MIAMI (AP) -Nine years ago, Howard Schnellenberger began building a football program from scratch, pledging that his team would compete with Florida, Miami and Notre Dame.
The Florida Atlantic Owls aren't quite there yet. But they are bowl-bound for the first time.
As the Sun Belt Conference champions, the Owls earned a berth in the New Orleans Bowl and will play Memphis on Dec. 21.
``It's a wonderful and exciting feeling,'' the 73-year-old Schnellenberger said.
Schnellenberger started the Miami Hurricanes' 1980s dynasty and then built Louisville into a Top 25 team, but the Owls' success may be his niftiest achievement yet. They won the conference last week with a 38-32 upset of Troy.
``It's a reward for all the things that they've done to this point, but more importantly than that, it's still part of the mission that all the kids came here for,'' Schnellenberger said.
The Owls played their first game in 2001 and their first full Division I-A schedule in 2005. Schnellenberger has been the coach from the start, and South Florida's abundant high school talent gave him a solid recruiting base.
To make it to the bowl game, the Owls went 7-5 overall and 6-1 in the Sun Belt.
``Our goals were to win our conference and beat one of the big teams out of the conference. And we did both of that,'' quarterback Rusty Smith said. ``We made it to a bowl game. This is simply just additional stuff.''
Before the season, Schnellenberger called this Florida Atlantic team his most talented and experienced. The Owls won their opener against defending co-conference champion Middle Tennessee and later earned a milestone victory over Minnesota.
``They feel that they have done what they set out to do and they're a complete success at this moment,'' Schnellenberger said.
He and his players recently marched in a holiday parade, giving fans a chance to applaud a team countering the recent trend of failure in South Florida sports. The Miami Hurricanes failed to make a bowl game and the hapless Miami Dolphins are 0-12.
But the Owls are bowl-bound.
``Is it miraculous? Possibly,'' said former player Chris Laskowski, who was with the team during its early years. ``But for people who have played there and bought into the reality, it's not a surprise, because it's the way we always thought we could be.''
Football is still new at the Boca Raton campus, and the Owls played their home games this season in Fort Lauderdale or Miami Gardens, averaging about 15,700 fans per game.
By 2010, the Owls hope to have a 30,000-seat stadium, and their bandwagon is growing. Signs proclaiming support for the Owls are posted on campus, and Smith said classmates sometimes greet him with congratulatory words.
Schnellenberger said his inbox is flooded with e-mails and his voice mail is full.
``There is a real appeal for the underdog in this United States of ours, particularly in sports,'' he said.
The Owls are no longer that much of an underdog - they're favored to beat Memphis.

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