Game Time: Review Of ESPN's 30 For 30: The U
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.
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.