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Louisville football's no pipe dream

Howard Schnellenberger is a self-poster. When the University of Louisville's football coach is photographed, he is quick to put a trademark pipe to lips, gripping the bowl with a well-positioned left hand as it flashes his 1983 national championship ring. Before Dennis Erickson in 1989, and Jimmy Johnson from 1984-88, there was Schnellenberger coaching a No. 1 team at the University of Miami. He hoisted the Hurricanes from the near-fatal artistic/financial dumps, and UM football has lived at No. 1 Easy Street ever since.

For 5{ seasons, Howard has been the eye of a new hurricane, spending Bluegrass greenbacks by the tubful attempting to lift a famous basketball school to football prominence. Finally, in 1990, it no longer seems a pipe dream.

Louisville is 7-1-1, and ranked No. 25 nationally, the first time the Cardinals have cracked the Associated Press poll since 1972 when two current TV announcers, Lee Corso and Tom Jackson, were U of L's head coach and smashing linebacker.

Saturday, the Cards should ax the Cincinnati Bearcats, and a week later they'll be favored against Boston College. At 9-1-1, Schnellenberger won't earn another gaudy, golden "We're No. 1" ring, but it'll be jewel enough if Louisville winds up AP-ranked and bowl-bound.

For a long time, it seemed U of L might be wasting millions on the Schnellenberger project. In 1988, his fourth season with the Cards began with failings against Maryland (27-16) and Wyoming (44-9). Howard's record sank to 8-26-1. No more U of L honeymoon. Schnellenberger's 1983 ring seemed to be tarnishing. School trustees were murmuring.

It was becoming "Doldrumsville."

But, the next two weeks, Louisville upset Memphis State 29-18 and North Carolina 38-34, and a turnabout was triggered. In 25 months since, the "Gridbirds" are 21-7-1. U of L's 35,000-seat stadium can no longer hold the crowds.

Schnellenberger's name will now be mentioned in the same Louisville breath with Denny Crum, who has coached the Cards to two NCAA basketball championships. U of L hoops sells out a 19,000-seat arena, and has 5,000 on a season-ticket waiting list. City folks are talking a downtown dome, where both sports could accommodate 50,000. Football schedules are blossoming with bigger gate attractions, including Florida State and Tennessee in 1991.

Ron Steiner, a PR-savvy administrator who came from Miami in the 1985 Schnellenberger convoy, is bowl-shopping. "We'd love consideration for one of the Florida bowls, but I don't know if anybody is hearing us," Steiner said. "But there is intense interest, including the Aloha, All-American, Liberty and Copper bowls."

Florida never dims in the 56-year-old Schnellenberger's mind. For so long, it was home base. Prior to a 1979-84 run at UM, he was a Don Shula assistant for eight seasons, sandwiched around Howard's ill-fated 1973-74 head coaching chance with the NFL Baltimore Colts.

This year's offensive catalyst at U of L is senior quarterback Browning Nagle from Largo and Pinellas Park High School. His passes zip with Nolan Ryan velocity, and ever-increasing finesse. A transfer from West Virginia, he has thrown for 27 touchdowns in 1{ seasons, including four in a game to tie the U of L record of Johnny Unitas.

Main defensive man in Schnellenberger's shop is Tampa's 305-pound Ted Washington, who prepped at Tampa Bay Tech. "It doesn't take a genius to see Florida has the nation's best high school football talent," said the coach with the pipe, the ring and the dream. Fifteen players from Florida grace the Cards roster.

Back at UM, while Schnellenberger was succeeding in taking the 'Canes to the football moon, his athletes were too often academic snoozers. Graduation rates were deplorable.

Things are changing, on two fronts.

Classroom work at Miami has improved under Johnson and Erickson, and Schnellenberger was so stung by criticism that he now demands U of L players carry playbooks in one hand and textbooks in the other.

Ninety-six percent of Cards carry at least a 2.0 grade point average. When quarterback Nagle got into recent trouble for skipping classes, he was ordered to appear at Schnellenberger's desk morning after morning at 6:30 to experience the head coach's own brand of study hall.

At U of L, football is working.