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.


Craig said...

I wouldn't have been interested in seeing this, but your review along with Jimmy Johnson's recent comments have made me look forward to it instead. The 'Canes were the team everybody loved to hate, and when they lost (Boston College, more recently to Ohio State) it was twice as sweet. Curious: Johnson said he liked "The U" but wished it had emphasized his 88% graduation rate (compared to 33% before he arrived). Any truth to that statement?

Also, this being the fifth "30 for 30," with the next not due til March, how many years is ESPN going with this? (He said, half-facetiously.)

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Watch The U. Of the "30 for 30" films thus far, I had the least hope for this one. It just sounded so run-of-the-mill: a documentary about a great team. Yawn. On top of that, I've been battling a cold all week, so my enthusiasm was low. But, wow, it's really fun and interesting, and it touches on a number of things I don't get to in my review.

Granted, there are a number of ways to criticize the documentary, and maybe Johnson's point about graduation rate is a good one (indeed, it's not mentioned, if that stat is accurate). But it wouldn't surprise me -- and this is just a guess -- if the graduation rate improved under Johnson and then dropped again under Erickson. So maybe Corben just didn't want to go there. Or, given that The U could easily have spent more time digging into some of the players' criminal acts, perhaps Corben was making sure he avoided painting too rosy a picture.

As for the break until March: It looks like ESPN is trying to time film releases with sports that are in season. So there are some basketball stories coming up in March. Also, at that point it'll fall back into a regular weekly Tuesday-night release schedule for several weeks. So I do think they'll wrap it up in a year, but they're taking their time.

Looking forward to hearing people's thoughts after they've seen The U.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for writing about these, Jason. I look forward to this one since I'm a UM alumni who attended '90-'94.

Interesting story: In retrospect, you can tell what football players would succeed in life by how they approached their studies. I was a Motion Pictures major, and we were required to pick a second major at the time (I guess to have something to fall back on). My second major was Criminology, which just so happened to be the major most of the football team chose as well.

Just so happened, my ass. It turns out, these guys were getting passing grades OR BETTER despite hardly ever opening a book. The most egregious examples of this coasted through school thinking they would be the next big NFL star. Many crashed and burned.

But, I'm happy to say, that the ones who applied themselves later turned out to be very successful. Two of my classmates, Warren Sapp and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, were relatively soft-spoken and humble compared to the aforementioned dunces. They took their studies a lot more seriously, and look how far they got.

The truth always comes out. It was revealed later that there were some serious infractions on the part of the Criminology department in terms of helping these guys out. I'm sure this happens everywhere, but it was a bit galling at the time.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff here, Jason. I have been anticipating this one ever since I saw the commercial during a Duck a few weeks back. I particularity like this statement you make:

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.

Yes, that's one of the reasons so many people hated on The U, but I think it's one of the reasons to like them. They were the first "little guy" to break through the system (read: Nebraska and Notre Dame and teams of their ilk). A few years ago we had Utah and Boise St. busting the BCS system and proving they could play with the "elite", but I think Miami's accomplishments (coupled with what Bowden did with upstart Florida St.) in the 80's is even more important. It showed that a sport dominated by a select few was now open to any team -- pedigree outside of one's ability to play football no longer mattered (Miami and FSU weren't the most endowed schools at the time and were often at a disadvantage in recruiting).

Anyway...I can't wait to see this tonight. Although, if I see Erickson I may throw something at the computer. As a Duck fan I hate every team that man coaches, hehe (basically because he took Oregon St. and made them into The U of the Pac-10 by recruiting Junior College players with sketchy histories and players like Chad Johnson who never went to class...nope, I'm not bitter, hehe).

Great essay, Jason, and feel better. Let me know if you're going to be around the Salem area for the holiday.

Craig said...

It's an entertaining doc -- and a tad full of it -- and often very funny, especially when Luther Campbell confuses the word "castrated" for "castigated." I had forgotten how quickly they burned through the coaches yet still managed to keep winning without skipping a beat.

TAH said...

I barely remember these Miami teams, but I remembered that you were required to hate them. Now that Miami's struggled they have become kind of likable, which is good for them but not really for NCAA football as a whole. It's fun to have a team that you unquestionably hate. Would it be as much fun to be a Red Sox fan if the Yankee's weren't around?

This documentary also brought to mind the book Friday Night Lights which takes place in 1988. The final opponent of the Permian Panthers was the nearly all African American Dallas Carter High School. The swagger and animosity is chronicled so well in that book, and The U brought that to mind.

Kevin J. Olson said...

So I just watched this on the DVR and I have to say that I'm pretty impressed with the editing, too. It never felt two hours and it never felt like it was lingering on things too long in order to fill those two hours. I found myself agreeing with much of what you had to say, Jason, and I too was surprised by the Mussberger commentary during the famous Notre Dame game. It's hilarious how hypocritical the media is when it comes to things like that. I loved Jimmy Johnson's remarks about the game.

A few quick observations:

Michael Irvin. I forgot that he was one of the first (if not the first) WR's to wear an unconventional number. Now you see wvbery WR do it.

I found the familial nature of the different teams to be interesting. I like what Irvin said in regards to how past players would show up on the sidelines and talk to the younger players to "instill some wisdom." Now, I don't know what kind of wisdom that was, but it's clear through the interviews with the players that these teams were a family -- a community of people who cared about and focused on the same thing -- who formed a brotherhood, a fraternity, because they didn't have any of that growing up. As cheesy as it sounds for a lot of the players The U was the only family they had.

I thought the only thing that felt off was all of the apologetics from the Miami people about the behavior issues during the Erickson era. Sure part of it was trying to psych out the other team, and part of it was just for fun, but it's no coincidence that this kind of behavior has followed Erickson wherever he's coached. He's always allowed for that kind of behavior on his teams, and even though he may claim he was appalled by it, I just can't take him seriously because of his 2000 Oregon St. team (another team filled with Junior College kids with iffy track records...essentially they were the NW version of the Canes) and his current ASU team...both of which led/lead the NCAA in personal fouls and penalties per game. Anyway, I though it was humorous how LeBatard and others were trying to pass off the teams behavior as nothing more than mainstream population misunderstanding Miami's culture.

Lastly, I found it interesting that Bowden never backed down from playing Miami like the other powerhouse schools did, especuially fellow in-state rival Florida. It says a lot about the other teams and their AD's when they refused to play them, and I think the players were right, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they were black and they were in your face.

Fascinating documentary.

Kyle said...

"The U" is definetely the most surprising entry in the 30 for 30 series so far. Immediately while watching it, you react with so many opinions. I attribute this to the confident story-telling by the director. The most interesting element of the doc, and maybe the most interesting subject of the series, is the cultural dynamics beginning with the recruitment of inner-city athletes. The U needs to be seen and its subject debated.

georgetown basketball in the 80s but way gullier said...

If I recall correctly, one of the newspaper graphics in the film featured a headline about the rate of graduation among Miami football players. A percentage was cited, but I can't remember it exactly. Somewhere around 70% or so?

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all. A few replies ...

Tony: They took their studies a lot more seriously, and look how far they got.

Not to be cynical about it, but Sapp and The Rock each succeeded according to their athletic abilities. That they aren't dunces is obvious, as both are good interviews (real and fictionalized). Alas, it could be argued that the two could have skipped all their classes and still succeeded as they did.

As for things "happening everywhere," sadly, I suspect that's true. The level at which it happens might vary, but The U reminded me of why these guys were such easy targets. Mainstream America was more than happy to call these guys criminals.

Kevin: Yeah, Erickson gets on my nerves, too. His teams are always some of the most penalized in the nation. Then again, at least now they're doing the time for on-field infractions. If Erickson thinks it's better to have 125 penalty yards per game and a loose, aggressive, taunting team, well, that's his call. But The U reminds that some of the rules the 'Canes were "breaking" in the early days weren't actually rules. The code of conduct was more assumed at the time. The 'Canes changed that. (And, to be fair, they were hardly the only school with players who couldn't wait to rip off their helmets after a score, for example.) So, yeah, the apologizing is a little cheap, but at least the film confronts the behavior. That's enough for me.

Craig: Speaking of Campbell, I love the part where he "admits" (by playfully denying) that he gave money to players. I'd love to see a white collar, deep pockets booster dare to come clean in that respect. I kind of appreciate that the "we did it, so what?" attitude, even if I don't agree with the behavior.

TAH: It's fun to have a team that you unquestionably hate. It is. I do root for Miami to reform its image and its on-field success. But I can't deny that it's fun when everyone agrees about which team is Public Enemy No. 1.

Kyle: Agreed. It's very confident filmmaking.

Georgetown: When I get around to watching this again, I'll look for the stat. Must have missed it. Thanks for pointing that out.

Tony Dayoub said...

"Not to be cynical about it, but Sapp and The Rock each succeeded according to their athletic abilities."

I want to clarify so I don't end up sounding incredibly naive. Of course they succeeded according to their athletic abilities. But back in college, there were other players that I believed had equal athletic ability and failed because of lack of discipline (especially off the field).

Lamar Thomas was a clown, and look how his NFL career went down. In contrast, The Rock was disciplined and savvy enough to create a new career option for himself after a football-ending injury sidelined him.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: I figured that might have been your implication. I will say this: I can't speak for other pro sports, but having worked for an NFL team, the second biggest public misconception is how much work is involved in being an NFL player. It isn't showing up and practicing for two hours and going home. With medical treatment, strength training and film study and position meetings, etc, it really is a full-time job. Athletic ability is essential. But to succeed as a pro, you must have discipline.

Oh. So, what's the biggest misconception? That success is tied to "intensity," or any of that crap. The link between intensity and success is the biggest myth of professional sports, and it's reinforced over and over by TV. The bottom line is that players kicking ass look intense. Players getting their asses handed to them don't.

I don't mean to imply that teams can't come out flat or can't come out hyped up. But when fans suggest their team sucks because they're playing without emotion, I roll my eyes. Players see the NFL as what is it: a business. They might love playing the game, but they are out to make a living. They treat it like a job. The rest is theater.

This stuff about Bill Belichick being a "master motivator" is for the most part nonsense. His teams have won because he's a good coach and manager and has had talented players. NFL players are grown men. It's preposterous to think that, say, a 25-year-old man who has played football all his life needs some old dude to manage his emotions.

But I digress ...

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm standing up in my computer room and slow-clapping right now, Jason. Hehe. I couldn't agree more. Only in high school or college, where the talent of the player hasn't been fully realized yet (at least in the majority of the cases) does motivation matter. The stuff that's going on with the Patriots right now is what I expected to happen to them after their run. Their defense got old and their strategy of 'everyone's expendable' backfired for the first time because they failed to correctly evaluate the talent they were bringing in. But who didn't see this coming? The NFL ebb and flows like no other professional league. It's amazing the Patriots sustained their greatness the way they did.

Anyway...yes, the intensity angle is just the easy talking point for the media.

Troy Olson said...

But I thought Belichick simply willed his team to victory. Oh, except, of course, when he didn't. But from a color commentator's point of view, what's easier -- intelligently breaking down offensive line play or talking about intensity and momentum?

As for the documentary, I liked it a lot. My few points:

- Bernie Kosar -- drunk or too many hits to the head?

- Michael Irvin as the voice of reason? He seemed to be the only guy who realized that the media wasn't always out to get them, and that in much of the case they were, as he put it, "bad boys"

- I too was annoyed at the apologetics over the Hurricane Dennis era. Perhaps I'm still annoyed at his unwillingness to ever stay at a job for too long or perhaps, just like Kevin, I don't like his style of coaching.

- Also, I'm not sure all of the image related to Miami had to do specifically with the fact they were black -- there were plenty of black players in the NFL and college at the time (I think the NFL has been comprised around 60% african-american for quite a few years now). Hell, Notre Dame had plenty of black players at that time.

I think it had to do with more than race -- it had to do with the brash attitude and the fact that people viewed these guys as thugs and criminals. For white America, it wasn't the black guy you wanted to cheer for, it was the sterotypical black guy that you were scared of (and rest assured, I don't personally hold any of these biases...just pointing them out here).

Kyle said...

Troy: I think it had much to do with race. This collection of players confronted the traditions of the game (which I think was the purpose of the opening credit sequence) and the Reagan-branded Conservatism that grabbed hold of America. It was the opposite of the angelic black persona seen from Sidney Poitier in the 60s. This was the rebellious hip-hop culture of 2Live Crew and Tupac Shakur. It scared the shit out of white America, and I think that's why the Cotton Bowl against Texas was so significant.

Troy Olson said...

Kyle -- just to reiterate, I agree with your viewpoint on it 100% I was stating that it had to do more than JUST that they were black, but as you state, they were not the "safe" black man that white America was comfortable with.

Daniel Getahun said...

Wow, fascinating review and discussion. I'd like to check this one out for sure while the CFB season is still fresh. I like what I'm hearing about this one really being much more about culture than about football. And I don't remember that Miami-ND game but your description of it makes me smile. Also - I don't know why, but I always had just as bad an impression of FSU as I did Miami. I think that had something to do with The Program.