ESPN 30 for 30: The U (2009)

Directed by Billy Corben

When I learned that one of the documentaries in the series was going to be “The U”, my response was a simple “ugh”. I detest that university and its football team for any number of reasons. When my Ohio State Buckeyes beat them in the National Championship game in January 2003, after Miami’s head coach Larry Coker had said in a pre-game interview that given the chance he would run up the score, I was the happiest camper in the woods. They have always been so cocky and arrogant and annoying. Since that title game their prominence has dropped, especially after a near fatal scandal this past year, but after watching this documentary, I have a certain confidence that they will return at some point, and when that time comes I will have a new found respect for the program.

The University of Miami is located in the beautiful Miami neighborhood of Coral Gables and their football program had been a joke. They would lose games ugly to the point that the program was considered to be cancelled at one point. Then in 1979 the university hired a new head coach, Howard Schnellenberger, who came from the pedigree of Alabama’s Bear Bryant and the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. He pledged to win a national championship by the time the new recruiting class graduated. He took a program that was down in the dumps and he made good on his promise in 1983. But soon the USFL came calling for Schnellenberger, but under coaches Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson the team kept winning, and championships. But it came at the cost of the swagger they created and the players from tough neighborhoods they recruited. The Miami Hurricanes were the team of the 1980s.

I never knew half of what I do now about the program at the University of Miami, and that is after entering the film thinking I knew a fair bit. The job that Howard Schnellenberger did to create everything from nothing is astonishing. He went in with a plan, and that was to recruit the talented players he needed from the high school football hot bed of southern Florida. It sounds like an easy plan, and an obvious one at that, but not everyone wanted the players from troubled neighborhoods. Miami was in turmoil in the early 80s with racial conflict and drug problems. With the help of Schnellenberger some of that was trouble was alleviated. Certainly he didn’t do enough to do away with the problems, but he gave some kids the opportunity to get out of that trouble.

And about the swagger that I hate and I know a lot of other people hate, when you sit down to Billy Corben’s film you can’t help but side with the Miami players who went out there and had fun playing a game. As many times as people say things like “act like you’ve been there before” or “grow up”, I’m sorry but those people are wrong, especially after you watch this film. These guys were college kids playing a kids game and they were great at, and had fun at it. Their creation of this swagger, and the team’s ability to follow through on it is admirable, even if the number of detractors is still understandable. And the program was not perfect. It had its fair share of kids who committed crimes and were unlikable guys.

Corben does a good job of matching the fun and swagger of the team with his filmmaking as well. Easily one of the most stylistically different films of the series and coincidentally the other one that wavers the most from the formula is also my other favorite of the series, Muhammad and Larry. Yes, that is right, you just heard me call this one of my favorites so far because while it tells me an interesting story about something I didn’t know about, it does it in such a way that I cared and had a great time while watching, something that cannot be said about a few of the other entries in the series. I wonder how much that has to do with this film’s extended runtime, but I definitely recommend this film for those that are fans of football.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s