Former Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger changed course of history for LSU baseball

Glenn Guilbeau
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

BATON ROUGE - Without Howard Schnellenberger's advice to a rising assistant baseball coach at the University of Miami in 1983, LSU may not have any of its five national championships won from 1991-2000.

Late in the 1983 season, Miami associate head coach Skip Bertman was offered the head coaching job at LSU. But Miami coach Ron Fraser, who had just won the 1982 national title with Bertman, was about to become Miami's athletic director, or so he thought, and told Bertman.

So Bertman, a Miami graduate who played for the Hurricanes and had been coaching their pitchers since 1976, would have his dream job - baseball coach at Miami.

That all changed one day that spring when Bertman was walking through the first floor athletic department building at Miami, and football sports information director Ron Steiner tapped his shoulder.

“Coach Schnellenberger wants to see you,” Steiner said.

And Bertman froze in fright. Schnellenberger, the football coach at Miami, was on the second floor.

“Nobody ever went up there,” Bertman said in a recent interview.

Related: Schnellenberger, 87, died Saturday in Boca Raton, Florida

Schnellenberger was 49 in 1983 and in the process of turning a struggling Miami program into a national champion in the coming season. Lou Saban, a distant relative of Nick Saban, had gone 3-8 and 6-5 in 1977 and ’78. After a 5-6 campaign in his first year in 1979, Schnellenberger produced three straight winning seasons from 1980-82 for the first time at Miami since the mid-1960s. His 1983 national championship set the program up for national titles in 1987 under coaches Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson in 1989 and ’91.

Bertman had a scary thought as he ascended the stairs to the power floor. He had been teaching several football players in his physical education classes over the years at Miami, including quarterback Jim Kelly, who would be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft that April by Buffalo. And Bertman had just failed one of Schnellenberger's top players as he was not attending class.

“Now, Schnellenberger wanted to see me,” Bertman said. “And I went pale.”

Bertman made his way to the second floor and into Schnellenberger’s office.

He smelled the pipe Schnellenberger always smoked as he walked across the shag carpet that was not in the baseball offices.

“C’mon in, Coach,” Schnellenberger told Bertman in his characteristic, gruff, baritone, like that of his mentor Bear Bryant, whom Schnellenberger coached the offense for at Alabama from 1961-65 and recruited quarterback Joe Namath.

“Yes, sir,” Bertman said he remembered blurting out in a non-characteristic high squeal.

"I sit down, and thank God, he doesn’t say anything about my class," Bertman said.

Then Schnellenberger told Bertman, "Coach, I read in the newspaper, where you might be going to LSU. What’s stopping you is, you want to know whether Ron’s going to be the athletic director or not, right?"

Bertman answered, "That’s true, and if Ron’s the athletic director, I’m not going anywhere."

Long Overue: Skip Bertman statue unvelied at LSU

Schnellenberger's next words through a large billow of smoke changed Bertman's arc forever.

"Ron’s not going to be athletic director," Schnellenberger told Bertman matter-of-factly.

"How do you know this?" Bertman said.

"I won’t allow it," Bertman said Schnellenberger told him, and Schnellenberger went on. "I've watched you. I see what you do out there and have heard so many good things about you. I want to do this for you. I've already told people I don't want to work for Ron, and it's not going to happen."

Bertman had not spoken to Schnellenberger before or since, but he heeded his advice.

"I said, 'Thank you,' " Bertman said. "Of course, football coaches, you know, ran everything in those days."

Bertman quickly descended from the second floor and called his wife Sandy.

"I want you to come with me on a trip," he said. "To Baton Rouge."

Schnellenberter, reached at his home in Boca Raton last year, remembered his talk with Bertman.

"I corroborate that," he said. "It was a good idea. I’m glad I did that. Skip did well. He was running the Miami team on the field for the most part, and I thought he would be a great head coach."

Schnellenberger left Miami after the national championship in the 1983 season. After a brief stint with Miami's team in the United States Football League, he returned to where he grew up, and coached Louisville from 1985-94. Bertman had two national championships (1991, '93) by the time Schnellenberger left Louisville and would win three more (1996, '97 and 2000) before Bertman became athletic director at LSU in 2001. Schnellenberger's last coaching stop at Florida Atlantic was from 2001-11.

"I thought Ron Fraser deserved to be athletic director," Bertman said. "He did so much for college baseball and understood how the business and promotions of sports worked like nobody else. But Schnellenberger was right. He never became athletic director."

Miami instead hired Washington State athletic director Sam Jankovich for the job in the summer of 1983, and Bertman was at LSU. Fraser, who passed away in 2013, won another national championship at Miami in 1985 and retired in 1992.

"It could have all been different," Bertman said. "I may have not gotten a good head coaching job for some time, waiting to be the coach at Miami."

Bertman was approached to become Miami's baseball coach after Fraser left, but he was not interested.

"Coach Schnellenberger was a great man," Bertman said. "He saw things happening before they did. I always appreciated what he did for me."