Smoke and Ibises: A Review of ESPN's 30 for 30 Film, <i>The U</i>

Drew ElmoreContributor IDecember 14, 2009

MIAMI - OCTOBER 18:  Sebastian the Ibis, the University of Miami Hurricanes mascot, comes out with his arms in the air before their game against the Temple Owls on October 18, 2003 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida. The Hurricanes defeated the Owls 52-14. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Few sports teams at any level dominated in the way the Miami Hurricanes throttled their competition in the mid-1980's through the mid-1990's. This South Florida powerhouse  is supported by the numbers ; "The U" won 58 straight games at the Orange Bowl .

Despite immense success coming via national titles in '83, '87, '89, and '91, and various conference championships (a major independent through the 1990 season), this article is setting all of that aside to purely address the image of the football program during this era.

Yesterday, ESPN debuted their most recent installment of 30 for 30, a documentary series highlighting events which transfigured sports since ESPN's creation in 1979. This featurette is dedicated to the events surrounding the accomplishments and profile of the Miami football program during an approximately 15-year span.

In this writer's opinion, the documentary was highly disappointing. I tuned in because thought I would be presented a balanced see-saw between the glory of a program at the top contrasted with off-the-field issues and the controversial attitudes of the players.

Instead, I was assaulted with highlight reels and player interviews which seemed to worship the attitude of personal fouls, showboating, and trash-talking that typified the team.

I may be in the minority, but I believe a college athlete should be two things above all else: an academician and a good sportsman. Countless phrases out of the mouths of Michael Irvin, Lamar Thomas, Bennie Blades, Alonzo Highsmith, et al. contravened this expectation at every turn.

Some of them raised a perfectly valid point: Many of the players attending the University of Miami were from rough neighborhoods in a city that had a very troubling decade. However, director Billy Corben chose not to identify stories of players who turned their lives around by having a chance to attend a top-flight university or made a difference in a troubled community. Instead, the player interviews revered the "thug life" and acted like it was some kind of accomplishment to bring that onto the football field and into the locker room. It would have been more impressive to leave that life behind and play like true sportsmen on the field.

What is worse, big-time coaches like Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson stood by and allowed or even encouraged the behavior to continue.

To be sure, it was attracting talented recruits and bringing The U money and national attention. However, at what point do we put the kibosh on unsportsmanlike behavior? University administrators and even the athletic director tried to corral things at various points. It has been twenty years or more and Luther Campbell and Randal Hill act like they would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I hope the rest of the 30 for 30 series takes a harder and more critical look at the remainder of their era-defining stories. From what I have read, reviews have not been spectacular thus far.

I do not begrudge documentarians the right to craft a persuasive visual essay; however, I expect their films to at least present opposing viewpoints and make a nuanced picture.

Celebrating personal fouls, thievery, the refusal to shake hands at the coin toss, etc. is not the proper way to honor Miami's great athletic history. A film juxtaposing their success alongside the consequences of those actions would have me appreciate them all the more, because it gives perspective (Aside: this is one purpose of studying history, in my view).

In case you intend to post a flaming comment regarding my opinion piece, please do me the courtesy of watching the film. I harbor no ill will towards Miami in terms of any era; I simply feel the film represented the worst aspects of their football program's character instead of the best and most magnanimous. If you missed the airing on Dec. 12, the program will be shown again on the 20th and 27th. See the link above for details.