TV Review: ESPN’s ‘The U Part 2’

Credit ESPN with again showcasing a “30 for 30” warts-and-all documentary tied to its coverage of the Heisman Trophy presentation — one that exposes the ample hypocrisy surrounding college athletics, and the governing NCAA’s enforcement procedures. Picking up where “The U” left off in 2009, “The U Part 2” possesses an almost epic quality in documenting the fall, rise and fall of the U. of Miami’s football program, which has churned out first-round draft picks and salacious scandals in equal measure. Directed by Billy Corben, the film doesn’t hide its admiration for the school’s success, tempered by the abundance of uniquely Miami-style vice that accompanied it.

In essence, this sequel is framed by two Sports Illustrated articles: one calling for the university to disband its football program in the 1990s, and a second renewing the assertion — another national championship and new wave of transgressions later — in 2011.

The Hurricanes were labeled “Broken Beyond Repair” by SI not long after bringing in Coach Butch Davis, who quickly turned around the program, implementing a zero-tolerance approach that included asking players to turn in their guns. Davis’ more creative ideas involved circumventing an NCAA-imposed reduction in scholarships by signing recruits to the track team and having them participate in football as walk-ons.

Like his predecessors, though, Davis bolted for an NFL job, leaving his successor, low-key assistant Larry Coker, as a sort-of caretaker to lightly manage a self-motivated group of stars hungry for payback. They proceeded to run roughshod over college football, and the only thing gaudier than their on-field dominance might have been their extracurricular exploits, such as a much-ballyhooed brawl outside a New Orleans strip club with opponent Florida before the Sugar Bowl.

Once again, however, success caught up with the program, which is where “The U Part 2” truly gets interesting, chronicling how Ponzi-scheming booster Nevin Shapiro used a nebbish-y equipment manager, Sean Allen, to gain access to players and offer forbidden and illicit benefits — a bit of rule-flouting somewhat eclipsed by the shady tactics NCAA investigators employed in their overzealous efforts to expose them.

Corben spends a little too much time detailing Miami’s early-21st-century winning streak, but the former players (many now in the NFL) do a commendable job in colorfully relating quirks and anecdotes about those teams.

At its best, “The U Part 2” tackles the arbitrary nature of NCAA rules and how they’re prosecuted — from footage of Shapiro, wearing a Hurricanes jersey, brazenly greeting players as they break from the tunnel, to tales of rival schools leveraging the cloud that hovered over Miami to land prized recruits.

Perhaps foremost, given ESPN’s enormous investment in college football, the sports titan is to be applauded for daring to affix these looks at the dark side of the game to the glittering hype associated with the Heisman, as the network did with “Pony Excess,” a 2010 “30 for 30” about SMU receiving the “death penalty” — that is, having its football program eliminated for a proscribed period — for a dreaded “lack of institutional control,” a charge also leveled against Miami.

Viewed in concert, those documentaries make clear that SMU and Miami weren’t anomalies in college athletics as much as examples, on steroids, of its incongruities.

Mostly, “The U Part 2” is a thought-provoking appetizer before ESPN helps inaugurate the annual gluttony of more than three dozen bowl games — reminding us that tossed around by the gales of big money and the necessity to win, the NCAA’s stated ideals frequently become, like a hurricane, just so much wind.

TV Review: ESPN's 'The U Part 2'

(Documentary; ESPN, Sat. Dec. 13, 9 p.m. ET)

Production: Produced by Rakontur.

Crew: Producers, Billy Corben, Alfred Spellman; director, Corben; camera, Alexa Mignon Harris; co-producer/editor, David Cypkin; music producer, 10K Islands. 120 MIN.

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