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Undercurrents of Concern Led to OU Grid Coach Change

Oklahoman Published: December 24, 1995

He made his Sooner Nation believe.

But despite all the early optimism and promise, the bluster and bravado, Howard Schnellenberger in the end flunked his citizenship test.

Sure, there were screams of anguish from fans and supporters who suffered with the team through the worst season in three decades.

But all the public discontent doesn't begin to explain the downfall of a man who once reached the mountaintop in a different place and, apparently, a different era.

Interviews with dozens of players, officials, acquaintances and others, including a well-placed source at OU, reveal a private undercurrent that began in the months after Schnellenberger arrived. It eventually would shred Schnellenberger's delicate moorings with the university and, finally this past week, set him adrift.

The controversy surfaced last Monday with a resignation that shook the foundations of OU's substantial football tradition. In a year when OU was celebrating its 100th year of football, the school was for the first time in a half century disgorging a head coach after only one season.

The move stunned fans, observers, players, many officials and even coaches.

"I was shocked," Schnellenberger's administrative assistant, Ron Steiner, said. "We were all shocked. " But many OU supporters disgusted with the 5-5-1 record, capped by a loss to struggling in-state rival Oklahoma State, were not unhappy at the news.

"I think it's OK," Geneva Sarratt said of the resignation.

"Everybody I talked to thinks it's OK. " Sarratt is an OU donor whose husband, Charlie, played football at OU in the 1940s.

Most officials were quick to publicly disavow knowledge of details or exertion of pressure, saying it was solely Schnellenberger's decision.

Even OU regents charged with ultimate responsibility for the school's business insisted they were in the dark until the resignation was announced publicly. Regents Chairman G.T. Blankenship said the earliest he heard of a possible job-threatening situation was 72 hours before the resignation.

It appeared only a very small number of people knew what was really happening, and they weren't saying. Official announcements in the early hours existed only on paper, traveling mostly by fax machine.

President David Boren declined to comment on whether the coach quit on his own or was forced out. Other than a brief printed statement and a similar one on video, Schnellenberger has been unavailable for comment.

A reporter who visited the coach's home was told by his wife, Beverlee, that Schnellenberger didn't want to comment on anything.

"Rumors are rumors, who wants to hear about rumors," she said.

However, one well-placed source at OU gave an inside look at the fall of Schnellenberger, the man whose team a dozen years earlier had won a national championship at the University of Miami.

The source said Boren played a part that reflected his style as a longtime legislator who rarely took conflicts to the public - that of consensus-seeker. Boren is said to have assumed this role as discontent grew over Schnellenberger's actions and recurring complaints about him, including allegations that he had been drinking during working hours.

According to the source, Boren consulted with Athletic Director Donnie Duncan, OU regents and university officials looking for the best way to handle the situation.

As it apparently turned out, Schnellenberger unexpectedly became part of the consensus Boren sought, agreeing to step down after initial conversations with Duncan just a few days before the resignation was announced.

Asked whether Schnellenberger jumped or if he was pushed, the source said, "It was really a combination of both. He was nudged, but he made the decision to go.

"Had he made the decision to stay, it's not certain what would have happened. But that bridge was never crossed. " The source said OU officials were glad Schnellenberger reached that decision, partly because they didn't think the coach was right for the program, and because "it made a lot of tougher questions moot. " The fact that Schnellenberger didn't put up a fight - or even hold out for more of a settlement on his multimillion-dollar agreement - led some to believe complaints Duncan purportedly presented to him had merit.

"Why else would you leave for $100,000? " the source said, referring to the public settlement that OU regents granted Schnellenberger.

According to the well-placed source, events unfolded this way: Late in the season and right after the season ended, Boren, OU regents, Duncan and other athletic department insiders began discussing the growing list of complaints against the first-year coach. These discussions were not launched with the intent of finding a way to fire Schnellenberger or push him out, the source said.

"(They) didn't really start with an attitude," the source said.

The officials did not want to push him out because of the team's record or even make it appear that was the reason. OU fans and donors had told them that it wouldn't be fair to fire him after one bad year.

Purportedly the most serious issue for Boren was Schnellenberger's treatment of his players and his relationship with them. Boren is believed to have become seriously concerned and upset about two players being treated for heat exhaustion in the summer.

One, Aaron Findley, quit the team to recover from his health problems. His mother, Saundra Anderson, said her son complained about feeling ill, but a trainer did not send him to a doctor.

"It looked like he was neglected," she said.

After dealing with officials other than coaches, she was confident officials "cared about Aaron. " "It just didn't work out, and OU did do a lot of things to convince us that they did care," she said.

Another player, freshman defensive tackle Brian Ailey, apparently came close to death.

"He could hardly walk up the stairs," the player's mother, Marsha Higginbotham, recalls of the first few weeks after the incident. She said Boren called and talked with her about Brian for 45 minutes.

"I thought that was really nice of him," Higginbotham says. "It was a serious thing with Brian and I appreciate the fact Boren has a heart. " Boren stepped in after getting calls from a hospital emergency room. Concerned about the health of players, Boren purportedly called Schnellenberger and asked him to moderate his practices.

Senior quarterback Garrick McGee recalls the early rough treatment, both physical and verbal, but eventually noticed a change.

"He was like that during the spring, but he calmed down during the season, as far as putting his hands on you," he said.

Another senior player, who didn't want his name used, said before Schnellenberger's era, he had not seen OU coaches act like that, "the verbal abuse and them grabbing you by the face mask and jerking you. I've seen more verbal abuse this past year than I have previous years.

"He said something like we weren't working hard enough because we didn't pass out," one player said. "He said stretching was overrated. " Despite his approach, Schnellenberger, especially early on, had strong supporters. After a dismal year in the last season under predecessor Gary Gibbs, whose last team limped to a 6-6 record including a final bowl embarrassment, many welcomed more discipline they hoped would snap the team into shape and into winning form.

One alumnus who played decades ago said he wasn't alarmed at the reports of players getting ill. It's just part of giving your all, he said.

"Somebody that's never been around it might not understand sometimes that's going to happen," he said.

Schnellenberger's tough approach was accepted at first, quarterback McGee said.

"For (a while) I really was a believer. It could have worked. I just think some decisions that were made separated our team, separated the fans, everybody. " Player Barry Giles said many players, even after the last game, did not express "major displeasure" with the coaching.

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