South Florida Notre Dame fans stake their claim to school pride

John Mackle, Notre Dame Class of 1993, gathered up his Christmas lights in November and placed a giant, illuminated No. 1 sign on the roof of his Pinecrest home. It is a replica of the 8-foot No. 1 that sits on top of Grace Hall on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind., whenever a Fighting Irish sports team reaches No. 1 in the nation.

For the first time in 24 years, after two decades of mediocrity, that honor has once again been bestowed on the iconic Fighting Irish football team, the team that brought us Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, 11 national titles and the movie Rudy, the team known for its Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus, the resurrection mural that looms over its stadium.

The revival of Notre Dame has been one of the biggest stories this college football season. The Irish are undefeated at 12-0, ranked No.1 and will be playing No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Monday night for the national title in Miami, of all places, a city known for its distaste for the Fighting Irish dating to the 1980s, when the University of Miami and Notre Dame were bitter rivals drawing huge TV ratings for their dramatic matchups.

Mackle is wearing his gold and blue proudly these days, digging out all things leprechaun. His wife, Kathleen, whom he met (where else?) at Notre Dame, is on the board of the Notre Dame Club of Miami, and they are helping organize pregame events for Irish fans in town this week.

But it was not so easy being a Mackle brother in Miami in the 1980s. The Mackle family is steeped in Notre Dame tradition, which did not sit well in UM territory back when the Hurricanes and Irish were battling for national titles, back when “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts were hot sellers, back when legendary coach Parseghian, a golf partner of Mackle’s grandfather, accused UM coach Jimmy Johnson of running up the score during a 58-7 rout at the Orange Bowl in 1985 — Notre Dame’s most lopsided loss in 42 years.

The Mackles were in the stadium that day, as they had been every time the Irish came to town.

Frank Mackle Jr., a well-known developer throughout Florida, was a Vanderbilt grad but a Notre Dame trustee and close friends with the longtime Notre Dame president, Father Ted Hesburgh. The Irish football team, seeking a warm-weather opponent, began traveling to Miami to play the Hurricanes in 1955, and the teams played annually between 1971 and 1990. The Mackle family owned the Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas, which became the winter home for the Notre Dame team and its traveling fans.

Mackle’s son, Frank III, graduated from Notre Dame in 1966, one of the years Parseghian led the Irish to a national title. His grandson, Frank IV, kept the tradition going and graduated from Notre Dame in 1988, the last time the Irish football team won a national title. John followed his brother to South Bend, and now his son, John Jr., is a senior and hoping for another Irish title.

“I grew up a Hurricane fan and a Notre Dame fan,” John Mackle said. “But when UM played Notre Dame, our family rooted for Notre Dame. I got a lot of grief for that. I couldn’t wear a team shirt without being called out by my friends. When I was at Columbus High in 1988, I had a bet with a history teacher there who was a diehard UM fan. If UM won, I’d have to wear a UM tie to school all year. If Notre Dame won, he’d have to put a leprechaun sticker on his podium. I won the bet.”

Like the Mackles, the McCaughan family of Miami has a long history with Notre Dame. Bill McCaughan, 30, an attorney and Notre Dame grad, is president of the Notre Dame Club of Miami. He recently hung a Notre Dame flag from the balcony of his Brickell Avenue condo. His father, Bill, graduated from the school in 1976 and his uncle, Jim, in 1972. McCaughan said the local alumni club has 700 people on its email list, and a core group of 50 to 100 who show up for watch parties at Fado Irish Pub and Restaurant downtown.

“It’s hard to explain the Notre Dame family and loyalty to someone who didn’t go there,” McCaughan said. “It’s a very special bond.”

But for every Mackle and McCaughan, there are many more South Florida sports fans who root against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame is a national brand with a $60 million contract with Adidas and a loyal TV following, even during the lean years. But like the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, fans tend to love or hate the Irish. In Miami, there are Hurricanes fans who can’t bring themselves to root for the Irish after all these years, not even against Alabama coach Nick Saban, who left the Miami Dolphins on bad terms.

John Routh, the man inside UM’s Sebastian the Ibis mascot costume from 1984 to 1992, said he will “reluctantly” root for Alabama on Monday because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

He recalled his first road trip to South Bend as the mascot in 1984.

“I come from South Carolina and was so excited to go see Notre Dame, the football mecca,” Routh said. “But when we got there, I was shocked to find out they had some mean, rude fans just like any other team. They act all holier than thou, but I remember walking off the field with Father Leo [Armbrust], our team chaplain, who was wearing his priest’s collar, and a Notre Dame fan cursed at him and spit in his direction.

“Things got really heated over the years. There were negative feelings on both sides. I just can’t pull for Notre Dame. Never will.”

Notre Dame dominated the series with UM in the 1970s, winning all 10 games, but the tide turned in the ’80s. The Hurricanes beat the Fighting Irish 20-0 in 1983, 31-13 in 1984, 58-7 in 1985 and 24-0 in 1987. Coach Johnson made no apologies for that 58-7 win, saying at the time: “We played our second- and third-string players throughout the game and had our second and third units in with 12 minutes left. But no matter who is in, we’ll run our offense no matter what the score is.”

The rivalry reached its peak from 1987 to 1990, when both teams were in contention for the national title. UM finished No. 1 in 1987. A year later, Notre Dame was No. 1 and UM was No.2. And in 1989, the Hurricanes were No. 1 and the Irish were No. 2.

There was no greater theater in college sports than UM-Notre Dame, but the tone of the rivalry turned nasty in 1988. When the top-ranked Canes arrived in South Bend that year to play No. 4 Notre Dame, they were met with “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts and banners. Although the shirts were not condoned by the school or officially sold on campus, they were everywhere.

Tempers flared in the tunnel before the game, players exchanged punches, and the Irish went on to beat the Canes 31-30 — UM’s first regular-season loss in three seasons. The pregame brawl led then-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz to suggest maybe it was time for the rivalry to take a break. When they played in Miami in 1989, there were reports of UM fans spitting on Notre Dame fans and pouring beer on them.

And so, in the summer of 1990, Notre Dame chose not to renew the 23-game, four-decades-old rivalry.

Former Miami Killian High basketball coach Bob Kaufman is as diehard a UM fan as they come. The 1967 UM grad has attended every Hurricanes home game since 1956. He will be rooting for Saban and Alabama on Monday.

“My hatred for the Florida Gators supersedes everything, so I did root for Notre Dame this year against Southern Cal because if they had lost that game, the Gators could have played for the national title,” Kaufman said. “But otherwise, I never root for Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian ran up the score all those years, and then complained when UM beat them 58-7. Their fans are as obnoxious as Gator fans. I just can’t root for them.”

McCaughan doesn’t expect diehard Canes to root for the Irish, nor does he care. “To be honest, most people my age don’t remember the Catholics vs. Convicts days. USC is our main rival, and now we’re focusing on Alabama. UM is the farthest thing from our minds. We’ll have 50,000 fans or more rooting for us in the stadium on Monday.”

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