Game Time: Review Of ESPN's 30 For 30: The U
Whenever people ask me what the best sporting event is that I've ever been to, the answer is always an easy one:
October 15, 1988...Notre Dame 31, Miami 30.
It had all the critical elements of a personal "best sporting event ever" --- Heated rivalry? Check. Brawl before the game in the tunnel? Check. Great players on both sides stepping up with legendary performances? Check. (I think defensive end Frank Stams of Notre Dame was named All-American based solely on this game; I mean that.) Fantastic finish? Check. Culmination of one side getting long-awaited redemption? Check.
And as a bonus, you had a 75-degree day in mid-October in South Bend, Indiana. I'm not even kidding when I say that you could write a book about this one game -- its build-up, what it meant to the Lou Holtz Era at Notre Dame, and what it symbolized for college football at that time.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
I was a sophomore at Notre Dame at that time, and to say that in the handful of years preceding that win that Notre Dame had been having problems with Miami is a little like saying that Tiger Woods has an issue with waitresses. Plain and simple, Notre Dame had become Miami's bitch -- actually, much like Tiger, the Hurricanes had a lot of bitches back in the 1980's, on the field and, one can only guess, off the field as well.
In short, The U was a monster.
If you grew up in that decade, you know what I mean. In the 1980's, if you had a contest for "Villain of the Decade," it would have been a dead heat and the ballot would look like this:
-- Billy Zabka (noted silver-screen bully; Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid)
-- Rowdy Roddy Piper (WWF superstar)
-- The Miami Hurricanes
The fact that I am comparing them to fictitious movie and entertainment characters speaks to the aura the Canes had about them. In a time where rivalries were based largely on either geography or a battle for some cornball random object like a brass spittoon or a shillelagh, along came the Miami Hurricanes to give college football its ultimate villain, complete with unending swagger, PhD's in trash talk, and Luther Campbell in the corner ready to pay the bounties.
The phrase "larger than life" gets thrown around a lot. Within the realm of college football, the Canes were larger than life.
Actually, to blanket-label the Hurricanes as "villains" is a little bit unfair, and admittedly this is coming from a Notre Dame alumnus, which basically means it's in my DNA to label them as the bad guy. But to many around the country, the Hurricanes were more of a hip anti-hero, and a rallying point for a riot-torn area of the country in a time when they desperately needed it.
Hell, as much as we hated the Hurricanes at Notre Dame, we STILL named our dorm touch-football-league team the Section 1-AB Canes. I was the white, suburban, miniature Daniel Stubbs. No, seriously, I pretended I was Daniel Stubbs; and if my old roommate Pat Marty is reading this, he'll admit he was Bernard Clark.
In short, even when we hated the Canes, we still knew they were so goddamn cool, a small part of us wanted to be them. They were transcendent.
While the Hurricanes had more than their fair share of transgressions, if we can all arrive at a place where we accept that "nobody's perfect", we can see the era where it was "all about the U" (roughly, 1983 through 1992) for the good and the bad. I'm pretty sure this is what ESPN's documentary The U originally sought out to do, and if nothing else, I came away from it with a better understanding of my figurative "enemy" and several reminders of what a great time that was in college football.
I won't go through an entire chronological recap of the documentary, I'll just say that if you were a college football fan back in the 1980's, it will be a fun (albeit pretty biased) trip down memory lane. If you're looking for a measured, balanced assessment of the Miami Hurricane football program, you'll be barking up the wrong tree here, Rover.
The U is more of an infomercial for Miami's own, unique "tradition" than it is a true documentary. And yes, I put "tradition" in quotes because unfortunately Miami's "tradition" back then was as much about nightclubs, personal fouls, and bilking the Pell Grant system as it was about national championships and Heisman Trophies. Roughly 20 percent of the documentary is spent telling you how the program was built (which was truly fascinating), 70 percent of the documentary is spent telling you how awesome/bad-ass/kick-ass/swagga the Canes were (which was entertaining, if not overdone), and about 10 percent of it glosses over the thuggish and out-and-out criminal aspects of the program (which, ironically, is a tad criminal that they only spent that much time on this aspect of the program).
I'm actually fine with that. I came away entertained, and I came away a bit more informed. Much like Episodes one through three of the Star Wars saga, I now know why Darth Vader is the way he is. This Darth Vader just happens to have a white helmet with a "U" on the side of it.
If I had to scoreboard the documentary as to who the winners and losers were, it would go like this:
I'm guessing if you asked the average college football fan who the coaching face of the `80's-Era Hurricanes was, 90 percent would say Jimmy Johnson, but without Howard Schnellenberger's blood, sweat and tears in the late `70's, there would be no "U." His portion of the documentary was equal parts impressive, mind-boggling, and depressing. Strategically, I don't think anyone could have drawn up and executed a better plan -- build a fence around the so-called "State of Miami," create the ultimate sense of "us against the world," unleash the hounds.
It's scary to think what Schnellenberger's legacy may have been if he hadn't made the ill-fated decision to go to the USFL after the 1983 season. Go ahead and add the Schnellenberger, Johnson, and Erickson Eras together, and likely that's what you'd have if Schnellenberger had stayed at Miami. We're talking legendary status. Sadly, the regret is etched all over his face when he discusses this in the documentary. Easily, the saddest part of the show for me.
The former top-three draft pick of the Oilers and current Green Bay Packer scout was probably the most balanced voice in the whole piece among the former players. He brought the perfect amount of the old "U" swagger while also commenting honestly about the various aspects of the program. When the topic was the Hurricanes wearing fatigues to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Highsmith admitted that if they could do it over again "[they] probably wouldn't have worn the fatigues." More than anything else, Highsmith should be remembered (along with Melvin Bratton) for being the crown jewels of the killer 1983 recruiting class and the first monster prospects from Miami to take a ballsy plunge and buy into Schnellenberger's sales pitch.
Like Highsmith, and unlike a handful of the players in the piece (more on this in a second), Irvin comes across as a charismatic, likable guy who has grown up and understands now the good and the bad of what "The U" represented. While seemingly most of the former Canes were making excuses for the rap sheet the team accumulated, Irvin flat-out admitted "there was no conspiracy...we were BAAAAAD boys..." The most hated Canes player of that era for me may have been my favorite one in this documentary.
Portrayed exactly how you thought he was back then, which was someone who somehow managed to balance the role of cruel taskmaster with ultimate players' coach with aplomb. The facial expressions of Johnson during a speech that UM President Tad Foote was giving were priceless. Those two clearly hated each other, and Johnson didn't do a very good job of hiding it. I respect that.
I put him in the "loser" column only because they appeared to interview him after he just got done drinking a case of Miller Lite at a backyard barbeque. Not really his fault.
Of all the Hurricanes who are still "living their gimmick", none stood out to me more than Thomas. Dude, you need to turn the page. But I guess I'm not surprised...(Fast forward to 1:47 mark. That's Thomas on commentary.)
Ironically, in a week where teachers at the University of Texas are all up in arms over Mack Brown's raise, we get this documentary featuring a school president who has no idea that the reason so many people recognize and apply to his school is because of the football team. I'm not condoning the off-the-field stuff, but Foote was clearly a guy who was an adversary of the program, or at least portrayed as such.
FLORIDA STATE 1988
Did they not learn anything from the Super Bowl Shuffle? Nice rap video, fellas. I will say that after watching this documentary, Deion Sanders does come off as a bit of a wanna-be and poser.
To the handful of players and luminaries who were crying about "if we didn't turn the ball over five times against Penn State," and "if they got the fumble call right against Notre Dame"...you know what? You did and they didn't. You lost. Deal with it.
I thought he came across fine in the documentary, including the hilarious part where he blamed his run into the Cotton Bowl tunnel after a touchdown on the people who put the tunnel there. My only thing about him is that in watching the highlights, he was EASILY the most impressive playmaker (and they didn't even show 3rd-and-43). How the hell did that guy not have a better NFL career?
Symbolic of the era in a way, he all but admitted with his sarcastic facial expressions that he paid players and put bounties on opposing playmakers. Here's where I come out on this -- if he wants to pay guys, whatever. It's against the rules, but understanding that we're talking about "walking around" cash or money for household things for guys with kids (Bennie Blades was one example), fine. I'll turn a blind eye. But sending players out there to earn money by trying to injure the opposition is thuggish and wrong. And yes, that goes for opposition not named "Notre Dame," too. Campbell comes across as a jock-sniff and a loser.
If this documentary doesn't cement Erickson's wing in the slimeball Hall of Fame, I don't know what will. Miami under Schnellenberger was an upstart, revolutionary group. Under Jimmy Johnson, they evolved into "bad boys," but it was mostly trash-talk, showboating, and embracing their role as the antagonist. For the most part, the team played football hard, but not dirty. Under Erickson, The U evolved into a cesspool thuggishness and undiscipline that permeated the program on and off the field.
Kudos to the documentary for shedding appropriate light on the inexcusable 200-plus penalty-yards performance in the 1991 Cotton Bowl. Erickson didn't catch nearly enough heat in this piece for the program totally unraveling on his watch, and Butch Davis didn't get nearly enough credit for cleaning up his mess. Sadly, you could do an entire documentary on what's wrong about Dennis Erickson -- from collapse of The U to his drunk driving in Seattle to the rebuilding of Oregon State with a bunch of JuCo thugs (nearly 200 yards of penalties in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl for them with Erickson) to leaving Idaho high and dry after ONE YEAR as head coach there to take the Arizona State job. If you're trying to pinpoint things that are wrong with college football, Dennis Erickson is on the short list.
If you go back and look at the AP poll in 1989, the top 12 look like this:
2. Notre Dame
3. Florida State
I would classify 10 of those 12 as "traditional" powers of that time. That's when college football is at its best, when the elite are playing like the elite. The late `80's was that time, and Miami was the ultimate villain of that era.
If you don't believe me, just ask them.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.