By JOHN FINERAN
Special To woodypaige.com
A tip of the hat to ESPN for its recent “30 for 30” documentary titled “Catholics vs. Convicts,” which told the story about the Oct. 15, 1988 football game at Notre Dame Stadium between two football teams which didn’t like each other – No. 1 Miami and No. 4 Notre Dame.
Lou Holtz’s Irish won the game, 31-30, after safety Pat Terrell knocked down a two-point conversion pass by Miami quarterback Steve Walsh with 45 seconds to play after Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson decided to go for the win.
Notre Dame then went on to win the national championship – its last. That 28-year-and-counting drought is nothing for Irish eyes to smile about.
The title of the documentary, as you learn, was the wording on the back of a t-shirt being sold in the weeks before and on game day in South Bend by some entrepreneurial Notre Dame students that inflamed the showdown.
The documentary brought back two of my fondest memories of being around the Notre Dame program as a student there and later as a sports reporter for the South Bend Tribune.
Under Johnson, Miami had gained the reputation of being a football powerhouse that showed little or no respect for its opposition, including a Notre Dame team the Hurricanes beat 58-7 at the Orange Bowl in Gerry Faust’s last game as head coach in 1985.
That loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, including several players on that team and former Irish head coach Ara Parseghian, who was the color analyst for the game telecast by CBS. Miami went ahead 44-7 with 12:50 remaining in the game when Johnson pulled starting quarterback and future Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, who was leveled by Notre Dame defensive lineman Eric Dorsey in the end zone after scoring on a quarterback sneak.
Miami then added a touchdown on a pass by backup quarterback Geoff Torretta (brother of future Hurricane Heisman winner Gino Torretta) with 6:11 left. Parseghian, working in the booth with play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger, remarked, “I think this is the time for Jimmy Johnson to run the ball and show some compassion. This game is over with.”
Johnson was aware of the criticism afterward. “We played our second- and third-string players throughout the game and had our second and third units in with 12 minutes left,” he said. “But no matter who is in, we’ll run our offense no matter what the score is.”
Edwin Pope, the columnist and sports editor for the Miami Herald, pointed out that under Parseghian Notre Dame had won several games by lopsided margins, causing the ex-Irish coach to go back and painstakingly research each game’s play-by-play to defend himself, and Pope once told me that he was impressed by the effort.
Ironically, as Pope knows, Parseghian once had a chance to interview for the Miami coaching position after long-time head coach Andy Gustafson retired following the 1963 season to become the school’s athletic director. At the time, Parseghian was looking to leave Northwestern and had reached out to several schools, with Notre Dame and Miami having the most interest.
In fact, before flying to Miami for an interview with Gustafson in December of 1963, Parseghian told his wife Katie he would call her when he changed planes on route to Miami to see if Notre Dame had called to schedule a meeting. When he learned that Notre Dame had, he flew back to Chicago and eventually moved to South Bend where he won 95 games and two national championships from 1964-74.
Dorsey, playing in his final game for Notre Dame, was penalized for the late hit on Testaverde. “I didn’t care if I got kicked out,” Dorsey said afterward. “The season was over. I was having a lousy game, and I was embarrassed, frustrated and ticked off.”
A friend of mine, a Notre Dame professor, pulled aside Dorsey after class the week following the game and told him he was receiving extra credit. Dorsey wanted to know why.
“You’re the only one who looked like he cared at Miami,” the prof told Dorsey, who would later play on two Super Bowl championship teams with the New York Giants.
By 1988, Notre Dame, under Holtz, cared once again, which made that “Catholics vs. Convicts” game that much more special and, how it played out, one of the greatest in college football history.
Things got heated before the game when some Miami players walked through a Notre Dame punt drill on their way to the locker room. That started a rumble near and into the tunnel from which both teams entered and exited the field.
Holtz admonished his team in the locker room afterward about the fight and then told them: “You have an afternoon to play, a lifetime to remember. But I want you to do one thing: You save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me!”
Many years later, Holtz joked that Johnson probably would have kicked his if they had fought at game’s end. Wisely, they shook hands instead.
But the bad blood remained, enough for the series to be suspended following the 1990 game at Notre Dame’s request. The teams would not meet again until the 2010 Sun Bowl – an Irish victory. The series renewed in 2012 at Soldier Field (another N.D. victory) and the Irish rallied this season for a 30-27 victory in South Bend, one of their four victories and probably the high mark of a very low season.
The teams renew the rivalry next Nov. 11 in Miami Gardens.
To be sure, Miami and Notre Dame will have a hard time ever duplicating that game from 1988. Watch “Catholics vs. Convicts” and enjoy.
(John Fineran has covered sporting events for more than 40 years for newspapers in Michigan, Indiana, Florida and his native New Jersey. Few college football games he covered can compare to the 1988 Notre Dame-Miami game, forever now known as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” It was THAT good.)