The rain came so hard that traffic barely moved getting out of Fort Lauderdale. It had slackened by the time we reached Boca Raton, but Florida Atlantic was prepared, with canopies stretching from the valet to the entrance of the gala. The gala was the 50th anniversary of FAU’s founding. That stretch was considerable, zig-zagging for a block or more, for the building was no ordinary gala site. This was the new campus football stadium, the dream of Coach Howard Schnellenberger ever since he started the program more than 10 years ago. Schnellenberger had retired from the University of Louisville, where he built a new stadium while building Louisville from mediocrity to a bowl-game team. When FAU decided to go with football, they found maybe the best man in the world to start its program, and he lived just up the road in Delray Beach..
He is stepping down after this season, an unfortunate one so far for his team, which had set records for progress from a start-up to a successful mid-major program. The school that lost its first game, and badly, to Slippery Rock, matured to play schools such as Michigan State, Florida and Auburn, sometimes giving them a good game. And all along his goal was to have a campus stadium which he viewed as an inevitable step to becoming a national power. This year he got it, and it was a perfect place to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary. The new ball park is a fitting symbol for that milestone, for its state-of-the-art facilities keep pace with a school that grew from a handful of original students in the 1960s to nearly 30,000 today on a number of campuses.
Its academic reputation has come from nowhere to respected in specialty fields such as marine science. For those who recall those start-up years, on an overgrown World War II bomber training base with only a few buildings, the school and the new stadium evoke a line from The Great Gatsby, on a setting transformed by Gatsby’s mansion, providing something commensurate with man’s capacity for wonder. Even on classically dreary night, the stadium glowed like Gatsby’s mansion on a party night. The place has gotten rave reviews, but all expectations were met. It is supposed to hold 30,000 but looks more like a 40,000 to 50,000 place, with all the modern touches, such as broad covered spaces behind the stands where one can sip drinks and dine while watching the action on television – part sports amphitheater, part entertainment palace.
The gala showcased that versatility, with guests roaming between three floors of the stadium’s tower, while glancing admiringly at the new field. All this between rain gusts, which caused the roof to leak in some places. That probably relates to the rush to open for this season, and can obviously be cured. That roof is not likely to endure many such a weather-beating night as this one. It ended, at least for us, with an anniversary presentation on the big end-zone screen, and a performance by the FAU band.Beating the crowd to the valet, we paused, looking upward to catch the fireworks display. The damp night air sparkled and exploded in triumph, silhouetting the statue of Howard Schnellenberger, which we had totally missed on the way in. He is in his familiar sideline pose, jacket and tie, arms folded, seemingly pleased with what the night had wrought.