"You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor." -Aristotle
Does the University of Miami offer a degree in cluelessness? Because most of the former players interviewed in ESPN’s documentary The U seem to have majored in it. For two solid hours they brag about their arrogance, their dirty play and even their outright criminality, smiling proudly during every moment.
Former quarterback Steve Walsh seems amused as he recounts bumping into “some pretty prominent players” wearing stocking caps, on their way for a night’s work of burglarizing autos. His teammate Brett Perriman recalls some Hurricane players dealing drugs, then adds unapologetically: “We got to eat. If that means we have to do something illegal, so be it.”
Those kind of disclosures seem almost benign when former center Don Bailey Jr. explains the football skills that made his team so great. “They were nasty,” he recollects jovially. “They’d spit. They’d fight. They’d bite. They’d kick.”
The U is a brilliant and horrifying history of the good-old-bad-old-days of the 1980s and early 1990s when UM — so the joke of the day went — topped all three football polls: AP, UPI and FBI. Filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, a pair of UM graduates who specialize in documenting the hellacious dysfunction of their hometown (they also made Cocaine Cowboys, a spellbinding 2006 film on South Florida narcotrafficking in the ’80s) offer up a grimly fascinating portrait of a program reeling out of control:
Closing out the fall slate of ESPN’s “30 on 30” series, “The U” drew the most viewers ever for a documentary on the sports cabler.
Airing Saturday night, director Billy Corben’s look back at the heyday of the U. of Miami football program drew a record-setting 2.3 million viewers. “The Greatest Game,” which aired last December and examined the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, held the previous record at 1.8 million.
Miami Herald’s Dan LeBatard - Miami Hurricanes Succeed Where Others Are Failing:
Before Allen Iverson and Ron Artest, before Terrell Owens and OchoCinco, before Trick Daddy and Lil Wayne — before America was quite ready, in other words — there was championship University of Miami football. It was fun, violent, florescent, reckless and wonderful, but the street getting so close to the library was also pretty new then, and that particular kind of new can scare people the way black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson scared them by dating white women once upon a time.
Notre Dame’s Tim Brown admits now, all these years later, that the only time he was ever terrified playing football was against Miami — not because of the Orange Bowl noise or even the Hurricane talent but because of what he feared Miami’s players might do to him in the parking lot after the game. South Florida loved the so-very-Miami aura around those teams. America hated it.
ESPN is doing a two-hour documentary on UM’s renegade years this week. It is done by UM alums and will mostly embrace that fascinating time, but the current administration didn’t want anything to do with the film and even advised former players not to participate. UM has a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder about its past, understandably. You might, too, if the nation’s largest magazine in your field called for your eradication because it had, in its grandfatherly senility, confused you being edgy with you being evil.
But here’s the thing: This UM hasn’t been that UM in a really long time.
I’ve seen only clips of the UM documentary, but I’m very familiar with Corben’s prior work – “Cocaine Cowboys” is a classic and “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent” is a lesser-known but equally brilliant piece of work.
Corben is an unrepentant fan of the Hurricanes, particularly those ‘80s teams that were gangsta before there were gangstas. Who else would allow Luther Campbell to record the theme song to his documentary?
Corben said he wishes he could have talked to defensive tackle Jerome Brown, who, while a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, died in an automobile accident in 1992.
"If Miami was the team of the ’80s then Jerome Brown was the player of the ’80s," he said.
Who can forget Brown leading his Miami teammates, all wearing military battle dress, off the plane after arriving to play Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl?
As Shockey says in the film, “It’s a ‘Cane thing.”
Miami Herald’s Glenn Garvin - Screen Gems:
The U (9 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) — This documentary on University of Miami football in the 1980s contains enough ugly spots — the pay-for-play allegations, the NCAA violations, the arrogance and hot-doggery of the players — that the university tried to kill it. But it’s also got the on-the-field performances that led to four national championships during the decade.
Canes paraphernalia has overtaken the rakontur office
Some sensitive Hurricanes fans surely will not like the rehashing of the trash-talking, the over-the-top celebrations and the off-field scandals that are chronicled in The U, the two-hour University of Miami football documentary airing at 9 p.m. Dec. 12 on ESPN.
But after watching the film, the view here is that filmmakers and former UM students Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman accurately and colorfully capture the program’s glory years — blemishes and all — and strike the right balance between what made UM so dominant and dynamic, and what made it a target for critics.
The film is an enjoyable trip down memory lane, filled with unforgettable game footage, amusing anecdotes and entertaining interviews with more than 30 people who made the program matter.
Corben and Spellman focused mostly on 1983 to 1991 — when UM won four of its five national titles — and allocated only a few minutes to what has happened since. In retrospect, it would have been a good idea if the filmmakers quickly touched on the past few seasons and acknowledged the players’ exemplary conduct in recent years (just one known arrest — Robert Marve — in Randy Shannon’s three years in charge).
Remember, this is not a tribute to UM football. A tribute would only gloss over the negative.
But this is more compelling than a tribute because it gives the full picture of how those teams captured a nation’s attention.
…Like Corben and Spellman’s 2006 cult hit, Cocaine Cowboys, The U explores an important cog in Miami’s flashy outlaw history. The film places the Hurricanes’ success against the backdrop of a city torn apart by the race riots of the ’80s. “It was a very tumultuous time,” Spellman notes. “And it was right around that time the university started to go into Miami’s inner-city neighborhoods to recruit players.”
A pair of brash North Miami Beach natives who inject their films with a muckraking style, Corben and Spellman in 2001 were the youngest filmmakers ever to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Their documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent explored an alleged rape at a university frat house.
They followed up with the critically acclaimed Cocaine Cowboys, a gritty, breathless account of the violent drug-fueled era that built modern Miami. The success of that film resulted in spinoffs such as a coffee-table book, a sequel, and a deal with Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and HBO to produce a fictional television series.
The genesis of The U came in 2007 before the Hurricanes played their last season in the Orange Bowl, which was torn down a year later. Spellman and Corben met with ESPN executives and worked out a deal to do the documentary. The channel slotted the project for its 30 for 30 series, a slate of 30 documentaries about the 30 most significant sports stories during ESPN’s 30-year history. Spellman and Corben joined an elite stable of filmmakers including Barry Levinson and Peter Berg
Staying true to their hyperkinetic filmmaking style, Corben and Spellman use archival news footage and engaging interviews to tell the story of the Hurricanes. The executive producers even persuaded Luther Campbell, former frontman of 2 Live Crew who used to pay UM defensive players bounties for vicious hits, to write a new rap theme song for The U…
The phone starting ringing early this morning: parents, friends, our partners at ESPN, sports talk radio producers.
Everyone wanted to talk about Barry Jackson’s article in the Miami Herald about The U, which is the most commented and most viewed article on the paper’s website today:
Even NBC’s White House correspondent (and Canes fan) Chuck Todd weighed in on Twitter:
The question of the day is: what went down with UM and why did it refuse to cooperate?
Jackie Menendez, UM’s vice president/communications, told Barry Jackson:
the school declined to allow the interviews or participate in the project because Corben wasn’t willing to allow UM officials to read the script in advance.
Two problems with this tale:
1) A documentary doesn’t have a script. When you’re making a documentary, you conduct interviews and piece together the story. At the end, you have a transcript. Asking for a script in advance is like telling a newspaper reporter you won’t give a quote for an article unless you can read the article first.
2) UM officials never asked for a script. Mark Pray asked for a treatment, which is basically an outline or synopsis:
On Feb 13, 2008, at 5:03 PM, Pray, Mark W. wrote:
Yes, I knew it was the project we discussed last year. However, I never received a detailed overview of your project. Before we move forward, please send us a written treatment as discussed. Thanks.
From: Billy Corben
Date: February 14, 2008 1:40:26 AM EST
To: “Mark W. Pray”
Cc: “Alfred Spellman (rakontur)”
Subject: Re: FILM: Hurricane Season ESPN President Shalala and Tad Foote
Attached please find a detailed description of the project. As you’ll see from the treatment and our interview request list below, we are very interested in local recruits, the impact that historical events in Miami had on the development of the team and how the reputation of the team encouraged coaches and players to commit to UM.
We would appreciate any help you can provide in securing on-camera interviews with the following folks from the Athletic Department and Academic Administration:
The University of Miami should just come clean with its reason for not participating, whatever that is.
Inside a Miami Beach office that feels like a not-too-reverential Hurricanes shrine, the finishing touches are being applied to the documentary of record on the University of Miami football program.
Stacks of old newspaper clippings and UM media guides sit atop a table. A Ray Lewis action figure poses menacingly on a desk, and a stuffed “Ibis” lurks across the room. A UM pin cushion and Canes pillow are propped on the couch.
Director Billy Corben and producer Alfred Spellman aren’t only accomplished filmmakers — they’re also former UM students. Corben believes Canes fans will be pleased when their two-hour documentary, The U, airs at 9 p.m. Dec. 12 on ESPN, in a high-profile slot following the Heisman Trophy show.
“For Canes fans, this will be a reminder of what they loved about this team. For Canes haters, this will be a reminder of what they hated about this team,” said Corben, who has crafted six films with Spellman, most notably Cocaine Cowboys. “I’m also hoping the haters might walk away with some passing appreciation of what the team brought to the table in terms of their pop culture contributions, the merger of sports and entertainment, the style of game played.
ESPN has posted the synopsis for our new documentary The U:
Throughout the 1980s, Miami, Florida, was at the center of a racial and cultural shift taking place throughout the country. Overwhelmed by riots and tensions, Miami was a city in flux, and the University of Miami football team served as a microcosm for this evolution. The image of the predominantly white university was forever changed when coach Howard Schnellenberger scoured some of the toughest ghettos in Florida to recruit mostly black players for his team. With a newly branded swagger, inspired and fueled by the quickly growing local Miami hip hop culture, these Hurricanes took on larger-than-life personalities and won four national titles between 1983 and 1991. Filmmaker Billy Corben, a Miami native and University of Miami alum, will tell the story of how these “Bad Boys” of football changed the attitude of the game they played, and how this serene campus was transformed into “The U.”
ESPN has ordered a documentary on the University of Miami’s football program. But don’t expect a rah-rah booster flick. It’s being produced by Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben, whose last documentary was Cocaine Cowboys, a searing recollection of the 1980s when narcotrafficker corpses piled up so fast that Dade County had to rent refrigerated trailers to handle the morgue overflow. (Spellman and Corben have produced a sequel about narcoqueen Griselda Blanco — Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin’ With The Godmother — that’s scheduled for DVD release this month.)
The UM documentary will air as part of a series called 30 for 30 — 30 films covering sports events of the past 30 years, commemorating ESPN’s 30th anniversary in 2009. No air date has been set. But ESPN’s announcement of the acquisition noted pointedly: “No program’s style has been more of a lightning rod for simultaneous excellence and controversy than the University of Miami.”
The University of Miami’s much celebrated and oft criticized football program is going to receive more high profile praise and scrutiny.
ESPN announced at the press tour that it has hired film-makers Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben, who collaborated on Cocaine Cowboys, to produce a documentary, The U, which will focus on the program’s triumphs, tragedies and tumult.
The special, which is in the early stages of production, will air in September 2009 under the network’s 30 for 30 umbrella.