Miami meets Notre Dame tonight. It’s the third-ranked Irish against the undefeated, seventh-ranked Hurricanes. Just like the old days. The game matters again. What a stage.
But it will never be that stage.
What were the old days like?
Bernard Clark, who played for Leto High and was a star linebacker for Miami in the late ’80s, recalled the instantly classic 1988 game in South Bend, a 31-30 Irish victory.
"One thing stood out more than anything," Clark said through his laughter. "The game is over. We’d lost. Notre Dame fans are running all over the field. I’m walking to the locker room. This priest finds me. He fights his way through the crowd. He finds me — and he gives me the finger. I head up the tunnel thinking, ‘Did a priest just give me the finger?’?"
The teams. The rivalry. The T-shirt.
Catholics vs. Convicts.
"It was so real back then, so intense," said Pat Terrell, who played receiver then safety for Notre Dame after his days at Lakewood High. "It seemed so personal."
"It was worlds colliding," said Maurice Crum, a former Hillsborough High star and All-America linebacker at Miami. "We were the bad boys of college football, and they were the clean-cut good guys. That wasn’t true, but it’s what they said."
In the late 1980s, Miami and Notre Dame took turns knocking each other off on the way to winning national championships. And on an October day in 1988, they came together for an electrifying, controversial Notre Dame win, a win Miami players insist was robbery.
"Oh, for sure, we won," Clark said.
It was two teams at each other’s throats. Notre Dame, the most storied program in college football history. Miami, brash new king of the hill. America stopped to watch.
Notre Dame backed away from the rivalry after the 1990 game (an Irish win over the second-ranked Hurricanes). Miami joined the Big East. Today marks only the fourth meeting since 1990.
Notre Dame’s ACC rotation means the schools won’t play again until 2024.
None of the players in tonight’s game were alive in 1988. But the recent ESPN 30 for 30 Catholics vs. Convicts has been educational.
"It introduced a new generation to the rivalry," Terrell said. "That 30 for 30 made it fun again."
October 15, 1988 is at the center of the rivalry’s universe. Jimmy Johnson brought his top-ranked and defending national champion Hurricanes into Notre Dame Stadium to face Lou Holtz’s fourth-ranked Irish — and the T-shirt.
Catholics vs. Convicts was invented by a Notre Dame basketball player named Joe Fredrick. It was Edison and the light bulb.
"I was home from summer school," Fredrick said. "My brother Chuck went to Rollins College in Florida. Winter Park. He played basketball there. He was wearing a tank top that said FSU-Miami and ‘Unfinished Business.’ We’re sitting there watching SportsCenter and some football players at Miami had been arrested. Chuck goes, ‘Man, that would be a great shirt, Catholics vs. Convicts.’ It really was like a light going on."
Fredrick enlisted a friend and fellow Notre Dame student, Pat Walsh, who was running a T-shirt business on campus (in violation of university rules). Walsh made the shirts and Fredrick and his friends sold them, in dorms, at tailgates and pep rallies. Fredrick figures they moved 5,000 shirts. Never mind that no one was licensed to sell them, or that the use of Notre Dame and Miami emblems on the shirts represented trademark infringement. The shirts became the rivalry’s brand.
"I didn’t care about those shirts," Clark said with another laugh. "But think about it. At the time, we’re graduating 75, 80 percent of our guys. Their guys broke every law to make those shirts, trademark and copyright violations, but we’re the convicts?"
"I first remember seeing the shirt in my dorm," Terrell said. "I chuckled, but I was like, ‘That’s cold, man.’ As a player from Florida, I loved the Miami swagger. But they wanted to be thought of as bad boys. The shirts weren’t as racial as they sound now."
Then came that Saturday afternoon.
Of course, there was a fight. A big one. Before the kickoff.
Irish eyes saw Miami players intentionally run through a Notre Dame punt drill at the end of warmups. Hurricanes saw the lone tunnel to the locker rooms blocked by Notre Dame players. Bodies collided. It came to blows.
"Fans threw stuff at us," Crum said. "We were trying to pull them from the stands. It was ugly."
"I didn’t think they were going to let us play the game," Terrell said.
It was a remarkable game. Miami never led and committed seven turnovers, but it was close. Terrell intercepted a pass by Steve Walsh and returned it 60 yards for a score to give Notre Dame a 21-7 lead. Miami came back.
Miami players point to one play in the fourth quarter, when Hurricanes running back Cleveland Gary lost the ball and it was ruled a fumble on the Notre Dame 1-yard line. Miami argued with officials that Gary was down, no fumble. They still argue it.
"The phantom fumble," Clark said.
But the 30 for 30 revealed, after all these years, that Miami’s final touchdown, a catch by Andre Brown with 45 seconds left in the game, wasn’t really a catch. Brown clearly trapped the ball.
"Okay, so now we both have something to jaw about," Clark said.
After Brown’s TD pulled Miami to within 31-30, Johnson decided to go for the win. But Terrell easily batted down Walsh’s pass. That was that.
"Oddly enough, and talk about local ties, I was guarding Leonard Conley," Terrell said. "Leonard and I were big names back home. He went to Tarpon Springs. We’d gone against each other since high school."
Bernard Clark, 50, is defensive coordinator at the University at Albany. Maurice Crum, 48, is an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy in Orlando. His son, Maurice Jr., played linebacker for Notre Dame. Maurice Crum can’t tell you how many times he has been at games in South Bend and autographed Catholics vs. Convicts shirts presented to him by Irish fans. They’re collectors’ items. Crum happily signed.
"Hey, it’s part of history," he said.
Pat Terrell, 49, lives outside Chicago. He played 10 seasons in the NFL. He then became an airline pilot, flying 757s, before starting a construction business. Joe Fredrick, 49, lives in Cincinnati, where he’s director of sports marketing for iHeart Radio. Fredrick says Catholics vs. Convicts taught him more than any college business class. He keeps a C vs. C shirt in his dresser.
"Looking back, it was unfair," said Terrell, who will be at tonight’s game. "Those shirts are kind of a low blow."
Good to know that he doesn’t own a Catholics vs. Convicts shirt.
"Now, I wouldn’t say that."
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.