Schnellenberger couldn't start Jim Kelly at Miami until it was digestible
BATAVIA -- Howard Schnellenberger leaned back in the sun at Terry Hills Golf Club, rolled a cigar in his fingers and recalled the time he named Jim Kelly the Miami Hurricanes' starting quarterback.
They were staggering along at 3-4 in 1979, unable to win consecutive games. They lost to Division I-AA Florida A&M.
Schnellenberger had been working Kelly into the offense and weighed whether it was time to give the sophomore his big shot on the road against nationally ranked Penn State, the school Kelly grew up dreaming about.
"I studied it and pondered it, studied it and pondered it," Schnellenberger said shortly after everyone teed off Monday morning at the 28th annual Jim Kelly Celebrity Classic.
Schnellenberger hadn't asked his coaching staff for input. He didn't even tell his wife, Beverly, a confidant who usually knew all of his decisions before the players did.
At the pregame breakfast four hours before kickoff, Schnellenberger announced to the team Kelly would start.
"Then he surprised me," Schnellenberger said, "by promptly going to the bathroom and throwing up.
"I wondered, 'What in the hell is wrong with this kid?' "
Did Schnellenberger have second thoughts?
"Well," he replied, massaging his eyes, "it was too late then."
Schnellenberger and Kelly's disconcerted teammates didn't know at the time, but pregame nausea was a Kelly trademark.
No worries. He completed 18 of his 31 attempts for 278 yards and three touchdowns in a 26-10 victory.
Kelly's immediate success was a thrill and a relief for Schnellenberger, whose quarterback philosophies had been bruised a few years earlier.
Schnellenberger had been the Miami Dolphins' offensive coordinator when they went undefeated in 1972. The next year, the Baltimore Colts hired him to replace John Sandusky as head coach.
"If Kelly was going to be the quarterback of the future, I wasn't going to get into the same situation I got into in Baltimore," Schnellenberger said. "When I took that job -- an ill-advised job -- I had a quarterback dilemma with Bert Jones as a rookie and Marty Domres, who had been there the year before.
"I was mature enough to know it's not good policy to start a rookie too early in any league, but the difference between Domres and Jones and where they were going to be in one year or two years, it was easy to figure out.
"So I let my arrogance and cockiness overrule and started Jones. That proved right, but we got beat and got beat."
Jones went on to have a terrific career, but without Schnellenberger. The Colts fired him after a 4-10 record in 1973 and a winless start three games into 1974.
Jones won at least 10 games each of the next three seasons and was voted first-team All-Pro in 1976.
Schnellenberger vowed he wouldn't insert a young quarterback into the starting role until the team around him was ready.
"So I told Jim to work hard and I would get him in the games every weekend for experience," Schnellenberger said. "But I had to get the team good enough to get him in there so he could be successful."
Schnellenberger visited Kelly at Erie County Medical Center on Sunday. It was the first time they'd seen each other since November, when Kelly attended a speaking engagement in Schnellenberger's hometown of Louisville.
"Jim looked very alert. He looked very positive," Schnellenberger said. "He's doing the very same thing he did as a player. He's trying to motivate the choir. We're trying to energize him, and he's motivating us.
"There are only a few people that are either blessed or cursed with a natural, glorious presence. They want to give to everybody. They want to help everybody. Like, in the hospital. They tell me that when his visitors leave he'll inevitably get out of bed and ask the nurses who the sickest people are in the ward. He goes and peps them up.
"His god has given him that need. He needs to do that. He'll accept people uplifting him, but that's not going to keep him from passing it on."