- The U (2009)
The U (2009). Directed by Billy Corben. Distributed by ESPN Films. 106 mins.
Between 1983 and 1991, the University of Miami Hurricanes football team won four national championships, a run that included two perfect seasons, and established “The U” as a dominant force in the American college game. In this contribution to the ESPN 30 for 30 series, director Billy Corben draws on a host of archival footage and contemporary interviews with the program’s principal actors from that time to examine the rapid ascent of the Hurricanes from obscurity to powerhouse. Despite a significantly longer running time than other 30 for 30 entrants, the film is lean, brisk, informative, and entertaining. Covering more than a decade, it forgoes a narrator to focus on the three coaches—Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, and Dennis Erickson, who oversaw the transformation; and the football luminaries—Michael Irvin, Bennie Blades, Alonzo Highsmith among others, who made the team famous.
The primary means of analysis in the film is race and its social and political organization and implications in urban America. Set against the neighborhood segregation of Miami, the disproportionate poverty of urban blacks amidst the wealth of South Florida and the violence and rioting that regularly ensued as a result, the film illustrates how Schnellenberger, having proclaimed that the team would win a national championship within five years of his taking over in 1979, began to actively recruit inner-city, black players from across Florida but particularly the state’s southern regions and the Miami area. Indeed, the Hurricanes won the national title in 1983, and both the identity and modus operandi begun by Schnellenberger were continued by Johnson, who championed and celebrated the team’s outsider status and racial identity to the extent that he is dubbed in the film as “the first black coach in Hurricanes football history” despite his white skin.
It is worth noting that nothing is said in the film of the fact that even though William Henry Lewis was an All-American at Harvard in 1892, college football in the South remained racially segregated until the Southwest Conference and the Southeastern Conference integrated in 1966 and 1967 respectively, some twenty years after Jackie Robinson first played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This is important context because, when considering the segregationist stronghold that football afforded the South, Schnellenberger’s decision to actively recruit urban, poor black athletes in college football, and in turn, the Hurricanes’ celebration of blackness under Johnson, constituted significant acts of transgression within the politics of sport even at the very end of the twentieth century.
From this perspective, a major strength of the film is that it takes on race as its primary lens of analysis. That is, in a socio-political sphere in which racism, particularly in the U.S., is thought to be over or at least passé despite a host of material evidence to the contrary and coupled with a contemporary sporting culture that primarily celebrates the overcoming of racial inequality and racial hierarchies and/or eschews race altogether in [End Page 128] pursuit of the narrative of sport as a fundamental social meritocracy, a socio-historical analysis of football that adopts race as the principle cultural currency is notable. While race is, to an extent, inescapable in the story of the University of Miami football program and an analysis of the U’s rise that did not attend to race would have been disingenuous at best, the fact that race is taken up to such a degree in the film is laudable and effective.
For example, such a focus allows for an illustration in the film of the ways in which the successful and aggressive blackness of Miami football was constructed in the popular culture as, and came to constitute, a threat to mainstream America and the staid culture of the college game, a threat that in turn served as motivation amongst players to further celebrate and assert their black athletic masculinity. Former Hurricanes Robert Bailey, famous for literally knocking out opposing players with vicious hits, and Randall Hill, whose infamous touchdown celebration in the 1991 Cotton Bowl lives on in YouTube culture, speak forcefully...