Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"The U"

I've been very much enjoying ESPN's "30 For 30" series so far, in which 30 different directors take a shot at documenting a major sports story over the 30 years of ESPN's existence. There was Kirk Fraser's take on the death of Len Bias, which transported me back to 11 years old and having one of my childhood heroes throw his life away. There was Mike Tollin's documentary on the life and death of the USFL, casting an evil eye on Donald Trump. Barry Levinson took a story that I knew quite a bit about and shed a new light on it as he chronicled the Baltimore Colt marching band and the departure of the Colts from Baltimore. Throw in shows on the Wayne Gretzky trade, the Ali/Holmes fight and the life and times of Jimmy the Greek and these are some compelling documentaries on sports.

Which brings me to the most recent film, "The U" by Billy Corben about the University of Miami's football program. Now, without a doubt, this is a great topic for this series: a team rising from irrelevance to become the best college football program in the nation during the 80s and beyond, but not without its share of controversy. Unfortunately, Corben's thesis for this film appeared to be something along the lines of "Miami was a very good football team, so that gives them a complete pass everywhere else." Part of the reason that "The U" was such a great topic for a documentary was the fact that there were two very distinct sides to this story: the amazing success the 'Canes had on the football field and the abysmal way in which they acted while gaining such success. But, while Corben certainly went so far as to admit that there was some controversy surrounding the 'Canes, he went out of his way to avoid voicing some of those concerns in a coherent way, instead focusing on the 'Canes players and coaches and apologists making excuses.

It wasn't the Miami players fault that there was a long litany of legal problems in the program, but it was certainly Sports Illustrated's fault for publishing a sidebar about it. Racists!

It wasn't Jimmy Johnson's fault that they ran up the score on overmatched opponents, it was the fault of the opposing team for failing to stop them. And 'Canes players dancing over fallen opponents? That's just kids having fun.

The Miami-cheap-shot-fueled onfield brawls? Certainly not the 'Canes fault. But the university president being concerned that this painted the university in a bad light? What a stooge that guy was. Didn't he know how much money the football team was generating? Money forgives all sins, right?

According to Steve Walsh, Miami dominated Penn State in every facet of the game in the '87 Fiesta Bowl. (Wait for it, wait for it.) Except for turnovers. Hey, I got one more for you Steve. Um, the score. (Somewhere around this point I briefly considered the idea that Corben was a genius in the field of satire, spending a couple hours making fun of Miami while pretending to fawn over them. I threw that idea away a couple seconds later.)

Who cares that Miami players were being paid in violation of NCAA regulations? Those rules were dumb anyway. Besides, Bennie Blades had a kid at the time! And if they hadn't been getting paid, they would have been forced to go out and steal car stereos and sell drugs in order to survive. Oh. Wait. They did that too.

And, as Randal Hill took pains to point out (albeit with tongue firmly in cheek), it wasn't his fault that he ran up the Cotton Bowl tunnel after scoring a TD and came back with imaginary guns ablazing. It was everybody else's fault but his. (Note that for some reason, the Miami AD called this something like the most egregious offense one of his players ever committed, a truly disgusting act. Maybe it's just me, but I saw like 15 things over the course of the two hours that were far, far worse than this.)

Don't get me wrong, if the entire documentary had been anti-Miami, focusing on all the controversy while just glossing over the successes, it would have been just as bad, but this film could have been so much more. Credit Corben for at least mentioning the dark side, but it would have nice to hear a perspective on the story from someone other than Miami players, coaches, writers and supporters.

One last complaint, perhaps minor compared to the above. At some point in the film, (and it might have been on a bumper coming back in from a commercial break) Corben says something like "Beano Cook once called Miami football the greatest dynasty since Julius Caesar." Which, if you know Beano is just a great line and admittedly overstatement. No problem with that. But then Corben follows it up by saying: "And he was right." Well, no. No, he wasn't right. Miami was the best college football team from the early 80s to the early 90s. In no way do their accomplishments compare with those of Caesar (which is such an obvious thing that I'm not even going to follow that comparison and bring in other world leaders into the conversation), let alone the Lakers or Celtics or Canadiens or Bruins or Yankees or... The Hurricanes were dominant, won four national championships in nine years and were clearly the most successful program in college football for a decade or so. Leave it at that. There is no need to take a great line like Beano's and take it seriously.

All in all, I still enjoyed the film and would still recommend it, but compared to earlier episodes in this series, this was clearly subpar.