Saturday, December 12, 2009
Speed and Swagger: The U
From 1983 to 1991, no college football program was as dominant as the one at the University of Miami. Over nine seasons, the Hurricanes won four national titles – including two perfect seasons – and they were this close to two others. And yet what defined those Miami teams, even then, wasn’t all the winning so much as they way the Hurricanes won – with speed, intensity, relentlessness, intimidation and unrestrained swagger (read: showboating). It’s fitting then that Billy Corben’s documentary about the de facto "Team of the 80s" doesn’t just remember its subject but also resembles it. The U, the seventh entry in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, is confident, unrelenting, overpowering and fast, fast, fast. How fast? The U was three quarters of the way through before I realized that it was going to wind up being twice the length of the other “30 for 30” films thus far.
Given that Corben’s documentary has more time in which to tell its story, it’s no surprise that The U is the most comprehensive film in the series. What is a surprise is that The U is so compelling despite resorting to the sports documentary equivalent of Student Body Right and Student Body Left. Corben’s film is little more than 101 minutes of archival sports highlights paired with recent talking-head interviews. There’s nothing fancy about its approach. But as so often happens on the playing field, speed wins the day. The U is as incessant as a no-huddle offense. One interview leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to the next. Boom, boom, boom. Most of the interview subjects are former Hurricanes players whose anecdotes and reminiscences flow together like song lyrics – without punctuation and as if they know the words by heart. The U isn’t notably cinematic, but it’s a triumph of film editing.
It’s also good solid journalism, authored by a reporter savvy enough to recognize the magnetism of his subjects stay the heck out of the way. When I say that one can’t detect Corben’s presence in the picture, I’m not simply referring to his lack of screen time. What I’m talking about is that not one of these interviews feels directed. In fact, they hardly feel like interviews, which require two active participants. More like confessionals. Some of the best journalism seems to write itself, and The U has a similar appeal. As eager as the Hurricanes were to detail their greatness back in the 80s, the former players and coaches captured here might be even more eager now. Each interview – and there are more than 20 subjects – is a solo, and yet The U feels like a reunion. The camaraderie of the men is felt in the way they seem to finish one another’s sentences.
You’ll find it hard not to like these guys, and that’s the biggest surprise of all. Because few, if any, college football teams have ever been as despised as the 80s-era Hurricanes. People hated them because they were dominant, because they were cocky, because they seemed to have no concept of sportsmanship, because they were always in fights, because their roster included guys with criminal records, because they were ferocious and, oh yeah, because they were mostly African-American. Not everyone hated them for all of those reasons, of course, but most sports fans outside of Miami loathed the Hurricanes for something. The Hurricanes knew this and embraced it, and it’s interesting to see just how much of their “us against the world” mentality came from the second coach of that era, Jimmy Johnson. Johnson says in The U that he identified with the Miami players, having been the first in his family to go to college, and maybe that’s true. But bank on this: Johnson identified that taunting, hard-hitting, mask-wearing black men scared the shit out of a lot of white folk. Competitively speaking, it was to the Hurricanes’ advantage to be despised.
That Johnson giggles while recalling the behavior of a team that engaged in a lot of unquestionably unsportsmanlike behavior, and that he indeed seems to have no remorse about actually encouraging such antics, will remind people why the Hurricanes were so genuinely contemptible. (And remember, Johnson wasn’t even the “players’ coach” of that era. That was his successor, Dennis Erickson.) But The U doesn’t have to work very hard to remind us how much of the anti-Miami sentiment was influenced by race. The clearest example comes from highlights of the Hurricanes’ 1985 matchup with Notre Dame. After getting out to an early lead, Miami never stopped passing, even when the reserves took the field. The final score was 58-7. Excessive? Sure. Unsportsmanlike? Maybe. Criminal? Hardly. The Hurricanes were playing mighty Notre Dame. If the score had been reversed, few would have cried for the ‘Canes. But when the largely black squad recruited from low-income neighborhoods took it to the white Catholic kids, the commentators on CBS acted like they were watching a grown man kicking a puppy down the street.
The U never pretends that some of the disdain for the Hurricanes wasn’t deserved, because it was. Where there were no rules, the ‘Canes made them necessary. Where there were rules, the ‘Canes broke them. Corben’s film confronts this. It goes into the famous fatigues incident prior to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. It details 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell giving money to players in violation of NCAA regulations. It even touches on some of the players’ criminal entanglements off the field. It does this openly and, because these stories often come from the transgressors themselves, somewhat lightheartedly. And that’s enough. These Miami teams have been condemned plenty. The U makes sure the Hurricanes get their just due. You needn’t embrace those teams to recognize that they sometimes got a raw deal. You needn’t condone their behavior to realize that maybe you kind of miss them. For better or worse, the 80s-era Hurricanes were undeniably compelling. Still are.
The U premieres tonight on ESPN at 9 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. The next "30 for 30" picture won't be released until March 14.