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What will be missed the most: those incorrigible Catholics vs. Convicts T-shirts, the angry confrontations between Notre Dame and Miami, or the wrenching drama those two teams produced on the field? A modern football classic ended on a picturesque autumn afternoon last Saturday when Lou Holtz put the argument back in the Fighting Irish and they knocked the Hurricanes out of the national championship race 29-20. The game was a marvelous conclusion to the series—and what a shame that it was over.
And what about those T-shirts? Banned from sale on the campus but seen everywhere, they included the latest variation on the old Catholics-vs.-Convicts theme, a shirt proclaiming the game CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS III: THE FINAL WAR—TAKE NO PRISONERS. Or how about: HEY MIAMI, BO KNOWS YOUR MOTHER. (Irish students also lampooned themselves: SEX KILLS—COME TO NOTRE DAME AND LIVE FOREVER.) The enmity between the two teams was one reason Notre Dame decided not to renew a 23-game rivalry that dated back to 1955 and had all but determined the national title over the last three years. Still, last week's finale was played out cleanly and honorably on the field as 59,075 fans in Notre Dame Stadium were roused to a constant deep-bass roar by seven turnovers, three lead changes and Raghib (Rocket) Ismail's 94-yard kickoff return for the Irish's only touchdown of the first half, which ended with Notre Dame trailing 17-16.
For decisive points, the Irish relied on Craig Hentrich's school-record five field goals and Rick Mirer's 21-yard scoring pass to fullback Rodney Culver with 6:16 left, on a play called "300 fullback dump," which Holtz had drawn up at the breakfast table only that morning. Meanwhile, Notre Dame summoned an effective defense for the first time all season, one that forced four decisive turnovers from Miami's eloquent offense—the most important ones being a Craig Erickson pass that was intercepted by cornerback Todd Lyght at the Irish eight-yard line with 9:19 left in the game, and a fumble by fullback Leonard Conley, stripped by safety Greg Davis at the Irish five with 4:44 remaining. With that, the Hurricanes' hearts fell to the grass, and the Irish ran out the clock.
Rarely have Miami's fourth-quarter drives ended so desperately and wretchedly. The figure of Conley, lying facedown for a long moment after Notre Dame linebacker Mike Stonebreaker recovered the fumble at the two, seemed to sum up what had been lost. The last word in the most significant rivalry of the '80s belonged to the 5-1 Irish. As Mirer said, "We can talk about this game forever, now." Moreover, the Hurricanes abandoned any hope of a second straight national championship, which until Saturday had been well within their grasp. Miami knew that if it could beat the Irish, all it would have to do to ensure another title run and a major bowl appearance was to "blow the footballs up," as Holtz had put it.
Instead, the Hurricanes are confronting their first regular season with at least two losses since 1984, when they were 8-4 under first-year coach Jimmy Johnson. No team with two losses has ever won the national title. "It's tough," said Hurricane quarterback Erickson. "Our guys haven't been in this position." After contemplating a way to redirect their ambition, Miami coach Dennis Erickson said, "We've got to sit down and talk."
And yet the conclusion of the series was almost anticlimactic, a game devoid of the spitting, tunnel fights, mouthing off, stare-downs and incessant bickering that had so colored much of the rivalry in recent years. It was simply "big on big," as Stonebreaker called it. Notre Dame cited its tradition of rotating national opponents—Florida State will be added to the Irish schedule in 1993—as the chief reason for not renewing a series that was mediocre until the mid-1980s. But recent animosity was also a factor. In 1988 Notre Dame got into a pregame shoving match with Miami at South Bend and went on to a 31-30 victory that was instrumental in earning the Irish the national championship. Last year the Hurricanes declared their intentions in the Orange Bowl by advancing across the field before the coin toss. The Irish, ordered by Holtz to avoid any altercations, retreated to their sideline and went on to a 27-10 loss. The Hurricanes went on to the title.
"It's that the game carried such magnitude that makes it seem a little awkward," Holtz said of the end of the series. He also admitted he wouldn't miss the controversy surrounding the rivalry, nor would he miss the Catholics vs. Convicts shirts. "I deplore them," said Holtz. "For all I know, they come from Miami. I assure you Notre Dame has absolutely nothing to do with them, nor do the students, at least that we know of."
In fact, Notre Dame seniors Alan L. Sorce and Victor J. Bierman III are responsible for the latest version of the T-shirt. The enterprising business majors say they have been selling briskly since August. Sorce and Bierman had grossed an estimated $120,000 by the end of the weekend. "Notre Dame can't like this shirt," Sorce said.
The tensions between the two schools caused Holtz to place a phone call to Dennis Erickson early in the week and suggest that the two coaches organize the comings and goings of both teams on the field. As a result, pregame rituals were meticulously choreographed to keep the players apart. The only controversy was the end of the series itself. It was clear that Miami felt it had been spurned. "It's a travesty that we're not playing anymore," said Dennis Erickson.
So there will be no more arguments about which team has the rudest fans or more irreverent student body—unless, of course, they meet again someday in a bowl game. The Hurricanes invariably suffered by comparison to the supposedly pure-at-heart Irish. "I'll always be the guy trying to burn down the town," said Miami offensive tackle Mike Sullivan. But on the field the rivalry represented something simpler, an annual collision between two gloriously talented and hugely arrogant teams. This was a players' game.