Back in December of 2009—five years ago—ESPN’s 30 For 30 series aired its seventh episode, “The U,” a two-hour special which became the most widely watched episode to that point, and which has been repeated often in the years since. “The U” established a model for what’s become a whole 30 For 30 sub-genre: The “sympathy for the devil” doc. “Pony Excess,” “The Fab 5,” “Youngstown Boys,” “Bad Boys”… all of these and a handful of other 30 For 30s give a voice to athletes and teams that have been widely reviled, showing how sports’ biggest villains see themselves.
“The U Part 2” starts out telling a very different kind of story. “The U” is about how The University Of Miami became a football powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s, while fostering a culture of swagger and lawlessness that came back to sting (and almost kill) the program. “The U Part 2” begins with the hiring of head coach Butch Davis, who made a conscious effort to rebuild Miami football in what sports journalists like to call “the right way.” With NCAA sanctions limiting the number of scholarships Davis could offer, the coach came up with clever ways to backdoor top athletes onto his team, by sharing players like Santana Moss with the track department. And he recruited kids who were willing to embrace discipline, academic responsibility, and loyalty. By the end of Davis’ first couple of years, he had reshaped Miami into a ferocious unit that policed itself, with teammates berating each other if anyone slacked off—even during practice.
The first—and best—half of “The U Part 2” is all about this new Miami, which completed its comeback in 2001, the year after Butch Davis left the team to take a job coaching the Cleveland Browns. Under former assistant coach Larry Coker, the team went undefeated and won the national championship; and in 2002 they went undefeated again, before suffering a controversial loss to Ohio State in the title game. Then a lot of the old troubles for the Miami football program started up again: the off-field arrests, the on-field fights, and the free-spending boosters who invited unwanted scrutiny from the NCAA. The second half of the documentary tracks those scandals and their aftermath, bringing the story of “The U” all the way up to 2014 and another disappointing Miami season.
As with “The U,” the main strength of “The U Part 2” is its pacing. Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben helmed both documentaries, and he clearly enjoys the kinetic rush he can get by rapidly intercutting crazy anecdotes with exciting stock footage. The wall-to-wall soundtrack of “The U Part 2” is a little annoying, but the overall propulsive quality of the episode is hard to deny. A big reason why people love “The U” is that it’s so hard not to keep watching it, any time it’s on. The same is true of “The U Part 2,” which has the added advantage of being more of a true underdog story, starting out with clips of sportscasters writing off Miami for good before showing how quickly and strongly the football program came back.
If only the second half of the episode were as strong as the first. As much as Corben likes to dig into Miami’s dirtier business—a raunchy rap song, parties with strippers on yachts, a player assassinated in what appeared to be a gang hit—there’s almost too much dirt in “The U Part 2,” and as a result the story of Miami’s second fall from grace feels disorganized and overstuffed. The episode lurches from the Ohio State loss to a succession of scandals to the demolition of the Orange Bowl, with none of the procedural detail of the Butch Davis sequences.
As is often the case with these 30 For 30 “the bad boys aren’t so bad” docs, “The U Part 2” hits hardest when Corben exposes institutional corruption, rather than just lingering over the salacious details of what the kids were up to. Corben has interviews with nearly all the major players in Miami’s run of success in the 2000s, as well as with local reporters like Dan Le Batard. They all dish the real dirt, explaining how Miami’s coaching staff would warn the team to stay away from boosters and parties while the administration was making sure the athletes were available for receptions with the big donors. And when the NCAA found an especially sloppy booster—Nevin Shapiro, a scam artist who got ridiculous access to the program based mostly on the promise of donations—the association violated the law itself by using Shapiro’s fraud trial to coerce testimony about Miami’s rule-breaking. As Le Batard says, it was, “Like a handful of mall cops trying to control anarchy.”
This is one of two big stories that 30 For 30 has been telling in pieces, across various episodes: about how the NCAA protects a broken system by punishing young, powerless student-athletes. The other big story? How ESPN has changed over the decades, and not for the better. Because 30 For 30 has unlimited access to the ESPN archives, most of these documentaries use pieces of SportsCenter and other studio shows to help set the scene. By the end of “The U Part 2,” clips of sturdy professional anchors like Robin Roberts have been replaced by footage of yahoos like Colin Cowherd and Woody Paige, shouting at the camera and “embracing debate.” That’s part of what makes the episode so frustrating in its second half. But at the same time, the back half of “The U Part 2” points the way to what could be the future of 30 For 30. It’s obvious now how the whole series has to end: with the ultimate “sympathy for the devil” episode, about ESPN itself.
- Here’s an example of a fine bit of Corben storytelling technique. In the 2000 game against Florida State, which the Seminoles lost on a wide-right kick in the closing seconds, Corben keeps starting the play, then stopping it to cut to another interview snippet, then restarting it from a different angle. By the end, even people who remember that game may find themselves on the edge of their seats waiting to see whether or not that kick’s going to be good.
- As someone who used to work as a costumed character, I liked the parts of “The U Part 2” about Sebastian The Ibis: how he drew a penalty for excessive celebration that almost cost the team a key extra point, and how he was photographed at a bowling alley with the university’s president Donna Shalala and Nevin Shapiro. I always get a kick out of the idea that mascots are just walking among us, living their own lives of quiet, furry desperation.
- Since the last 30 For 30 review, the series has aired “Brothers In Exile” and “Rand University.” The latter I thought was another fine example of the “sympathy for the devil” doc, especially in the parts that deal directly with Randy Moss’ unjustifiably bad reputation in high school and college. But as with “The U Part 2,” I though the ending of “Rand University” was too rushed, trying to cram too much in at the last minute. As for “Brothers In Exile,” it was okay, but as a lifelong Braves fan I’ll always have a hard time warming up to Livan Hernandez.
- By the way, 30 For 30 recently had its fifth anniversary, and to celebrate, ESPN has put out a handsome Blu-ray box set containing 100 films, from across the series and its various iterations. Dedicated 30 For 30 fans may be interested in this list I wrote for another publication, in conjunction with that set.