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Tuesday
Nov132012

INTERVIEW: Uncle Luke's (@unclelukereal1) Defense Never Rests?

On the 12th hole at Normandy Shores Golf Club, beyond the private gate, amid lush green fairways and clusters of palm trees, Luther Campbell steered his cart past several ibises. He mentioned the yacht he once owned. He cackled.

Those were the days: The U and 2 Live Crew, Tipper Gore and the Supreme Court, censorship and free speech and parental-advisory stickers. The boat was a 50-footer. Campbell named it Scandalous. He put “from Liberty City,” his Miami neighborhood, on the back, so the “police would know why there’s all these black people partying on this boat and that we didn’t steal it.”

They took Scandalous to the Columbus Day regatta most years, the party to end all parties, an event the writer Tom Wolfe recently called the “most hedonistic” he ever witnessed.

Campbell drained a 20-foot putt from the fringe. “You’d put on a life vest, jump in the water and go from boat to boat,” he said. “People having all sorts of wild sex. All these lawyers and politicians and executives. That’s when I knew white people were crazy!”

These were the same people, Campbell said, who tried to put him in jail. Yet there they were, “out here with a big freakfest!”

Three hours after standing on the green, Campbell, 51, paced the football field at Northwestern High School in Liberty City, a whistle around his neck. He won the right to be on one in a familiar venue: a court of law.

His players, who sometimes refer to him as Coach Crazy, are only vaguely familiar with his music, with one album declared obscene, another titled “Banned in the U.S.A.” and the song “Me So Horny” among the more printable titles. Here, they know Coach Luke, not the rap nicknames Uncle Luke or Luke Skyywalker.

They know him as the coach who spends late-night hours analyzing game film, not the man who once made music and drank until sunrise. They know he will drill them, over and over, on their defensive assignments. He will blow that whistle. He will implore them to set the edge and mind their gaps. He will say in a postpractice talk: “Forget football, gentlemen. This is about life. You have to decide how bad you want it.”

He will tell them not to swear.

One player, Joseph Robinson, a junior committed to Florida State, said: “My uncle and my mom used to play 2 Live Crew at home. They said he’s the reason there’s explicit music right now. I hope he’s a reason we win a state championship.”

This is Luther Campbell now: married to a lawyer, raising a 3-year-old named Blake, living on a lake, starting his own line of rum. He loves the album “Jagged Little Pill” by Alanis Morissette and the song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve. He is asked how this all ties together, Coach Luke and Uncle Luke and Mr. Obscenity turned molder of young minds, despite his past, the reputation, the rapsheet. He does not see this as a redemption story. He does not view himself as changed. Same guy, different job. Same play, next act.

“I’m a fighter,” Campbell said.

Q: How much have you spent, lifetime, in court costs?

A: Oh, man. I spent too much.

Q: Hundreds of thousands?

A: Probably a million.

Q: How many days have you spent in court?

A: Probably about six months.

Campbell arrived for golf wearing a white University of Miami visor. The course manager, recognizing him, said: “You can never defeat a Hurricane. You can only hope to survive one.”

“That’s right,” Campbell replied.

Years ago, when Campbell lived on a golf course, his doctor suggested that he learn the game to relieve stress. He whittled his handicap to 5 and had “white hot” emblazoned on his putter. He sold Scandalous to play more. The obsession only added to his stress.

He plays little during football season. Too many responsibilities.

“I ain’t out there for X’s and O’s,” he said as he chipped a 7-iron onto the green. “I’m out there for Jimmys and Joes. I say that all the time.”

He laughed and said, “It’s about accountability and responsibility.”

Campbell’s parents — his mother a beautician with Bahamian blood, his father from Jamaican ancestry — emphasized both qualities to their five sons. When Campbell, the youngest, graduated high school, his mother forced him to leave the house each weekday at 8:30 a.m. He could not return until 4:30 p.m., job or not.

His mother named him Luther after Martin Luther King Jr. On weekends, his uncle would make Campbell devour The Miami Herald, searching for what his uncle called invisible chains, the way his uncle said the newspaper portrayed people between the lines.

“They’re talking about us in there,” Campbell said his uncle told him.

Campbell never expected to stumble into politics. Not in music. Not in high school football. But in the name his mother gave him and the lessons from his uncle, he believed his upbringing prepared him for a lifetime worth of turbulence, much of it political. There was even a quixotic run for mayor of Miami-Dade County.

“When they came after me, I had an idea,” he said.

Campbell’s brothers became a psychologist, a Navy pilot, a comptroller and an executive chef. The pilot, Campbell said, wanted to become an astronaut, and blamed Campbell when not selected because, Campbell reasoned, “they don’t want no 2 Live Crew brother in space.”

Campbell grew up five blocks from the school where he now coaches, but to play football in Pop Warner and in high school he took a bus to Miami Beach. In Pop Warner, he played for Alex Medina, a no-nonsense coach. In high school, he quit football when a new coach shattered his professional dreams.

All of this also influenced him: one coach who inspired him and the other who did not, the rich classmates from Star Island, the Cubans he befriended, the long bus rides, the opportunities Liberty City lacked, the sometimes cold reception back in the old neighborhood.

One day at home, on a break from school, Campbell pulled a record from the forbidden spot on the shelf. He did it to impress his friends and their female company. His parents listened to a lot of jazz, Burt Bacharach and Aretha Franklin. But this record, by Redd Foxx, for adults only, well, this was different.

“Here’s the guy from ‘Sanford and Son,’ and he’s on this record cussing like a sailor!” Campbell said. “It was amazing to even hear it. It was like we were the only ones who had it.”

Q: Did you ever think, maybe I’ll let this one go?

A: Sometimes, I look at all the free speech stuff, how we ended up in the Supreme Court, and I’m like, what was I doing? I spent all this money, and nobody cared. But what they tried to do to us, that was un-American. It’s worth the fight.

After graduation, Campbell worked as a busboy at a hospital, as an intern at a local radio station and as a D.J. on weekends. One night, he met a group named 2 Live Crew.

Campbell became their frontman. He sold their music out of the trunk of his car at first and later founded his own record label. He intended the music to be funny, like Richard Pryor for the rap set, not incendiary.

“We crossed over, and white kids started buying this,” Campbell said. “It became, they’re going to start listening to other rap music and they’re going to start hearing the struggles of other African-Americans. We’ll end up living in a world where everybody cares about everybody.”

As Campbell said this, he sat poolside, behind his sprawling home, near the grill and the lake. He smiled and revealed the familiar gap between his front teeth.

In the old days, in the heyday, which Campbell described as “crazy” and “so crazy” and “really, really crazy,” he would fill the studio with women and Bacardi rum and make music based on what happened, what he saw, what he did. That was essentially his writing process. Sometimes, Campbell said, he woke up the next morning and listened, with zero recollection, to the music they made the night before.

In 1990, a federal district court judge, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., declared 2 Live Crew’s album “As Nasty as They Wanna Be” obscene. Clerks who sold the album faced prosecution. Tipper Gore was one of many who tried to have the group’s music banned.

The album went double platinum.

Campbell’s football players mostly know his more recent work, the artists he said he signed, like Pitbull. This year, Campbell attended the BET Music Awards, after a rapper named French Montana sampled Campbell in his new hit “Pop That.” Campbell’s players made fun of his outfit and the way he danced. It was as if they had been embarrassed by their father. That is how they see him now, less of a celebrity, more of an old ball coach.

The Campbell they know, he is serious. He grew up in their neighborhood, surrounded by the same dangers: drugs, crime and poverty. It is a place, his players noted, that is sometimes captured in “The First 48,” a television show in which cameras follow homicide investigators. Some players need rides home. Some need cleats. Some need guidance. Some need food.

“If I never met him, I’d probably be dead or in jail,” said Marquise Blanchard, a defensive end. “He took me under his wing like I was his son. Most of us don’t got no dads. But he’s a daddy figure.”

Campbell patterned his style after Coach Medina, tough mostly, but tender when the moment called for it. At practice, he told his defenders to follow their assigned men to the bathroom. He scolded one player: “And you call yourself a lineman? And you can’t block him? And you expect to play?” He told his players about the 1995 team, the one that won games with defense, the scores 7-0, 13-6. This team often wins that way, too.

After practices, he gave speeches, to the defense and to the team. He delivered them in the same booming baritone that once ranked among the most notorious in music.

“That’s the great thing about defense,” he said in one speech. “You can stop people and you can score. On offense, you can’t do that.”

Q: So you never paid a Miami player?

A: I’m not going to say that.

Q: You prefer to say nothing?

A: Right. I plead the Fifth on that one. Would I give somebody some money who needs to pay for their kid? Yes.

Throughout the chaos surrounding 2 Live Crew, Campbell retained his love for football, even showcased it. He posed for album covers in University of Miami jackets, Miami underwear, Miami baseball caps.

“You had two things blowing up at the same time,” he said. “These bad boys of rap, and the team kind of took on that whole attitude that we had.”

As Campbell became famous, he started to mingle more with the Hurricanes. He saw himself as a mentor, a conduit between the university and players from the old neighborhood.

In 1994, The Miami Herald reported that Campbell paid players bounties for big plays, $200 for an interception returned for a touchdown, $100 for a sack and so forth; that players frequented Campbell’s nightclub; that Campbell was present on the team’s sideline.

In a recent 90-minute interview, he said he never paid for a car or an energy bill, never dropped off a bag full of money and never influenced the recruiting process at Miami. He noted his lawsuit against Nevin Shapiro, a former Miami booster who told Yahoo Sports last year from prison that Campbell provided players with improper benefits.

Campbell drew a distinction between helping athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds with meals, clothes or admission to a nightclub and bribing them to attend a certain university. He said his work at Miami stopped players from “shooting semiautomatic weapons” on campus and helped the Hurricanes win five national championships.

He kept coming back to the same word: principle.

“The N.C.A.A. needs to stop sugarcoating this, stop treating them like slaves,” Campbell said. “With the attitude ‘we give a warm meal, we give them a shirt, we give them sneakers, we give them food in the cafeteria.’ What’s the difference in giving a slave some clothes?”

Earlier this season, Campbell took on Northwestern High School when officials asked him not to wear his Miami visor at practice. He threatened to quit, again, based on principle alone. The school, he said emphatically, would not tell him what to wear. His current association with Miami, though, is minimal compared with before.

Of the football program, Campbell added: “You’ll probably never see Miami be that dominant again. Because now the suits have control again.”

The old days, the 2 Live Crew concerts and Miami football games, the yacht and the rum and the girls, are mostly over now. Mostly. The group broke up years ago. Campbell went bankrupt.

Both times, Campbell ended up back in the same place: court.

Q: So you had to sue to be able to coach?

A: All my life, I was in suits: fights, wars, defending myself, defending the art, defending whatever. That was my last fight. That was my last stand.

There is Campbell on the practice field, after the morning phone calls, after 18 holes, his Miami visor replaced with a yellow one. His energy is endless, his attention to detail acute. “Mind your gap!” he says. “Get there!” he says. “You’re supposed to be in Tampa 2!” he says, barking the name of a defense.

Campbell started his youth program, Liberty City Optimists, some 25 years ago, so local children could play football without having to take a bus to Miami Beach. He spent more than $80,000. That program fed into the high schools, which produced hundreds of college players and several professionals. It also helped players from different parts of Liberty City, divided sometimes into warring sections, learn how to get along.

For years, Campbell charted the players who left his youth program. Too many ended up dead, in jail, out of school. Campbell decided then he wanted to coach. He took players to football camps at colleges, exposed them to new worlds, to choices he never had.

When Campbell started at Miami Central, another nearby high school, a friend with the Jets sent him video of Coach Rex Ryan. Campbell borrowed much of his philosophy from it, and his defense, particularly against the run, ranks among the best in Florida this season.

Over three consecutive practices Campbell walked his players through their assignments: which gaps, what plays to expect, who to cover when. He did this for hours.

He later revealed many of the challenges involved: the three players on his defense who have children, one of whom was taken to court for child support; the players who cannot afford cleats, who work to support single-parent families, who watched friends die and saw relatives thrown in jail. All this for $1,500 each season. That fails to cover even gas.

At Northwestern, Campbell’s past is there, always in the background. College coaches who visit tell him how they partied to his music during college, ask him for photographs, autographs, old war stories. Campbell is more concerned with the technical nuances of the 4-3 defense, with blitz packages, with swim moves and bull rushes.

Initially, the state of Florida refused to grant Campbell his coaching certification, and he spent much of the past two years gathering certified letters from every jurisdiction he was arrested in. He needed letters of recommendation. The court file, testimony alone, runs well over 100 pages.

“I understand the state putting those barriers in front of him,” his wife, Kristin Campbell, said. “Because I really think they wanted him to go away.”

They met at a deli, then again at a nightclub. She knew of 2 Live Crew, the party anthems, but not of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, the case argued in the Supreme Court. Then she went to law school and Campbell, then her boyfriend, served as the guest speaker for her class. Her family did not object to the relationship, until the wedding neared, at which point Kristin said her father received a barrage of concerned e-mails and wondered, “Have I been fooled?”

The state’s case hinged on a 2003 incident in South Carolina. His version: He did an appearance at a nightclub. Women performed sexual acts onstage. One later told the police she had been raped. Campbell, who had someone videotape him for the entirety of each appearance, sent that video and a list of signed releases to the police.

Prosecutors instead charged Campbell with a lewd act. Campbell, under the advice of the lawyer he hired locally, came to an agreement with officials. He would not perform in the state for five years. The charge has been described as a felony, but whether Campbell pleaded to that or something else remains unclear.

“The only fight I didn’t fight!” Campbell said.

Florida, naturally, brought this up when it denied his certification. The state also argued that Campbell did not disclose his criminal record on his application.

Ultimately, the judge, Robert E. Meale, recommended that Florida allow Campbell to coach, that the work he did in the community outweighed the explicit nature of his music, that the present outweighed the past. The recommendation came with several conditions. The state appealed.

Q: What bothers you now?

A: The N.F.L. They live by different rules and standards than the rest of us. Roger Goodell is judge, jury and executioner. Players in the league, they’re exercising their right to free speech. And he fines them for it! Ain’t that something! That’s got to be a violation of labor laws.

Early in their relationship, Kristin went on the road with Campbell. She saw the dancers, the nudity, the shows. And yet, she sensed that Campbell, underneath this Uncle Luke persona, really wanted to be a family man. Imagine that. The “Me So Horny” guy a family man.

That is essentially what Campbell is now, and for the first time. He has five children from five different women. One wrote a book, “I Am Not My Father’s Daughter,” that painted a scathing picture of their relationship.

“If anything I looked at in life, I should have been more responsible,” Campbell said. “I just feel so bad for my kids and how they was raised pretty much without a dad.”

He is asked if the youth football league, the coaching stint, all of his work with children, if that is a byproduct of what he lacked with his own children. He shakes his head. He changes the subject. Blake likes to jump on him, he says. It hurts just to discipline the little guy.

Over the years, Campbell has been sued by bandmates and business partners, for obscenity and child support, until the courtroom felt like a second home. He believes those days are over now. His wife does not seem so sure. She stopped reading what he posted on Twitter, stopped worrying about what others said, or thought.

Asked about the most recent court case, she laughed and said, “Which one?”

“It’s all really funny to me,” she added. “I saw a guy that had a lifestyle that a lot of men want to have and try to emulate. And knowing that, and knowing that we go home and watch ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ it’s just, it’s different.”

Campbell, once the obscenity guy, the enemy of conservatives, the embodiment of evil, now loves cupcakes and cooking and despises Skip Bayless with a passion he once reserved for Tipper Gore. He is back at practice. Northwestern is conducting a goal-line drill in the middle of a rainstorm. Sideways rain pelts a nearby roof, ping, ping, ping.

Coach Luke just stands there, whistle in his mouth, hands clasped behind his back. That moment seemed to connect all his various incarnations: a calm man amid another storm, on the hunt for his next fight.

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