A night to remember with Howard Schnellenberger

Howard Schnellenberger on the OU sidelines in 1995. (Oklahoman photo)

I’m sure by now you’ve seen the news that former University of Oklahoma football coach Howard Schnellenberger passed away this morning.

Schnellenberger coached OU for one unspectacular season in 1995, and was fired right after the 5-5-1 season ended.

By OU standards, it was a disaster.

Schnellenberger came to OU with decades of football success on his resume and the confidence of a Gen. Douglas MacArthur. It just didn’t translate to success with the Sooners.

Although I was just an outsider looking in that year, all I could see was a pompous old man who thought his mere presence would inspire success.

Then fate brought me together with Howard for one night in 1995.

I was working as a Business News reporter at the time for the Daily Oklahoman. One of my beats was writing about Oklahoma agriculture.

You might remember that the Oklahoma Farm Bureau made Schnellenberger their spokesman in an ad campaign in 1995.  The ads appeared on Oklahoma TV stations and mainly featured Howard squinting into the distance as words described the value that the Farm Bureau brings its members.

Many folks thought Howard was an odd choice for the Farm Bureau. In fact, here’s something that Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote back in ’95:

“Sudden thought: Why did the Oklahoma Farm Bureau select Howard Schnellenberger as its marketing spokesman? Aren’t most of those folks OSU graduates?”

But Schnellenberger’s most recent job before OU was that of football coach at the University of Louisville, and the executive director of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau at the time was a Kentucky native. So, there was a thin connection. 

Howard Schnellenberger (Oklahoman photo)

Then one day, out of the blue, my wife and I received an invitation from the Farm Bureau to attend a “media night” at Applewoods Restaurant. OU coach Howard Schnellenberger was the special guest speaker.

Paula and I loved Applewoods and its famous apple fritters, so of course we agreed to go.

Turns out, a local television reporter and I were the only “media” members at the dinner. And only about a dozen people total were at the Farm Bureau event.

Here’s all I remember about that night. Howard stood over our tables and droned on in a low monotone for about 30 minutes. I remember nothing about what he said.

My wife had an interesting experience, too. Howard’s wife, Beverlee, was with him and sort of latched on to Paula as her new best friend for the night. She never stopped talking.

I couldn’t wait for that painful evening now 26 years distant to be over.

And it wasn’t long before Schnellenberger’s tenure as OU coach was over, as well.

Rest in peace, Howard.

Bonus: Watch and read an oral history of Howard Schnellenberger at OU published by The Oklahoman in 2011.

Grateful for the impact of Jerry McConnell

In 1983, I was a very raw young sports reporter at the Southwest Times Record (SWTR) in Fort Smith, Ark., with dreams of some day working at the Dallas Morning news.

Fort Smith was my first stop out of college, and I worked on the sports desk, then the news desk for a couple years, then back to sports as the Sports Editor.

But I dreamed of Dallas and working with the likes of Blackie Sherrod and Randy Galloway. I even wrangled an interview there but came up with no job and the advice to gain more experience.

Then one day a friend with whom I worked on the SWTR news desk — I’ll call her “Patti” — suggested that I send a resume to the Sports Editor of The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. His name was Jerry McConnell, and Patti had worked for him when he was the managing editor the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock.

So, I fired off a resume to Jerry with absolutely no expectations.

By coincidence, my timing turned out to be perfect.

One of the Sports copy editors at The Oklahoman had just quit, and football season was starting.

Jerry gave me a call and asked me to come interview. I drove over to OKC and met with Jerry and his Assistant Sports Editor, Bob Colon.

Jerry hired me, and I relocated to OKC in early September 1983.

Turned out that I was not well prepared for the daily pressure and grind of The Oklahoman Sports Desk. We put out three editions each night, sometimes fully remaking almost the entire section between editions.

I was mistake-prone and unlikely to make an edition’s deadline on any given night. I had no design skills.

But Jerry was a patient editor and boss. Rather than scream at me, or worse, fire me, he allowed me to make my mistakes, and gently helped me grow as a professional. He also was in the office every night until at least the first edition was finished, so he was accessible.

Jerry also shared many fascinating stories from across his long career. I loved to sit and listen to him spin a yarn in his gravely baritone voice.

So, I’ve always been grateful to Jerry for his kind and steady hand as a boss and a friend. He eventually retired from The Oklahoman and moved back to his hometown of Greenwood, Ark.

In retirement, he wrote a book, an oral history of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jerry passed away last June at the age of 92.

To my regret, I only recently learned of his death. You can read his obituary to see what impact he had on his profession and the community, both in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Jerry touched the lives of many, many people in the newspaper industry and beyond. I’ll always be grateful for what he did for me.

My friend Patti was one of those for whom Jerry made a difference. Here’s what she had to say about him:

“He was a super friend to me and taught me a lot in Democrat days… He passed peacefully at home just after we last saw him. His last words to me were, “Love you too babe”… He liked you a lot. I will miss him ever!”

Thank you, Jerry McConnell, for bringing me to Oklahoma City and making a difference in my life.