The year was 2011: Florida Atlantic University had just completed their worst football season ever, and Coach Howard Schnellenberger was set to retire after 11 years in Boca Raton. Potential head coaching candidates began to pop-up, including North Alabama head coach Terry Bowden, Florida State assistant Eddie Gran and even the air-raid pirate himself, Mike Leach. Even with so many names associated with football in the state of Florida, athletic director Craig Angelos selected Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini as the man to lead the post-Schnelly transition.
Hiring a coach with zero ties to the local high-school programs is always an uphill battle. The Owls signed over 15 junior college prospects between 2012 and 2013 in hopes of some quick on-the-field success. Pelini led the Owls to another dreadful season (3-9) in 2012, but the team improved in many statistical categories. Quarterback Graham Wilbert experienced his best season yet with 2,814 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. Recruiting was still difficult and many local high school programs still questioned the idea of sending their kids to FAU.
After Pelini's first year, Schnellenberger was strictly relegated to the role of donation generator and was rarely, if ever, near the actual team. The man that had recruited a majority of Pelini's current roster was nowhere to be seen and a large number of alumni, specifically those that had played under Schnelly in years past, failed to show up to support their program. Attendance was dwindling and many members of the south Florida community began to pencil in FAU as "boring football" again. The explosive touchdowns of Rusty Smith and Alfred Morris were long gone.
Then the real bad news came. On October 30, 2013, Carl Pelini resigned as head coach of FAU after confessing to new athletic director, Pat Chun, that he had used drugs. To add insult to injury, defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis also resigned and the Owls had to face a bowl-eligible Tulane team in three days. This legal battle would continue between Pelini and Chun for the remainder of the season. What seemed like an ill-advised hire in the first place had come full circle, and the Owls were in search of another new head coach.
So where exactly did FAU go wrong over the last two years, and will 2014 be the year the program finally continues the legacy of Howard Schnellenberger?
Arkansas defensive line coach Charlie Partridge was handpicked by Chun to be FAU's third head coach. As soon as Patridge made it to Boca he hit the ground running. Countless events to engage the community, alumni invitations to practice and local recruiting victories came in the first month of his tenure.
Even before his first game as head coach, Partridge has been everything the school could have asked for and the program is buzzing. Fall camp has already begun with a clear focus on getting back to fundamentals. Pelini may have been the disciplinarian a young program can lean on, but Partridge is doing all he can to return FAU back to its roots. The Owls needed two years to right the ship, but it looks like they may have already found their successor to the greatest coach in program history.