ESPN always has displayed interest in South Florida-flavored sports documentaries, and we get another high-profile one this weekend, with the 1988 UM-Notre Dame classic football game chronicled in a film debuting at 9 p.m. Saturday after the Heisman Trophy show.
Meanwhile, John Dahl – executive producer of ESPN Films & Original Content – said he’s very much open, eventually, to two projects that would be of great interest to local viewers: a documentary on deceased Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and another on the Heat’s Big Three era.
Dahl said “a couple” of people have inquired about producing a Fernandez documentary in the wake of his death in a September boating accident, but Dahl believes it’s too soon.
“For someone as compelling and dynamic as Jose Fernandez was, it's natural that would occur to more than a few people,” Dahl said. “We have an open mind to the possibility, maybe down the road; we will continue to keep it in the back of our minds.
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“It's all so stunning and heartbreaking, just devastating. It just happened. There's a benefit to time and distance to stories [as opposed to rushing something on the air soon after it happened]. That's been proven true with our past films.”
We hear award-winning Miami-based filmmaker Billy Corben has pitched the Fernandez film to ESPN.
“There will be a lot of competition to tell this story,” said Corben, who has produced three acclaimed documentaries for ESPN, including two on the UM football program. “It’s a story we intend to actively pursue until told right. We would like to work with his family to make that happen.
“His story is already a fairy tale. His was a story we were tracking since the start of his career. It was always a story we thought we would tell when he retired decades from now. He lived an extraordinarily beautiful, inspiring, cinematic life.”
Regarding a Heat/Big Three venture, Dahl said: “I have thought about that. We haven't gotten into any sort of deep discussion. At some point, it would make great sense down the road. Nobody has presented us with a proposal. We're always looking for an interesting angle or fresh take.”
As for the UM-Notre Dame documentary, it was titled Catholics vs. Convicts in a reference to a shirt created by a Notre Dame student before that 1988 game. This movie marks the third time that a UM film is scheduled in the post-Heisman Trophy window, arguably the most prestigious ESPN documentary time slot.
“It's one of the greatest college football games in history, so it's a natural hook for the post-Heisman slot,” Dahl said. “That moniker, Catholics vs. Convicts, has stood the test of time over 25 years.”
Director and narrator Patrick Creadon, a Notre Dame senior at the time of the game, was friends with the men at the epicenter of the Catholics vs. Convicts shirt controversy, Joe Fredrick and Pat Walsh.
Fredrick said his brother suggested the “Catholics vs Convicts” shirt and he pitched the idea to Walsh, who said my “immediate reaction was, ‘No way. I’ll get kicked out of school.’ Joe convinced me I will be behind the scenes, and he… would be selling them and it wouldn’t really be my shirt.”
Fredrick and Walsh sold between 2000 and 3000 shirts but both eventually were disciplined by the school, with Walsh dismissed from the basketball team.
The film spends about 30 minutes chronicling fourth-ranked Notre Dame’s 31-30 win over top-ranked UM and generally allots far more time to Notre Dame, including the rebuilding of the program after the Gerry Faust era and the aftermath of UM’s 58-7 thumping of the Irish in 1985.
“Ultimately, I was not concerned about that [imbalance of attention given to Notre Dame] because we did The U and The U Part 2, so we did four hours on Miami over the life of 30 for 30 and Billy Corben did an outstanding job on those two films,” Dahl said. “This was an opportunity to do something different. We wanted a different point of view from The U and The U Part 2. We wanted this one to feel very different.
“Even coming from a Notre Dame point of view, Pat Creadon did a good job of being fair to Miami and not dismissing them and making them the butt of jokes. He wanted to show that Miami didn’t deserve that moniker.”
Dahl liked that former UM quarterback Steve Walsh appeared at ESPN’s and Notre Dame’s late-night screening of the film on campus the night before the teams played on Oct. 29. “That shows a lot,” Dahl said.
The UM-Notre Dame film will be ESPN’s fourth UM documentary. The network previously aired a half-hour film on the Nebraska/Miami 1984 Orange Bowl game for the national title.
And ESPN has produced a South Florida-flavored documentary on jai alai and a 30-for-30 short on the 1987 Miami murder of designer/speedboat race Don Aronow.
Documentaries involving halcyon-era UM teams remain appealing to ESPN because “Miami, especially of that era of Jimmy Johnson, Howard Schnellenberger, Dennis Erickson, and even Butch Davis and Larry Coker, has a rich history that fans are drawn to,” Dahl said.
Among notable sound bites involving UM in Saturday’s film:
• Notre Dame tackle Chris Zorich, on his perception of UM football at the time: “They were coming off the bus wearing Army fatigues. Who does that? Are you nuts? This is sports, something that’s special. Why are you ruining that?”
• Walsh said Johnson, UM’s coach at the time, “would say, ‘Play the way you know to play’” and by saying that, Walsh said he essentially authorized players to “dance, jump around, point fingers if that’s what you want to do. Put on a show.”
• Johnson: “People confused the bad boy image [of those UM teams] with free spirit, emotional, passionate. At times, especially when we’re winning every week, that played wrong to some of the opponents.”
• Then-UM offensive lineman Leon Searcy: “We despised Notre Dame. We always looked at them as briefcase-carrying prep boys.”
• Notre Dame professor Dr. Richard Pierce, who is black, said there were racial overtones with the Catholics vs. Convicts shirts: “It’s ungracious. It’s not very Catholic of you to term somebody a convict… The image [that] comes [to] mind is blacks.”
• Johnson, on the referees ruling that UM’s Cleveland Gary fumbled on the Notre Dame goal-line (a highly questionable call): “If we had replay, Lou Holtz would have never won a national championship and I’d have another.”
The film serves up a few interesting nuggets, including the fact former Cowboys coach Tom Landry ordered 12 Catholics vs. Convicts shirts and then-Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle also asked for some.
UM fans who aren’t particularly interested in Notre Dame history might grow restless during parts of the first hour, but the film generally does good work putting the classic game into historical perspective.
AROUND THE DIAL
• Fox Sports Florida, in consultation with the Marlins, ideally would like to use one or two TV analysts instead of employing four again (Eduardo Perez, Al Leiter, Preston Wilson, Marlins employee Jeff Conine).
Fox likes Perez, has discussed making another run at Washington Nationals TV analyst FP Santangelo and hasn’t told Leiter what it plans to do.
• Midday host Orlando Alzugaray returned to WQAM for the first time Friday since recent heart surgery.... Fox Sports Sun’s Jason Jackson won multiple EMMY awards at the statewide Suncoast Emmy Awards in Orlando last weekend, with Heat voices Eric Reid and Tony Fiorentino among others recognized.
• HBO’s Ballers, the series starring Dwyane Johnson, is moving filming from Miami to Los Angeles after it was approved to receive $8.3M in tax credits for shooting its next 10 episodes in California.
• If you missed it, NFL insider Adam Schefter’s new deal with ESPN includes a few NBA sideline reporting assignments early in the NFL offseason.