It's just before the start of the Cotton Bowl Classic at Fair Park Stadium in Dallas on the morning of January 1, 1991. The University of Texas Longhorns line up against the University of Miami Hurricanes, the most reviled college football program in the nation. There is not an empty seat.
The Canes fall into an intimidating line at midfield. Their intention is clearly — weirdly — to block their opponents from crossing the field for pregame warmups. They even mock them.
A chorus of boos descends on the Miami boys, who exult in the hate raining upon them. Some even thrust their prized white helmets with the green-and-orange "U" logo into the air.
Then, a few minutes later, Texas running back Chris Samuels catches the opening kickoff. He runs to the 14-yard line, where Miami linebacker Robert Bailey performs a vicious helmet-on-helmet tackle. Samuels slams to the ground like crumpled roadkill. Bailey jumps up, pumping a fist in the air.
A couple of plays later, the Longhorns must punt, but not before referees penalize Miami 30 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. The early flags set the tone. The Canes rack up a college football record 202 penalty yards in a 46-3 dismantling of the Longhorns.
That's Miami. It's also a pivotal event in The U, filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman's latest project, which debuts locally next week and then nationally on ESPN. The film documents the rise and fall of the University of Miami football program from the '80s through the mid-'90s. "The Miami Hurricanes are not just a great sports story of the last 30 years," Corben says. "They are a great, sensational story of the last 30 years."
The documentary is no highlights film of the school's dynamic run as the most successful college football program at the end of the 20th Century. 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.
After locking up a contract with ESPN, Corben and Spellman (who are UM alumni) met with athletic department officials and the school's vice president of communications, Jacqueline Menendez. She says the university was open to participating in the documentary, but Corben and Spellman refused to provide her with a script. "Unfortunately, we couldn't take it any further," Menendez says. "It is standard procedure."
Responds Spellman: "They told us they weren't going to cooperate — and that we should rethink about doing the film."
As a result, The U lacks interviews with former school president Tad Foote and current head coach Randy Shannon, who for years was also a part of the program as a player, graduate assistant, and assistant coach.
University officials are probably not looking forward to watching ex-players rehash the team's arrogance. In the movie, ex-running back Melvin Bratton puts it succinctly: "We looked at it like going into somebody's back yard, turning their garbage can over, and walking out their front door. That was our attitude."
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 film begins in 1979, when the school pondered killing football but instead gave new head coach Howard Schnellenberger the opportunity to resuscitate the program. It then explains the concurrent turmoil of the Mariel Boatlift and the McDuffie riots.
Bratton tells the story of how he was still a teenager attending Miami Northwestern Senior High when Liberty City was on fire. He was a track star on a school bus returning from a meet in Orlando. "We had to stick our hands out the windows of the bus to show the rioters we were black," Bratton explains.
The U shows how Schnellenberger, also a storied pro coach, built the team into a contender, culminating in the Hurricanes' victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers to take the 1983 national title. The win unified the fractured city. "Everyone rallied around the Canes," Spellman says. "It wasn't about black or white. It was about being orange-and-green."
Then comes the Jimmy Johnson (another pro standout later) era, when the Hurricanes solidified their image as the bad boys of college football. The U digs into the fallout from the Canes' loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions in the 1986 national title game. Prior to that contest, the Hurricanes caused a ruckus by landing in Tempe, Arizona, wearing Army fatigues and then storming out of a dinner for both teams.
On tape, Johnson recalls how Foote tried to use the embarrassing episode as leverage against him. According to the coach, Foote threatened to cut off talks about a contract extension unless he apologized for the team's behavior. "I can't say on TV the words I said to Tad Foote," Johnson recalls.
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Sports radio commentator and Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard likens Foote to "Dean Vernon Wormer" and the football team to an "Animal House frat" he tried to get rid of. To drive home the comparison, the film features a still shot of Wormer sandwiched between clips of a stuffy Foote.
The documentary ends with the tenure of Dennis Erickson, whose lack of control over the team eventually cost the university scholarships and bowl game appearances. As one former player put it: "All of sudden, we had a substitute teacher. We could do whatever we wanted."
Sneak previews of The U will be held December 9 at the Lyric Theater in Overtown and December 10 at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami Coral Gables campus. For more information, visit rakontur.com.