Linda Robertson

Hatred for Notre Dame was just part of the ‘U’ brand

A fight breaks out before a game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won the game 31-30 on Oct. 15, 1988.
A fight breaks out before a game between the Miami Hurricanes and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won the game 31-30 on Oct. 15, 1988. Getty Images

The clothes and hairstyles look quaintly retro and the colors have faded in the images from three decades ago. But what comes through vividly with the passage of time is how revolutionary the rivalry between Miami and Notre Dame was when those two teams polarized and mesmerized the nation.

Catholics vs. Convicts: It was only a game, except it was so much more. The antagonism transcended football. The two universities were symbols of a schism in society.

The saints from tradition-rich Notre Dame represented all that was honorable and brilliant about the young gentlemen of America. The sinners from upstart Miami, from the land of “Miami Vice,” cocaine cowboys and inner city riots, represented all that was ignoble and uncivilized about the young thugs taking over America.

Caricatures, of course. Cleveland Gary could have gone to Yale. Steve Walsh was from the Midwest heartland. Leon Searcy is one of the most eloquent people you’ll ever meet. The notorious Catholics vs. Convicts T-shirt was created and sold by Notre Dame students. The disturbing hate mail to Jimmy Johnson was from Notre Dame fans.

The contrast, the stage, the personalities and the compelling plots of the games made Hurricanes vs. Fighting Irish one of the greatest rivalries in sports for an intense six-year stretch — so intense and weighed down by racist undertones and bitter rhetoric that the series was discontinued after 1990.

The rivalry gets renewed Saturday in South Bend, Indiana, when 4-3 Miami and 2-5 Notre Dame clash again. The nation won’t be transfixed because neither team is a powerhouse anymore. Miami is trying to halt a three-game losing streak and Notre Dame, ranked in the preseason top 10, has been a bust.

The players, born when the series was dormant, know about it like they know about the ride of Paul Revere — an ancient legend. Knute Rockne? The Gipper? Lou Holtz? J.J.? Dennis Erickson? The phantom fumble? 58-7? Touchdown Jesus?

“I think, from what I’m hearing, it’s a big thing,” UM’s R.J. McIntosh said.

Among fans and alums, it’s still a big thing. To UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, a teenage fan of his hometown Hurricanes, it’s still a big thing.

“Our players need to understand that it’s fun to come to the ‘U’ during recruiting, but you have to understand what made the ‘U’ the ‘U,’ ” said Diaz, who is telling his guys that a loss to Notre Dame puts a black “failure” label on a season. “Those battles that went both ways in the 1980s are really what made the ‘U’ the ‘U.’ 

Coach Mark Richt started at quarterback for UM in 1982 at Notre Dame when Jim Kelly was injured (and Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde were freshmen). Notre Dame won on a late field goal. He was an assistant at No. 1 Florida State when the Seminoles lost in a windstorm in 1993.

“Regardless of the records, this game kind of stands alone,” Richt said. “These are two teams that have a national brand that’s pretty impressive.”

Watch the newest “30 For 30: Catholics vs. Convicts,” coming out in December for an entertaining look back. An advance screening will be held Friday on the Notre Dame campus. The last time they played, in 2012, the Irish won 41-3.

Simmering disdain reached a boil in 1985 when J.J. ran up the score to 58-7 against outgoing Gerry Faust’s pitiful team, telling his team, “Let’s pour it on!”

UM’s players laughed, taunted and danced in a landmark performance. They were on their way to redefining the notion of sportsmanship.

“We were bad boys, and we enjoyed being bad boys,” Searcy says in the film. “We despised Notre Dame. We looked at them as spoiled, briefcase-carrying, prep school boys.”

Johnson, who earned the best villainous nickname ever bestowed on a coach — “Porkface Satan” — got death threats, all because he did to holier-than-thou Notre Dame what it had done to many of its opponents. He had the audacity to allow his players to express rather than repress their joy and fire. The Canes chose honest celebration over fake humility. Football has been a lot more fun since.

“I think some people confused the bad boy image with the free spirit, emotional, passionate,” he recalled. “And at times especially when you’re winning every week, that played wrong to some of the opponents.”

UM won again in 1987 en route to its second title. Notre Dame, en route to the 1988 title, won 31-30 in a controversial thriller that included Gary’s was-it-or-wasn’t-it fumble and UM’s failed two-point conversion. In 1989, UM won and won its third title.

Parity has changed college football. The usual suspects no longer have a monopoly on talent. Miami and Notre Dame are rebuilding. But the rivalry burns on.

“We had our own slogan,” Searcy said. “God made Notre Dame No. 1. But we made Notre Dame No. 2.”

Related stories from Miami Herald