out of clothes, he was writing bad checks … but he got him.”
Howard held a special place for Bryant throughout his life, and in January he was presented with the Paul “Bear” Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Heart Association.
After Schnellenberger spent five seasons and won three national championships at Alabama, George Allen offered him a coaching position with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Beverlee said the next four years were a magical time.
“We loved it,” she said. “We were invited to all the parties, and at the games I’m sitting next to Yvonne De Carlo with Bob Hope right in front of me.
“We lived a couple miles from the training camp so Howard would ride his bicycle, and on his way home there’s flowers everywhere. So he would pick flowers from the yards, one from here, one there, then come home every night with a bouquet for me.”
Howard had planned to stick with Allen, but that changed after four seasons when, at 4 o’clock one morning, the phone rang. On the other end was Shula, who had worked alongside Howard at Kentucky and had just been hired to coach the Dolphins. Shula wanted Howard as his offensive coordinator.
University of Miami players carried coach Howard Schnellenberger off the field after a 1981 victory over Notre Dame gave them a 9-2 finish with a six-game winning streak. Two years later Miami won the national championship. Photo provided by Robert Mayer
The perfect season
Two years later came the perfect season, as the Dolphins became the only team in NFL history to finish undefeated. As for pressure, Beverlee said they never felt any.
“We all lived pretty much on the same street in Miami Lakes and we all got along so well, it felt like family,” she said. “It was business. It was always, ‘We’re going to play a game now.’ It was never, ‘We’re going to win or else.’”
Dick Anderson, a safety on that team, built a close relationship with Howard.
“It was Howard, and it was Howard and Beverlee,” Anderson said. “To this day it seems the same way.”
After the ’72 season another opportunity arose. The Dolphins’ director of player personnel, Joe Thomas, moved to the Baltimore Colts as general manager. He hired Howard in 1973 as head coach only to see owner Robert Irsay fire Schnellenberger early in the 1974 season because he wouldn’t play the quarterback Irsay wanted.
The coach wasn’t unemployed for long. Shula created an opening on his Dolphins staff and invited Howard to return, which he did until 1979. Then Beverlee described an opportunity that would change the Schnellenbergers’ lives forever.
“He called me and said, ‘I just got a call from somebody with the Miami Hurricanes and they want me to coach. And I told them no,’” she recalled. “Seven coaches had turned down the job, it was so bad.
“So I said, ‘We should go; it would be fun.’ I said, ‘Call them back, call them back.’ So he called them back and that was it.”
Short of money to recruit, Howard drew an imaginary line across the state at Orlando and called the territory south of it the State of Miami, then targeted the kind of talent that had always left to play at places like Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State.
“He’d go to Overtown, Liberty City, smoking his pipe, and it got to where the kids were waiting for him,” Beverlee said. “They’d say, ‘Let the scholarship man in.’ So he’d ‘accidentally’ leave his pipe there. So, he would have to go back and get the pipe, and get another visit. That’s how it started. Kids from that time came to him.”
He promised to take Miami, which had posted only two winning seasons in the previous decade, to a national championship in five years, then met his goal.
“Everybody laughed when he kept saying that,” Beverlee said. “It would be, ‘We’re on a collision course with the national championship,’ or ‘The only variable is time.’ He would post these slogans around the locker room. And the players believed.”
Schnellenberger’s players carried him off the field after UM’s 31-30 win over No. 1 Nebraska on Jan. 2, 1984, in the Orange Bowl, and his future never looked brighter. But he made an ill-fated decision to leave the Hurricanes to coach a new Florida franchise in the upstart United States Football League. When the job fell through, Schnellenberger was idle until 1985, when he was lured to the University of Louisville, another program that needed a jump-start.
“He knew everybody in Louisville,” Beverlee said. “We said we weren’t interested, but they kept calling. The governor, John Y. Brown, got involved, and they put together a group that would subsidize him.”
Howard once again resuscitated a moribund program. A 10-1-1 finish in 1990 capped by a 34-7 win over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl was the high point of his 1985-94 tenure, and in 1995 Oklahoma came calling.
Intrigued by a chance at taking over a big-time program as opposed to resuscitating one, Schnellenberger arrived and promised a fast return to success.
It didn’t happen and things got ugly quickly, particularly toward the end of the season when the Sooners lost four of their last five games to finish a disappointing 5-5-1.
Recognizing the animus on both sides, Howard resigned, leaving millions on the table.
“They didn’t like us and we didn’t like them,” Beverlee said. “So we left.”
Launching FAU program
The Schnellenbergers returned to Miami, where they had kept the house they bought when Howard first joined the Dolphins, and waited to see if an opportunity would materialize.
A couple of years went by before he got a call from FAU President Anthony Catanese, saying the university had decided to start a football program and wanted him to be the point man.
“Howard said, ‘Sure,’ then told me FAU had called,” Beverlee said. “And I said, ‘Where is that? Never heard of it.’”
Schnellenberger struggled when he tried to find a coach, prompting Catanese to suggest he take the job. He agreed.
Starting in 2001, he would go 58-74 in 11 seasons before retiring from coaching in 2011. He finished 158-151-3 over his 27 years at the college level.
After living 25 years in Ocean Ridge, the couple moved to Boynton Beach in 2015 while Howard continued to serve as an FAU ambassador. Then came the evening of last July 16.
Howard tripped on a carpet and fell headfirst into a metal statue of an owl that Burt Reynolds had given the couple.
Beverlee said Howard underwent surgery to remove blood from the brain.
“Then he was in a rehab place, fell out of bed, and he had to go back to the hospital for more surgery,” she said. He had four surgeries in all.
COVID-19 protocols prevented Beverlee from visiting for four months. The Schnellenbergers had occasional FaceTime calls via nurses’ cellphones until family was allowed access in late November. Now Beverlee and Tim visit a few times a week.
One of those visits offered a promising development.
“It’s really helped him to see us,” Beverlee said. “One Sunday Tim was there and they were watching a Dolphins game when Howard turned to Tim and said, ‘They need offense.’ He’s aware of everything; he knows what’s going on. It’s just going to take time to get it working again.”
Former Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly, who was Howard’s first quarterback at UM in 1979, has remained close to the pair. He said Beverlee “has always been there from start to finish” with Howard.
“Especially now, when Coach is not doing very well,” said Kelly, who has endured multiple bouts with cancer. “She’s almost been like a mother to me. She’s always looking out for everybody. It’s always awesome to see.”
More love letters
During the UM days, Beverlee would take time the Thursday of every game week to write a letter to Howard.
“I would think about it all week, write it, and on Friday I would pick out his clothes for the game and stick it on the inside pocket of his coat.
“How much we loved each other, something motivational, and each week was different.
“With Valentine’s Day coming, I’d like to say to the ladies: Be kind, understanding, and grateful you have each other. When times are tough, get tougher, work it out, it’s worth it. Being sweet to your husband takes less energy and stress. It’s no fun not having them around.”