This week’s episode was the exact kind of bounce back I needed after the depressing biography that was the sixth episode. Episode seven is easily my favorite episode of volume one, and it’s not even a close call.
What a ride it’s been, people. Seven episodes down, and still the entire franchise in front of us.
This particular episode had to have gone down in the history books at ESPN because it’s so well filmed and documented. The general feeling that the episode creates is uplifting and positive despite the negative way people viewed the University of Miami and the city itself in the ’80s.
What more can I say? About 12 years’ worth.
Let’s get after it.
Volume 1, Episode 7: “The U”
I would consider the ’80s the golden age of college football, but that’s giving other teams too much credit for what Miami accomplished during that period of time: Four titles between 1983 and 1992, and a whole lot of showboating.
The episode doesn’t have a singular storyline that follows any one person in particular. Instead, the documentary has a “passing of the torch” format among three revolutionary coaches: Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.
All three had different philosophies on the field — all of them champions.
What’s so engaging about “The U” is that players in South Florida who were recruited by the University of Miami in the ’80s weren’t getting looked at by other serious programs, primarily because of the neighborhoods they lived in (the other programs paid the price for this in the decades to follow).
Because they were so overlooked by other teams, Miami players had huge chips on their shoulders, and Schnellenberger capitalized on this.
Between the years of 1979 and 1983, when he was head coach, Schnellenberger brought Miami its first national championship, trumping No. 1 Nebraska. The U’s victories would continue under Johnson, who won his very own national title and the university’s second in 1987.
The Canes were on a roll, beating teams down with their spectacular defense and making sure to get in their faces afterward.
What’s important to remember is that these Miami players weren’t given the notoriety they believed they deserved from schools such as Notre Dame, Nebraska and Penn State. In response to these specific teams — primarily the Fighting Irish — the Hurricanes wanted their lunch money. And they wanted it as soon as the opposition stepped on the field.
These players used intimidation tactics unlike any I’ve seen since Michael Jordan, honestly. You either loved or hated them; there was no in-between.
I can tell you this after one hour and 42 minutes of watching these guys destroy offenses, trash-talk opponents and come up with celebration after celebration: I’m a big fan of whatever Miami was cooking in the ’80s.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. This era would eventually come to its glorious conclusion with Erickson. In six seasons with the Hurricanes, Erickson won a title his first year in 1989 and another in 1991.
There were a few bumps in the road during and after the U’s success.
Schnellenberger left after getting into a deal with the U.S. Football League. Johnson was essentially forced out and left for the Dallas Cowboys despite appearing in two title games. Erickson couldn’t keep the team in check with the new boundaries the NCAA had placed on issues such as proper conduct on the field.
Then there was the cherry on top: Luther Campbell, a rapper in the group 2 Live Crew, was accused of a bounty scandal, and players came forward claiming they were given cash handouts for taking out opponents’ players and scoring.
All this chaos was completely out of the players’ control. Sure, you could argue that behavior like that doesn’t belong in football and that they violated the NCAA’s rules and regulations, but many of them did all this to have food in their mouths and shoes on their feet.
The U was the talk of Miami, a city riddled with violence, oppression and civil unrest due to police brutality.
The point that this episode tries to get across is that the U won games fairly — whether you like how they did it or not — and in this case, accomplishments should not be overshadowed by accusations.
Players such as Michael Irvin, Bernie Kosar, Duane Starks and so many others advocate for Miami in this episode because it transformed them into the people and players they went on to be. This program went from shambles to champions in less than a decade, ushered in by coaches who gave inner-city kids an opportunity at an education and a football scholarship.
These student-athletes had so many people rooting against them their whole careers on and off the field. They let everything around them fuel their style of play, and it’s why every former player who gives insight into the team sounds so passionate.
The U is a brotherhood in football unlike any other, which to this day still models itself after the ’80s championship rosters. It was also a lifestyle of coming to terms with being the villain to the outside world, but becoming a hero to those closest to home.
It’s the U — and it was extraordinary.
Lucas Perkins-Brown covers lacrosse. Contact him at [email protected].