Catholics vs. Convicts: Then and Now

If you were a Notre Dame fan in the 80’s and were asked which team you despised more than any other, you would likely get one of two responses: USC or Miami. For me, living in and being raised in California, it would be un-American for me to hate any team more than USC, by virtue of the arrogance of the local USC fanbase and my being constantly surrounded by that maroon and yellow garbage, but my hatred of Miami rivaled certainly had to be considered a professional level of disgust. 

With good reason, the “U” earned the ire of ND fans and players alike during a span of about 6 years from 1985 through 1990.  

It was  November 30th1985, ND was being led astray by a dreadful season at the helm from their skipper, Gerry Faust, who would later be shown the door. It would be the last game Gerry Faust would ever coach for the Irish and ND needed a win to go 6 – 5 and have a very mediocre but winning record. 

It would be a tall task as the Irish would have to go into hostile environs on the road in Miami and face the #4 team in the nation represented by the University of Miami Hurricanes. Let’s just say that day didn’t go very well for Notre Dame.  

What’s worse, Jimmy Johnson, Miami’s head coach at the time, would earn a spot on ND’s Wall of Hate forever and a rivalry would ensue that would span the next several seasons in which these two teams would face off as top 10 foes in very meaningful, impactful games on the national landscape of college football.  

Miami would go on to embarrass ND in Faust’s final game at a clip of 58-7. It was noteworthy because Jimmie Johnson deliberately ran up the score on the Irish showing zero mercy on a depleted ND team. ND players wouldn’t soon forget. ND fans wouldn’t soon forget. It was recognized as very disrespectful by the entire ND fanbase and players yet admired by that thug-ery, which is Miami and their people.  

Fast forward to November 28th, 1987. This time it would be a much better Irish squad cruising in to the Orange Bowl as the #10 team in the country. Problem was, Miami was #2 and Jimmie Johnson was still the coach. Holtz was now leading the Irish faithful in what would be a good year at 8 – 4 and finished with a #12 ranking that year. Johnson would quickly become a guy I loved to hate as Miami went on to beat the Irish 24 – nil.  

The series would get really interesting, however, the next season. Skip ahead to October 15th, 1988.  

The birth of “Catholics v Convicts” would emerge. A group of ND students would create the now famous slogan and in a not so sanctioned method, they printed the shirts and distributed them to anyone who would wear it that day. Mostly students but some fans took them up on the offer and a national label would define what would be one of the great rivalries in sports over the next few years.  

Back to the actual game. The stage was a little different this year. We would get Miami at home. We would bring in a #4 ranking. Our defense had some teeth. ND had guys like Michael Stonebreaker and Pat Terrell wreaking havoc. The offense was no picnic either. Led by Tony Rice and some guy named the “Rocket,” the Irish would boast one of the more explosive offenses that college had seen in years.  

Well, Miami was coming in to South Bend as the #1 team the country that year.  

Lou Holtz was not gonna let his players forget ’85 and ’87. Holtz was a brilliant motivator and teacher but the Irish players needed little motivation in this game. Everyone knew what was at stake. Players on both sides were now familiar with the slogan being shared around the buzzing Notre Dame campus. And life was breathed back into a series which showed little in previous years.  

The animosity started before any whistles were blown. Holtz would lead his team down the tunnel knowing full well that Miami would be there waiting. Holtz knew this Irish team was special. He also knew that the energy inside the stadium was just added fuel to a fire that had been burning from deep within…for years. Nothing more needed to be said. Players pushed and shoved and jawed at each other in a huge scrum that would last what seemed like minutes. 

Players would eventually be separated and football would be played.  

In a game for the ages that would go back and forth between two rosters riddled with consensus All Americans on both sides, the Irish would prevail that day 31 – 30 in what Irish fans remember as our last National Championship run on our way to a 12 – 0 unblemished year. The last undefeated regular season ND would have until 2012 before getting beaten badly by a better Alabama team in the National Championship game.  

The rivalry was born. It was alive and well. Using stereotypes that seemed appropriate based on fanbases and players alike, “Catholics v Convicts” took on a life of its own. Miami players didn’t necessarily enjoy the moniker but it seemed to fit. Their players were thugs and seemed to revel in that moniker. I know as a fan, I would love to encounter Miami fans and listen to them bitch and complain about it.  

The only thing I cared about was getting the “W” on Saturdays.  

Miami would return the favor in 1989 in another epic battle. It would be #1 Notre Dame trying to go back to back National Champions in their penultimate game of the year at the Orange Bowl. Miami would end up knocking us off 27 – 10 and give us the only loss we would have that season.   

Jump ahead to October 20th, 1990. It would be another matchup between two top 10 teams. ND would flip the script at home this time and best Miami 29 – 20. We would end up losing by a single point to Colorado on some controversial calls in the Orange Bowl.  

Nothing meaningful happened in the series until another ND National Championship run in 2012. The Irish would defend their home turf as a #9 team in the country and home favorite against an unranked and outmatched Miami squad. It would play out as you would imagine; ND would dominate the ‘Canes on the way to a 41 – 3 thrashing.  

It felt good to be an Irish fan that day and that season.  

Notre Dame wouldn’t play Miami again until 2016. It would be one of the only flickers of light in a dismal season as ND would win a squeeker at home 30 – 27.  

Enter 2017. Nostalgia isn’t required to understand the impact on the whole college football playoff that this game will carry. Both teams are deservedly ranked in the top 7. It will be in primetime for the entire country to see. It’s time to bring your lunchpail. This game will harken back to days gone by when both teams were talked about in the National picture and every college football fan knew the players involved. It is a fact and somewhat ironic that not one player on either team was even born when this rivalry was at its height.  

Former players of the rivalry have interviewed about what it meant to them. It doesn’t really matter today to the current players. They all know what’s at stake and that if either team runs the table, they can virtually punch their tickets to Indianapolis and the College Football Playoff. Whether it’s “Catholics v Convicts” or not, all I see are 2 very talented and hungry teams that need to shed the ghosts of the past and create their own identities on Saturday. Both coaches will block out the noise in this one and focus on fundamentals and beating the guy in front of you.  

I, for one, can’t wait to see what unfolds. 

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