Though the 30 For 30 format allows filmmakers to work within blessedly broad parameters, one condition has paid off brilliantly so far: The directors must have a personal stake in the subjects they cover. So instead of dispassionate, neither-here-nor-there accounts of sports stories over the past 30 years, we’ve had Barry Levinson recapturing the ache of the Colts leaving his city, Peter Berg noting the curious spectacle of the greatest hockey player that ever lived coming to his non-hockey town, and Mike Tollin going to war against Donald Trump for ruining the nascent football league that gave him his livelihood. In this respect, perhaps above all, the series bears that Bill Simmons’ stamp: The “homer,” the fan, the sports guy who’s going to make his side of the argument.
Granted, not every 30 For 30 episode has had such a strong point-of-view—“Without Bias” and “The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek” suffered greatly for their cookie-cutter documentary approach, and “Muhammad And Larry,” the best of the series by far, was more subtle portraiture than argument—but of the ones that have, Billy Corben’s “The U” may be the most revelatory, if only because it’s arguing up a steep incline. If you were living anywhere outside of South Florida in the ‘80s, chances are likely that you hated the University Of Miami football team—both for their astonishing, merciless dominance on the field and their habit of rubbing everybody’s faces in it. In sports, we expect greatness and humility to go hand-in-glove; and when they don’t, out come the professional cuckolds talking about how a team is “disgracing the game” or “not winning in the right way.”
I still don’t like those old Hurricane football teams, but “The U” at least gave me the context to understand them better and respect the source of their collective rage and swagger. With his lightning-paced, pulpy documentaries Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin With The Godmother, Corben has established himself as an energetic young chronicler of Miami’s criminal underworld. He’s both a hard-working journalist who can connect these vast and dangerous networks while keeping tabs on the city’s history and someone who clearly enjoys a good yarn, even if it tends to glorify some ugly, murderous behavior. (Corben’s inability to grasp the moral dimension of his subject matter resulted in a first film, Raw Deal: A Question Of Consent, that may be the most repugnant, exploitative documentary I’ve ever seen. Lawsuits kept it from getting screened outside the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.) Corben’s abiding interest in Miami’s seething underbelly makes him the perfect guy to tell the story of UM in the ‘80s; the neighborhoods that helped revitalize the moribund program are the very same that were ravaged by the poverty, drugs, violence, and racial animus detailed in the Cocaine Cowboys movies.
If you’ll indulge me a little personal context, I’ve attended two colleges in my lifetime: The University Of Georgia as an undergrad in the early to mid ‘90s, and The University Of Miami as a grad student in the late ‘90s. Both colleges have major football traditions, but the campuses on game day are a study in contrasts: At UGA, a state school with 35,000 students, the football stadium is dead center on campus, the dividing line between the liberals arts programs to the north and the science and nerdy arts programs to the south. When the Bulldogs are at home, there’s no avoiding the throngs of campers and tailgaters and alumni and students that descend on campus. The University Of Miami, by contrast, is a private school with 15,000 students, and since the games are played off-campus (during the time documented in “The U,” at the cavernous concrete pit known as the Orange Bowl), you would never know the difference between a weekend when the ‘Canes are at home and any other weekend during the year. The place is dead.
Here’s my point: The Georgia Bulldogs are an integral part of the college experience in Athens, whether you go to the games or not. The Miami Hurricanes are less connected to the college than the city at large, which makes it much more vulnerable as a program. As Corben reveals in the early going, the Miami football program before Howard Schnellenberger came along was a disaster, in part because it has to compete for the same fickle fanbase that the city’s professional teams do. Should the program slide further back into mediocrity (as it’s in the process of doing), the legacy of the ‘80s teams would be the only thing keeping it from oblivion.
By the same token, the pro (or semi-pro) feel of that era in Miami football accounts for a lot of what made it special, not only because opponents were so routinely overmatched but also because the players had a sense of outsidership—from other colleges and from the national media, which derided them in racially suggestive terms. The first of the 30 For 30 docs to run a full two hours, “The U” scrupulously chronicles a team that constantly played with a chip on its shoulder, as if every game were a grudge match. Their well-earned “bad boy” image was only stoked by the contempt directed at them, and Corben’s interview footage catches former players who are still riled up 20 years later. “The U” may go too far in defending behavior that was in some cases indefensible, but it gets the culture of Miami football right and the context, too. Even if Corben’s case for his home team doesn’t persuade you, at least you leave with a better understanding of the roots and achievements of its troubled, brilliant legacy.
As a piece of filmmaking, “The U” may lack the polish of 30 For 30 entries produced by sports doc veterans or old hands like Barry Levinson, but Corben directs with a breathless pace and flash that’s just right for ‘Canes. (Whether Corben dictated it or they did it on their accord, having some the players and coaches stand up during interview segments added to the immediacy. It’s like they were psyched up to play again right now.) His stylistic signature is to mix stills with paper cut-outs, and he gets some great montages going with game footage of the ‘Canes’ moments of triumph and ignominy on the field. Even when the film starts repeating itself—an hour would be too short, but two is too long—it’s never less than completely engaging.
• For argument’s sake, I’d love to your thoughts below on Miami’s notorious unsportsmanlike conduct, because I have mixed feelings about it. On two fronts, I’m completely on their side: (1) I rarely have sympathy for complaints that one team is running up the score on another. To my mind, ’85 Notre Dame-Miami game, where the ‘Canes sent the Fighting Irish (and departing coach Gerry Faust) out with a 58-7 massacre was well within the acceptable boundaries. As Jimmy Johnson said, the team put in the backups and the backups were fresh and talented enough to kick Notre Dame’s behind some more. Johnson could have stopped the passing plays, but don’t the backups, given this precious game time, have the right to play full out? And as Corben points out, the outcry smacks of hypocrisy, given the ass-whompings other major (read: whiter) schools like Oklahoma and Nebraska were delivering on a regular basis. (2) I don’t think players should be punished for exuberance. Save for the truly ornate displays of arrogance and braggadocio, players should have the right to show their emotion and celebrate touchdowns. It happens in soccer all the time, but in sports like football or baseball, it’s considered showing the other team up. The obvious response: If you don’t want to be shown up, keep from getting scored upon. The only exception—and Miami was guilty of this on many occasions—are when players engage in excessive taunting of opposing team members. It’s only thing to pump your fist and jump around with teammates after a sack, but to stand over the quarterback and jaw at him is another matter. What do you think?
• As good a job as Corben does of standing up for the ‘Canes, he cannot make me like Michael Irvin.
• Bernie Kosar: Drunk?
• Next 30 For 30 doc not coming until Sunday, March 14th, with Dan Klores’ “Winning Time: Reggie Miller and The New York Knicks.” Word from trusted critics who have seen the film suggest that it’s more than worth the wait. See you then…