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(The final installment in the fall ’09 edition of ESPN’s 30 For 30 Series, The U premieres Saturday, December 12, at 9pm on ESPN. Go here for a full screening schedule.)

For college football fans—and especially those of you (or should I say us) who came of age in the 1980s—Barry Corben’s The U will bring back a flood of memories. Not only is Corben’s documentary an entertaining jaunt down memory lane that recounts the unexpected rise of the University of Miami football team from total haplessness to utter dominance in a legendarily quick span of time; more vitally, it illuminates the culture-shifting influence of this controversial program, which literally transformed the landscape of college football in the ‘80s. When it comes to one’s tolerance for smack-talking, showboating on-the-field antics, The U is a blunt Rorschachumentary test.

The transformation of Miami’s program can be traced back to 1979, with the arrival of cocksure new head coach Howard Schnellenberger. Schnellenberger realized he was sitting on a recruiting goldmine, so his first act was to rope off the state of Florida from Daytona to Tampa and declare that land his domain. A brash gesture, to be sure, but that was only the beginning. Whereas recent, ongoing racial tensions had made not just Miami, but much of the state, a simmering—and, in some cases, flaming—riot zone, Schnellenberger ventured into the state’s most dangerous neighborhoods to sign up some of the most talented African-American players in the nation. At first, everyone thought he was crazy—Miami officials, the recruits themselves—but it didn’t take long for these young athletes to buy into what Schnellenberger was selling. Players who had competed against each other their whole lives united and discovered a newfound pride for their state, the city of Miami, and even this previously lily-white institution. Determination was in the air.

Five years later, the laughing stock was a National Champion, as the Hurricanes defeated college football institution Nebraska in Miami’s Orange Bowl and began one of the game’s most dominant decade-long runs. This victory and subsequent success filled the city with a previously unseen pride. It sounds ridiculous to suggest that college football could manage to erase decades of racial barriers, but sports have an irrational, odd power. During this moment in time, it sounds like it actually happened.

Of course, not everyone was amused by The U’s punishing, trash-talking, cocky style of play, which reeked of blatant racism. The fans of the teams the ‘Canes repeatedly demolished clearly weren’t amused by their swagger, but this roundabout jabbing was also a constant presence in the national press. In one case, a periodical posted the team’s rap sheet instead of their actual statistics. Years later, coach Dennis Erickson, who took over after Schnellenberger’s replacement Jimmy Johnson defected to the Dallas Cowboys, found a stubborn in-house rival in school president Tad Foote, who ordered Erickson to discipline his team. In 1990, the NCAA did it for him, instating new rules of on-the-field conduct for athletes. To the players’ delight, the accompanying video played like a ‘Canes highlight reel.

In telling this story, Corben has assembled just about everyone who played a major role in it. Humorously and candidly, they shed their own personal memories over an assault of archival footage that reminds viewers just how dominant, brash, and flashy this team was. Standout interviewees include former players Lamar Thomas, Randal Hill, Michael Irvin, Steve Walsh, and Bernie Kosar (who sounds like a drunk or stroke-addled 70-year-old), as well as 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell, whose own controversial rise to prominence coincided with The U’s gridiron reign.

As for Campbell, he was partly for responsible for the sanctions that crippled the program in 1994, but to hear his sarcastic denial of those accusations brings some healthy perspective to the situation. Perhaps the most telling moment, however, is after a cavalcade of subjects have expressed their frustration with the media for focusing on the negative, noting the unspoken but inherent racism in these acts. Michael Irvin’s response is a wide grin and an assurance that they were a bunch of badasses.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully was born and raised in Maryland and now lives on Tennis Court in Brooklyn. His most recent narrative feature, Septien, world-premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by Sundance Selects. In addition to directing Cocaine Angel (2006) and Silver Jew (2007), he is also a proud alumni of Filmmaker Magazine's annual "25 New Faces of Independent Film" club (2006). Visit his indieWIRE blog Boredom at its Boredest——for more sporadic personal updates.

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