Reel Talk: Alfred Spellman on ESPN's “The U”

The film goes from free ticket giveaways at Burger King to four national titles, and everything in between.

Howard Schnellenberger's favorite film is "The Music Man."

Why the dapper, gravel-voiced football coach loves a song and dance about a traveling salesman becomes plain in the first few minutes of the upcoming ESPN film "The U":  convinced by his wife to take the unenviable position of head coach at struggling Miami in 1979, Schnellenberger marched purposefully into Miami neighborhoods torn apart by race riots, crime, and poverty to sell his ambitious vision of a national championship to black recruits who'd never set foot in lily-white Coral Gables.

(For the best of them, the tricksy Schnellenberger left his famous pipe behind so he'd have an excuse to return; it on one occasion traveled to Northwestern Senior High with Melvin Bratton.)

Some kids considered Miami's reputation and laughed.

Some mothers feared their sons would "never see a bowl that didn't have salad in it."

Others sensed that Schnellenberger was no false-front Henry Hill, believed, and took a chance. 

The rest is history -- a history that would change a school, a city, and college football forever, for better or worse, and a history now brilliantly chronicled in ESPN Films' "The U" by Miami's own Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, the director-producer duo behind "Cocaine Cowboys." Both UM alum and hardcore 'Canes fans, they tackle the monumental and controversial history of the Hurricanes, warts and Pell Grant scandals and all, with just the right amount of humor and gravity and enthralling anecdotes from the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson, Michael Irvin, Alonzo Highsmith, Tolbert Bain, Bennie Blades, and Jeremy Shockey.

"The U" trailer

Villainous sometimes, yes, with an unapologetic swagger that equally horrified and enthralled an unprepared America, the program united what Time magazine had just termed Paradise Lost and produced some of the best talent to ever play the game. These Hurricanes rose from nothing, gyrated the excessive celebration rule into existence, and beat the hell out of everyone while doing it.

"Whether you're a lover or hater of the Hurricanes, it's a fun two hours," Corben says.

The film debuts Saturday, December 12 after the Heisman Trophy presentation as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, a look at the biggest stories of the network's first three decades as told by such directing luminaries as Barry Levinson and Spike Jonze.

We caught up with Spellman even as the final cut of the film was being shipped off to ESPN. 

You and Billy Corben are known for tackling some in-your-face stories: campus rape, the cocaine trade, the rise and fall of the Miami club scene in the '90s. It's a fair guess to say that the personalities of the '80s 'Canes aren't any less intriguing (though obviously less criminal) than some of your other documentary subjects. Do you have personal favorite from the interview process?
I think that’s certainly fair to say. The ‘80s ‘Canes brought the Muhammad Ali swagger to a team sport right at a time when the country had turned more conservative, the Reagan Revolution and the resulting war on drugs were top stories, the Cosby Show was the number one TV show, and hip hop was still in its infancy, represented by Run-DMC.
The personalities on those teams were larger than life when the college football establishment was used to the button-down preppiness of Penn State or Notre Dame.
Even for one of the few 30 for 30 films allowed a two-hour time slot, UM football from Schnellenberger to early '90s decline is a lot of ground to cover. There must be parts of the story of which you are particularly fond that couldn't be included; care to share?
We had originally thought we could take it all the way through the ’01 and ’02 squads, which are arguably better than some of the ‘80s teams. We quickly realized that wasn’t going to be possible. So we limited our focus to the Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, and Dennis Erickson eras. It was still tough to pack into a 2 hour block (running time is 1 hour, 42 minutes), but we did lose a lot of great stuff that we will reconstruct for the DVD. I really like the QB controversy between Bernie Kosar and Vinnie Testaverde when Schnellenberger was forced to make a decision before the ’83 season.
How many hours did you have to trim down? What will happen with all the leftover material?
We did something like 40 interviews, and had more archival footage than you can possibly imagine. Our partner David Cypkin, who edited “The U,” says it was the toughest project we’ve ever done – more difficult than “Cocaine Cowboys.” The leftovers will show up as deleted scenes on the DVD. Or, as Billy likes to joke, in our sequel, “The U 2.”
Butch Davis: Lying, Godless whore? Or the single greatest recruiter in the history of everything, ever?
Hahaha – well, we didn’t interview Butch. Everyone has their own opinion, but I will say that the team Coker inherited in ’01 was arguably the greatest team UM ever put together. Butch deserves credit for that.
You guys go to a lot of effort to share your projects with fans, using a blog, Ustream, Twitter, Facebook and more to post updates and behind-the-scenes material in a way that's a lot more natural and a lot less contrived than most film studios. Do you benefit creatively from audience give-and-take, or just in terms of marketing?
Absolutely. We’ve made the interaction key to our creative process. Ultimately, we’re making our films for our audience, so why shouldn’t they know what we’re doing and have some input? They let us know when we’re getting it right and, more importantly, when we’ve strayed off course. It keeps us focused and keeps the audience engaged. I’d like to do it a lot more.
The Herald detailed the difficulty you encountered when Miami's athletic department blocked access to certain employees and attempted to sway alumni from participating. Have you heard from school officials since the article went to print?
No. I just think it’s sad. We invited the athletic department heads to the screening, but they declined.
Is there a portion of the film you're most excited for 'Canes fans to see?
Not one portion – the whole film. We set out to make the definitive documentary of ‘Canes football and we did it. Watching it reminds me of all those Saturdays I spent in the Orange Bowl as a kid in the ‘80s. The attachment fans of Ohio State or Michigan or Notre Dame have to their teams is well documented, but I’m really glad we’ve been able to do this for ‘Canes fans – we may be a smaller group, but every bit as proud and passionate about ‘Canes football.
Do you expect that "The U" will change the perception of the teams from that era?
Hahaha, no. If you loved the ‘Canes teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s, you will love this film. If you hated them then, this will remind you of why you did. However, I hope the non-fans walk away from the film with a better perspective on the team, the historical context, the culture it created, and, most importantly, the incredible turnaround of the program from the brink of extinction in the late ‘70s to perhaps the greatest college football dynasty ever in a few short years.
Though you've had so much success since your first film "Raw Deal" premiered at Sundance, and you're working with the likes of ESPN, HBO, and Jerry Bruckheimer, you haven't packed up for Hollywood. What keeps you Miami-based and Miami-focused?
We were born here. It’s home. Hollywood has absolutely no allure, whatsoever. The industry is evolving so rapidly that the lumbering studio dinosaurs will ultimately die off. The audience is too fractured, which is great for boutique studios like Rakontur, because we can compete on a more level playing field for eyeballs. Hemingway once said the way to deal with Hollywood is to go to the California/Nevada state line, throw your manuscript over, and have them throw a sack of money back, and leave. That’s the way we like it.
What was your first 'Canes game experience? Were you already a fan, or was it the promise of one day seeing your own car blocked in on someone's lawn that did it?
‘Canes football dominated Miami when I was growing up in the ‘80s. My dad was a huge fan; every Saturday, the game was on TV at home or on the radio in the car. It sunk in. I remember how the Orange Bowl used to shake. Walking up those old circular ramps, getting boxed in someone’s front yard. The smell of arepas and hot dogs from the vendors. I miss the Orange Bowl more than anything.
What's your favorite place to take in a 'Canes game?
Well, since we lost the Orange Bowl, I won’t go to Pro Player/Landshark, period. Can’t stand the place. I’m not a big sports bar guy. These days I’m most likely watching the game at the bar at Joe Allen or Joe’s with Heineken in hand.
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