No matter what drama unfolds when the University of Miami and Notre Dame football teams clash in Saturday’s much-hyped showdown at Hard Rock Stadium, it is hard to imagine it will match the ferocity with which the Hurricanes and Fighting Irish despised each other in the 1980s.
The rivalry was so nasty back then that players nearly came to blows over a hand towel in front of 76,640 fans at the Orange Bowl.
Now this wasn’t just any old towel. This was a special towel. It belonged to Tim Brown, Notre Dame’s Heisman Trophy winner, and it had his initials and No. “81” embroidered in gold. It was a gift from a teammate’s girlfriend. It had sentimental value.
So, when the Hurricanes and Irish lined up on Nov. 28, 1987, the UM players had two objectives: win the game and steal Brown’s towel.
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We had a vendetta to settle, and Luke [Campbell] wanted that towel, so we made an in-house bet where we’d all pitch in and pay the tab for a steak dinner for whoever got Tim Brown’s rag.
Melvin Bratton, former UM running back
As if the Canes needed any more motivation, rap star and die-hard UM fan Luther Campbell had challenged players to swipe the towel so he could hoist it on a float in the Liberty City Martin Luther King Day Parade.
“We had a vendetta to settle, and Luke wanted that towel, so we made an in-house bet where we’d all pitch in and pay the tab for a steak dinner for whoever got Tim Brown’s rag,” recalled former UM running back Melvin Bratton, who scored two touchdowns to lead the Canes to a 24-0 victory that day.
“I remember [linebacker] Bernard Clark went down on the opening kickoff and knocked the crap out of Tim Brown,” said Bratton, now a sports agent in Atlanta. “If you watch the video, you see 10 UM guys like ants reaching and pulling from the pile at Tim Brown’s pants. You see Tim Brown fighting back, trying to hold on to his pants. And Bernard took off running with the special rag, waving it around.”
Bratton, in full belly laugh, explained that UM players were ticked off because the local papers had done a feature on Brown that week, mentioning his lucky towel.
“We were like, ‘Really? Our local paper wrote a story about a damn rag Tim Brown’s girlfriend made?’ We were pissed, and we said, ‘We’re going to kidnap that rag.’ Tim Brown chased Bernard down, snatched the rag back from him and ran to the other side and gave it to the ball boy, and they put it in a lock box, like it was the turnover chain.”
The Hurricanes remained undefeated that season and won the national title. During the three-year span between 1987-89, the winner of the Miami-Notre Dame game went on to claim the national championship. UM beat Notre Dame five times from 1983-90 and won three national titles. The Irish dropped Miami from their schedule after 1990, and the teams didn’t play again for two decades.
Notre Dame was like America’s favorite child, and we were coming into our own. By beating Notre Dame, we were beating all their tradition — the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne, all that stuff.
Alonzo Highsmith, a former Hurricane
UM’s dominance began in 1983, when the unranked Hurricanes, led by freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar, knocked off 13th-ranked Notre Dame 20-0 at the Orange Bowl. Miami broke into the AP rankings with that win and wound up winning its first national title.
A year later, after a pre-game scrum in the tunnel in South Bend, Indiana, Alonzo Highsmith scored four touchdowns, and the Hurricanes beat the Irish 31-13.
But it’s the 1985 game at the Orange Bowl that really got Notre Dame fans’ blood boiling. Ronald Reagan was president. Dwight Gooden won the Cy Young Award. “Back to the Future” was the hottest movie. And it was the year that Nintendo, Elmo and Microsoft Windows 1.0 made their debuts.
On Nov. 30, 1985, the 5-5 Irish arrived in Miami to play their last game under coach Gerry Faust, who had announced that he would resign at the end of what had been a mediocre season. Lou Holtz was all set to replace him.
The Hurricanes, already assured of a trip to the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, scored on eight of their first nine possessions and trounced the Irish 58-7. It was Notre Dame’s fourth-worst defeat ever and their worst loss in 41 years. Ara Parseghian, the former Notre Dame coach who was in the broadcast booth for the game, criticized UM coach Jimmy Johnson for running up the score.
UM quarterback Vinny Testaverde completed 22 of 32 passes for 356 yards, including touchdown passes of 7 yards to Bratton and 15 yards to Michael Irvin
Johnson defended his team and denied piling it on.
“We played our second- and third-string players throughout the game and had our second and third units in with 12 minutes left,” he told reporters after the game. “But no matter who is in, we’ll run our offense no matter what the score is. I feel for the man. I have a lot of respect for Gerry Faust, but we could not let what was happening on the other sideline affect our game.
“It’s only one opinion — mine — but I think we’re the best team in the country.”
Highsmith, now a senior personnel executive with the Green Bay Packers, remembers that game well.
UM beat Notre Dame five times from 1983-90 and won three national titles.
“Notre Dame was like America’s favorite child, and we were coming into our own,” Highsmith said. “By beating Notre Dame, we were beating all their tradition — the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne, all that stuff. The night we beat them 58-7, America hated us because we embarrassed Notre Dame and the establishment. I remember running out of bounds on one play, and the look on Gerry Faust’s face was like disbelief, he was staring off into the wild blue yonder.”
The infamous “Catholics vs. Convicts” game was in 1988 in South Bend, and Notre Dame got revenge with a 31-30 victory after a brawl in the tunnel. The game was the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary.
A year later, in the 1989 regular-season finale, the Canes won 27-10 at the Orange Bowl in front of 81,000 fans, breaking Notre Dame’s 23-game win streak. UM quarterback Craig Erickson connected with wide receiver Randall Hill on third-and-43 in the third quarter, one of the most memorable plays of the highlight-filled series.
This week, as the seventh-ranked Hurricanes and third-ranked Irish prepared to play their most meaningful game in decades, former UM players were nostalgic. Bratton told the story of when Faust came to his house to recruit him out of Northwestern High.
“He played this 45-minute movie about the history of Notre Dame, Touchdown Jesus, Knute Rockne, all that Notre Dame-y stuff, and my whole family fell asleep on the sofa watching that boring movie,” Bratton said, laughing. “They had a certain clean-cut image, oxford shirts, penny loafers. I knew after that visit that I was going to UM.
“Even today, being 52 years old, I get a sickness in my stomach when Notre Dame is on TV, or someone says they went to Notre Dame, or I see a Notre Dame hat. I’ll boo their ass right now if I see them.”
Bratton has fallen in love with this year’s Hurricanes and their gaudy turnover chain. He jumped out of his chair and roared near the end of the UM win over Virginia Tech last Saturday when Sheldrick Redwine, wearing the chain, grabbed a white board, wrote “Ball Game!” and flashed it at the camera. “When he did that, I knew we were back!” Bratton said. “That brashness, that confidence, that fun. I was like, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ ”
Highsmith said it’s time for these young Canes to add to the lore of the UM-Notre Dame rivalry.
“This is not about Jimmy Johnson, Vinny, myself or Melvin. These kids got here on their own merit and have a chance to put footprints down and make their own history. It’s good they understand the past, but now it’s time for them to do it their way.”