So I watched the 30 for 30 documentary The U. It was great on so many levels.
I enjoyed it far too much, though I am admittedly an easy mark. Play a 80s rap track track over a tunnel brawl and I'm yours.
My awareness and passion for college football coincided with Miami's rise to prominence and the documentary was nostalgic for me. I had a hate/love/hate relationship with the Canes as they managed to simultaneously embody everything I desired and loathed in a football team.
The Rise of the Canes was also a small part of a larger cultural influence, the first unfiltered crossover of hip-hop and inner-city black culture into mainstream America, at a scale unseen since Motown (before that Blues, Jazz). Unlike Motown, these influences weren't mainstreamed, softened, and massaged for a different audience. Think of Animal House when the guys encounter Otis
Redding Day away from the frat house party circuit - Wait'll Otis sees us! He loves us! In the 1980s you got the same rap lyrics in Salt Lake as in Harlem and it was as raw as a drive-by and as unrefined as pure Colombian.
College football traditionalists weren't just having their Saturday afternoon defiled by Miami's antics - they were seeing tangible reminders in the behaviors of their kids and on the evening news. Miami was part of a much larger cultural sea change. Fashionable rebellion morphed from Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC to Run DMC, Eric B and Rakim, & 2 Live Crew.
Miami Hurricane fans were a garishly dressed bandwagon comprising three primary factions: the city of Miami, student rich kid Northeasterners with profound drug habits incapable of getting into any reputable private school (Miami was sort of a dumb Duke) and the most aggrieved members of every inner-city across America who identified with the Cane bravado. One of my friends described a woman at the Cotton Bowl: a double-sized Florida Evans clone from Good Times, wearing three layers of form-fitting lycra shorts over sweats, hair curlers, who kept screaming, "Faggot ass Longhorns, bitch ass faggot bitches, y'all gonna get whooped!" And she was right. We were. She was a Dallas native, but identified with the Canes.
What has always been most compelling to me about Miami is that they defied as many stereotypes as they fulfilled. The documentary hinted at it, but let me connect some dots. Of the Miami players interviewed, only Irvin truly got what made them unique. Though the Canes had more than their share of real criminals (while repositories of Heartland Values like OU, Nebraska, Colorado actually equaled and topped their exploits in the late 80s through the mid 90s) most of their players were just hard-edged dudes.
Ultimately the rise of The U wasn't solely about harnessing the South Florida athlete. It went deeper. It was linking them together in a shared culture of athletic achievement, a unified badassed coherence. Miami played smart and together as much as they played mean. Aggression penalties were a means to an end, not indiscipline, and they ran offensive schemes that were out in front of 80% of the rest of college football.
In its perverse way, Miami was disciplined and focused. Maybe not for study hall, mind you, but as it related to football. They were entirely self-regulating and self-policing, like a well-run syndicate. If you didn't show to summer conditioning, other players ostracized you or drove you from the team. There was no powerful authority figure that reigned in excess, disciplined players, or defined program culture - no Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno; this was a program run by players. I point specifically to Michael Irvin and Jerome Brown. Their personalities became the formative culture of Miami Hurricane Football. Just as they would both go on to define the cultures of their NFL teams. Play hard on and off the field, attack all weakness in your opponents and teammates until it calluses or dies, bully and dominate whoever will let you. Maybe stab a teammate in the neck with scissors if he gets lippy.
Players pushed each other (no Cane would ever sit out a practice with an injury for fear of being Wally Pipped) and former players were the most brutal - it became a Miami ritual for NFL Canes to call their old dorm room number and harangue whatever poor freshman answered. The coach's job was to run interference with the police and administration, run good schemes, award playing time to the hungriest, and hoist trophies.
A lot of Texas fans have their own personal defining brutal moment from that 1991 Cotton Bowl: Samuels getting KTFO on the opening kick, Randall Hill's tunnel run, the 200+ yards of penalty yardage - and those things certainly made an impression on me - but there were five things that always stuck with me because they delineated so cleanly between big-time college football and our SWC parochialism. They embodied what made Miami unique from everyone else at that time.
1. Scheme. Erickson ran a one back, 3 WR offense. That was heady stuff back then and Miami always ran pro style offenses. On the opening play, our defense comes out in our base 4-3 with OLB Boone Powell lined up on the Miami slot WR. Face palm. We played straight man-to-man the entire game. Probably why Miami was able to convert a 1st and 40, among other things. We were playing 5A high school football schematically. We were football dumb. Miami was football smart. An underrated aspect of Miami's success. It's about the Jimmys and the Joes, but Miami never lacked for Xs and Os.
2. Talent. Count up the NFL players on the field from both teams - no big difference. But Miami didn't have any weak players and we did. Even their mediocre guys could run and played with intensity. That particular Miami team had good defensive talent, but on offense, they were no powerhouse.
Wesley Carroll (NFL bust), Randall Hill (straight line speed, lifetime #3 or #4 NFL WR), and Lamar Thomas (slow, lifetime #3 NFL WR) didn't set the NFL on fire. QB Craig Erickson was a NFL bust. But in their system that talent worked even when they didn't have Michael Irvin and Andre Johnson catching balls. Miami enabled athletes. Put enough fast and skilled guys on the field with a chip on their shoulder with good coaching and positive things will go down.
3. Player development.. I remember a much-publicized factoid that was circulated by the press between both camps pointing out that Miami didn't have a guy on their team that could bench 400. We had a dozen or whatever. We thought it was an advantage, but Miami players laughed out loud at our ignorance and mocked us. Our S&C program was pretty much about lifting. Miami players ran, ran, ran. Up hills. Up staircases carrying irregularly shaped items (anvils, barrels, tires). Pushing cars. Boxing. Carrying teammates. Dragging tires. When they lifted, they focused on power cleans. Functional strength.
I'm reminded of the finale from Rocky V when Rocky gets challenged in his neighborhood bar by Tommy Morrison to come into the parking lot and settle their dispute. A couple of big fat bar patrons, Rocky's boys, say, "Hey Rock, you need a hand?" Rocky appraises them and says, "This is a street fight, not a pie-eating contest." Miami made the same appraisal ten years before everyone else.
4. Focus. Miami was the the "undisciplined team" but it was our stars that were out all night before the game, many of them drinking. McWilliams had no handle on his own players, Erickson didn't either. But Erickson's players had a handle on themselves. The Canes huddled in their hotel and played dominoes. While we were happy to be there and celebrated. Kings of our little SWC molehill. The game was just a reward exhibition. Miami was pissed to be there, angry that they'd dropped two games and wanted someone to pay for it on a national stage.
5. Attitude & Aggression. If you saw the documentary or the Canes play during their height, this needs no explanation.
Obviously, the director of the piece was a Miami apologist but he didn't hold back on the discussions of criminality, scandal, bounties, and wrongdoing. They were both hilarious and unsurprising. I was galled to hear several idiot Miami players justify robbery because they didn't feel they had enough weekend meal money and were somehow owed by society, but Michael Irvin said it best, "There was no conspiracy against us. No media plot. We were very bad boys and we enjoyed being bad boys."
So what did U think?