After years of playing well above expectations and pulling out last-second clutch victories, it was only a matter of time before fate had enough and gave Marquette a stinker of a year.
The current Marquette basketball season has not been one of utter failure, but rather of mere disappointment. Barring a last-second winning streak and miraculous trip through the Big East tournament, last night’s loss to Creighton likely punched MU’s ticket to the NIT, making it their first year without a tourney appearance since the 2004-05 season.
There is something, however, Marquette fans can look forward to this March, and unless some sort of time paradox breaks out, this trip to the tournament is guaranteed to come with a happy ending.
"Untucked," produced as a part of ESPN’s acclaimed "30 for 30" film series, is a short documentary about Marquette’s 1977 national championship winning squad, coached by the legendary Al McGuire. As the title implies, however, the focus isn’t simply on the team, its beloved coach and their triumphant run through the tournament. No, the 15-minute long doc focuses on their infamous jerseys, which – with the Marquette name well below the players’ numbers – were specifically designed to be worn untucked.
The film is the brainchild of Danny Pudi, star of NBC’s "Community," 2001 Marquette graduate and avid basketball fan. He was first approached about making a short for ESPN after posting a Twitter rave about another "30 for 30" feature called "Benji." Seeing this, ESPN reached out to the actor about possibly directing a short for them, and he said yes.
Now he just had to come up with an idea. One, Pudi recalled, was telling the story of championship team from an usher’s perspective, based on his own personal experience working as an usher at the United Center during the Bulls glory years in the ’90s. The other story idea with legs was based on Pudi’s other basketball love: Marquette.
"(My wife) really liked it, and I trust her judgment – more than mine," Pudi said. "That’s what I pitched to ESPN. They really liked it, and we went for it."
After making his name in front of the camera, "Untucked" served as Pudi’s first trip behind it, a completely different animal. However, he had several inspirations tucked under his belt, including many of the "30 for 30" specials, "The King of Kong" and "Capturing the Friedmans" ("You can probably find something in here that reminds you of ‘Man on Wire,’" Pudi joked).
"In some ways, I would take pieces of them with me home every night when I would start editing and thinking about what I wanted to with my piece," Pudi said. "I love documentaries. I’m always watching them. I’m always fascinated by real stories with real people."
And he believed he found one for himself with the ’77 MU national championship team and its iconic jersey.
"It’s one little sliver of a bigger story," Pudi said. "People are familiar with Marquette and the championship team because it was an amazing year. It’s the only championship we have so far (asterisk). I don’t think a lot of people are familiar with what went on behind the scenes. (The jersey) gives a lot of insight into that team, its mentality, its coach, the program and that time period. It's a way to sort of touch on all of that through one piece of fabric."
Enter Marquette legend Bo Ellis, one of the stars of the championship team and the designer of the classic untucked jersey. At the time, Ellis was taking a fashion design class at Mount Mary College.
"The idea really came from Lloyd Walton, who was our point guard and my roommate," Ellis said. "He went to Coach McGuire and said, ‘Coach, why don’t you let Bo design the uniforms?’ And Coach said, ‘Sure. Bo, put something together and let me look at it.’ So Lloyd and I went back to the dorms, and I started drawing up a uniform. I had colored pencils and colored it all in.
"The next day, I walked into Coach McGuire’s office, set it on the table and said, ‘Alright Coach; here you go.’ Coach looked at the uniforms and looked at what I did and said, ‘Hmm … Bo, this is pretty interesting. Let me take this to the people at Medalist. Let me get back to you, and we’ll put something together.’"
The big feature that captured everyone’s attention was the fact that the jerseys were purposefully made to be untucked (a look the NCAA later banned in the mid-'80s).
"I used to always take my jersey out, and actually Earl Tatum was the same way," Ellis said. "Earl and I didn’t like having our jerseys tucked into our pants, so that’s how the whole thing came about."
Almost 40 years and several jersey redesigns later, Pudi reached out to Ellis to talk about his winning – both on and off the court – uniform. He liked the idea; he just had one request.
"The only thing that I asked him about doing was, ‘Listen, I never got paid anything for doing this,'" Ellis recalled. "'I’ll do it for you. I don’t want any money, but I have a foundation for my daughter, Nicole Ellis, who went to Marquette. I lost my daughter 11 years ago to a rare and uncommon liver disease. I’ll do this for you. All I ask you to do is make a contribution to my daughter’s foundation.’ He agreed, and that’s how it all took place."
They teamed back up last February and shot interviews over the course of a long, draining weekend. Pudi then snagged interviews with other former Marquette players, such as Doc Rivers, and basketball journalists. It took a long year of researching, then painfully editing and whittling down hours of terrific footage for "Untucked" to come together.
Pudi noted there are some clips, such as an archival interview with McGuire talking about fear as motivation and Bo talking about discovering his interest in fashion, that he still wishes he could've gotten into the final product.
Finally, though, "Untucked" made its big premiere last month at the Sundance Film Festival, then – potentially even more intimidating – its local premiere (as well as Ellis’ first look at the doc) last weekend at Marquette’s Weasler Auditorium.
The hometown crowd at the Weasler took well to "Untucked." The film is a high-energy documentary that covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, mixing cool archival footage – including shots of the team rocking some terrific ’70s fashions – and current interviews with entertaining results. It's a fast 15 minutes, filled with insight, laughs and Ellis using the phrase "nut huggers" to describe their old shorts.
"Untucked" will make its wide release on ESPN.com next month, just in time for March Madness. For Pudi, the film is a tribute to his alma mater and the sport he loves, as well as a solid first step into the world of directing that could lead to bigger work in the future.
"I'm a fan of history and a huge fan of basketball, so it was a chance for me to incorporate both of those sides of my brain," Pudi said. "Hopefully I didn't mess it up ... I was kind of learning as I was going, so I still don't feel like I know what I'm doing. It's been great because it's been a complete process of discovery. I'd love to do it again."
As for Ellis, it’s a chance to look back at his glory years, as an athlete and as a fashion guru.
"Almost 40-something years later, it's going to be interesting to see how the final piece goes," Ellis said. "It just kind of shows you how funny life is and how things go. I'm sure Coach McGuire will be smiling down on this whole procedure and this whole process for sure."
He only wishes he had done one thing back in the day.
"The only thing that I regret is that Coach didn’t tell me to get a patent on it to get paid for it. But I’m sure the NCAA wouldn’t have allowed them to give me any money for it anyway."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.