There likely won’t be any pregame tunnel fights or fans spitting on their counterparts, but one of college football’s most impactful rivalries will be renewed on Saturday night in Chicago when Miami (FL) and Notre Dame meet in the regular season for the first time in 22 years at Soldier Field. The game is part of Notre Dame’s “Shamrock Series,” an annual off-site home game located in a major city and featuring special (putting it kindly) uniforms.
While the teams do have one recent meeting, a 33-17 Fighting Irish rout in a battle of 7-5 teams in the 2010 Sun Bowl, the rivalry, for all intents and purposes, has been dormant since regular season meetings ended after the 1990 season. In the late ‘80s, Miami vs. Notre Dame was the rivalry in college football. “Catholics vs. Convicts” shirts were designed by Fighting Irish fans, just one of many acts that helped build a tension unmatched by any rivalry in college sports.
The two programs seemed like polar opposites on the surface. Miami, an up-and-comer who had no football tradition prior to the arrival of head coach Howard Schnellenberger in 1979, was built with South Florida kids and a unique bravado found only in Miami. Notre Dame was history’s team, a national school with a presence all over the United States and eleven national titles, ten of which came before Miami had even played for one.
As different as they may be, Miami and Notre Dame share some common bonds. Both are private institutions, two of only three private schools (USC is the other) to have won national titles in the past 25 years. Both flourished as independent programs (Miami would not join a conference until 1991), which was vital in establishing the annual series. Notre Dame was struggling to stay afloat in the 1940s, while Miami was considering dropping football altogether in the 1970s due to a lack of interest and athletic department funding. Both overcame difficult odds, and the Notre Dame gold helmet and the Miami “U” are now two of the game’s most recognizable images.
The history of this series begins the ‘50s and ‘60s with four meetings in which the Fighting Irish went 2-1-1. The annual clashes began in 1971, with a 17-0 Notre Dame rout of the Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl. Throughout the ‘70s, there was no rivalry. The Irish won all ten meetings between 1971 and 1980 in a decade that saw them win two national championships. Only once, in Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly’s sophomore season in Coral Gables in 1980, were the Hurricanes ranked at the time of the matchup. Notre Dame held the 'Canes under 20 points in nine of the ten games.
The most notable game during the decade came in 1979, when the two teams met in Tokyo in the Mirage Bowl, an annual event in which two college football teams played a regular season game at the Tokyo Dome in Japan between 1977 and 1993. It indirectly helped spawn future international ventures for Notre Dame, as the Irish would play games against Navy in Ireland in 1996 as well as this year’s season opener.
Those were the friendly years of the rivalry. Following 1980, the upper hand took a sudden turn south, as Notre Dame suffered five down years under Gerry Faust and Miami began a quarter-century of dominance that is unmatched in the annals of college football. Faust defeated the Hurricanes just once, a 16-14 win in South Bend in 1982. It was his final meeting with Miami in 1985, however, that would help the rivalry ascend to new heights.
Miami was ranked No. 4, and very much alive for the program’s second national title in three seasons heading into its season finale in the Orange Bowl. Their opponent was Notre Dame, who had already announced that Minnesota’s Lou Holtz would replace Faust in 1986. The game was one-sided, as expected, but Jimmy Johnson and the ‘Canes showed no mercy on Faust and the overmatched Irish, refusing to take their foot off of the gas pedal in a 58-7 rout.
It was on that late November Saturday when the bad blood truly began to boil. After a one-year hiatus in 1986, the teams began a four-year run of games where both were ranked in the top 10, of which three times the winner would go on to claim the national title. The tenth-ranked Fighting Irish were thumped by the Hurricanes, 24-0, in the 1987 season finale in the Orange Bowl. Miami would defeat Oklahoma in that same stadium a little over a month later to win its second national championship.
The 1988 meeting was the pinnacle of the rivalry. No. 1 Miami, who hadn’t lost a regular season game in over three years, rolled into South Bend to face fellow unbeaten and fourth-ranked Notre Dame. A pregame fight, the origin of which is still debated to this day between the participants, spawned the famous Holtz quote “Save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me” in his pregame speech.
As for the game itself, it was a back-and-forth game highlighted by a controversial call that took away a Miami touchdown, as well as a failed two-point conversion that stamped safety Pat Terrell’s name in Fighting Irish lore. The Irish won, 31-30, en route to the national title.
Four months later, Johnson was gone, accepting a lucrative offer to help resurrect the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. His final words to the Hurricanes? “Beat Notre Dame.” Nine months later, under new head coach Dennis Erickson, they did just that, ending Notre Dame’s 23-game winning streak with a 27-10 win over the top-ranked Irish. The bigger issue, however, was off the field—specifically, in the stands of the hostile Orange Bowl—temporarily putting an end to college football’s hottest rivalry.
The stories are numerous: Notre Dame fans who made the trip to Miami being spit on and having beer poured on them by unruly Hurricanes backers. Longtime Notre Dame beat writer Tim Prister told the South Bend Tribune in 2010 that the atmosphere in the Orange Bowl that night was “a nastiness—I would even call it an evilness.” Prister added that in 30 years of covering Notre Dame football, “it was the most vile, vicious venue for a college football game that I’ve ever been in. They weren’t there just to see Miami win. They wanted blood from Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame would never return to the Orange Bowl to play the Hurricanes. The old horseshoe in Little Havana was torn down in 2008, now the site of the ballpark for MLB’s Miami Marlins. In the summer of 1990, the two schools agreed that that fall’s meeting in South Bend would be their last, saying that the rivalry had simply gotten too big. The final meeting of the “Catholics” and the “Convicts” went to Notre Dame, a 29-20 victory that ensured the Hurricanes a two-loss season for the first time since 1985. CBS Sports commentator Jim Nantz, who called the game that Saturday in 1990, said all that was needed to be said as the game concluded.
“The series is over. Notre Dame has done it, 29-20. For college football fans, it’s a pity this rivalry has ended.”
While the teams would finally meet again 20 years later, neither program was the giant it was in the late ‘80s. Only twice in the past two decades (1992, 2002) did both teams win 10 games in the same season. Both programs appear to be on the rise with Al Golden and Brian Kelly, but even though the two teams have a home-and-home series scheduled for 2016 or 2017, the rivalry will never be what it was a quarter-century ago.
So, as you watch the NBC telecast of Saturday night’s game, be sure to remember the places these two programs, both as separate entities and collectively, hold in the history of college football. It’s impossible to tell the story of the sport without discussing Miami and Notre Dame. It might not be “Catholics vs. Convicts” anymore, but for anyone who appreciates the history of the sport, seeing the Hurricanes and the Irish on the same field again will truly be a sight to behold.
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