Commentary

Irish-Canes a matchup of yesteryear

Originally Published: December 30, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Notre Dame plays Miami on Friday in the Sun Bowl. The fact that this matchup is so much more exciting in the imagination than in reality is a bit sad.

[+] EnlargeMiami, Notre Dame
Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty ImagesThe fireworks of Miami-Notre Dame in 1988 started before the game even began.

Today, it is a pair of unranked teams with a combined 10 losses, trying to sustain (Notre Dame) or start (Miami) momentum for 2011. Back when, the Fighting Irish versus the Hurricanes was the alpha and omega of college football.

That time was 22 years ago, which I'm adding to a lengthening list of wow-I'm-old realizations.

It was Oct. 15, 1988, to be precise. "Catholics vs. Convicts" was the billing, a clever T-shirt slogan built on flimsy stereotypes that both sides nevertheless embraced. On a picturesque fall day at Notre Dame Stadium, the Fighting Irish took down top-ranked, defending national champion Miami 31-30 in a gripping game that lived up to its banner-headline billing.

From the moment I got there the day before the game, the place was wired. The pep rally was electric, with the students roaring at all of Lou Holtz's well-polished phrases. Even the basketball team's midnight madness had a contact buzz from the football atmosphere.

The game was laden with backstory and psycho-social payload.

A rivalry had sprung up where none previously existed -- Notre Dame was 12-1-1 all-time against Miami until the combination of Howard Schnellenberger in Coral Gables and Gerry Faust in South Bend turned the tables. By 1985, with Jimmy Johnson enhancing what Schnellenberger started, the Hurricanes had taken college football by storm and the Irish were in disrepair. The final game of the Faust era was a 58-7 woodshed whipping in Miami that November, when many of the key figures in the '88 game were wide-eyed freshmen.

"We go out an hour-and-a-half before the game [for warmups] and just do everything right," recalled Notre Dame linebacker Frank Stams. "Then Michael Irvin and the boys come out. They don't even have shirts on, they're high-fiving the crowd, doing what they want. It looks like chaos. Then the game started and they just took it to us."

The final blow was a late blocked punt Miami returned for a touchdown. Irish fans howled about running up the score. Hurricanes fans responded that their team had only 10 men on the field and still blocked the kick.

"Basically, we poured it on," quarterback Steve Walsh said. "We played hard to the end, they quit, and it got ugly. They were crying for some sympathy, and we just weren't that kind of team."

The Hurricanes famously were not that kind of team. But what Notre Dame really wanted wasn't sympathy. It wanted a team capable of beating the Miamis of the world, and that's why Holtz was hired after that game, to rebuild what had collapsed under Faust.

Holtz had the renovation in motion when the teams next met in 1987. Notre Dame was 8-2 when it returned to Miami to face the undefeated Canes. The result was less humiliating but no less emphatic: Miami won 24-0 on its way to the national title.

In '88, Holtz finally had the team to compete with the Canes. Both were undefeated, with Miami No. 1 and riding a winning streak of 36 regular-season games, while Notre Dame was No. 4. And the Irish finally had the game in their stadium for the first time since '84.

"Lots of hype," recalled Walsh. "Lots of animosity on their behalf from '85."

By then, Miami's reputation extended far beyond football excellence. The accompanying attitude -- which came to be universally branded "swagger" -- was overwhelming. Depending on your rooting interests (and in some instances, on your racial and social background), that attitude was either charismatic or repugnant.

Thus, a T-shirt was born: Catholics vs. Convicts. I still have one in a drawer somewhere.

A Notre Dame program that had developed its own nastiness put on the white hats. A Miami program populated with plenty of high-character kids donned the black hats.

Well guys. We can go around them or we can go through them. Which way you want to go?

-- Miami QB Steve Walsh before the Hurricanes and Irish brawled in 1988
"We loved it," Walsh said of the T-shirt labels. "Our Catholic priest, the chaplain who was with us at every game, was a little pissed off at it, but we kind of reveled in that stuff. The us-against-the-world mentality was part of who we were. The outlaw image, the Thug U stuff -- which was bogus because we had a lot of great kids -- we didn't care."

With the stakes sky-high and the battle lines clearly drawn, the pregame tension was palpable on Oct. 15, 1988. What happened next was jarring but inevitable.

The teams brawled at the mouth of the tunnel that is the one and only entrance/exit to Notre Dame Stadium. Both sides basically egged it on, almost staging the confrontation.

"Nobody was going to back down," Stams said.

The Irish entered the field first but blocked Miami's path. Coming out of the visiting locker room, the Canes saw the situation and made their decision.

"Well guys," Walsh told his teammates. "We can go around them or we can go through them. Which way you want to go?"

Rhetorical question.

With the Canes massed in front of the Irish, Notre Dame linebacker Wes Pritchett lit the match that set off the fireworks by stepping on kicker Carlos Huerta's foot. Miami players jumped into the fray. Walsh said he watched in semi-amusement as three freshman teammates in front of him started swinging at anyone in a gold helmet.

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By the time the officials re-established order, the tone had been set. Notre Dame was not intimidated by swagger.

What followed was a thriller -- Notre Dame scoring, Miami counterpunching. The only way the Irish could stop the Canes was by forcing turnovers, so they did. Seven times.

In the final minutes, Notre Dame led 31-24 when quarterback Tony Rice fumbled deep in Irish territory. Miami scored with 45 seconds left to make it 31-30, then did the sporting thing in those pre-overtime days -- it went for two and the win.

Walsh's end-zone pass for Leonard Conley was batted away by Pat Terrell, and Notre Dame had the victory.

"We finally got those dogs," Stams said.

Neither team would lose again for a long time. Notre Dame went on to win the '88 national title, then won its first 10 games of '89. Miami followed the Irish loss with 13 straight victories, suffered a one-game hiccup against Florida State in mid-'89, then got payback by whipping No. 1 Notre Dame 27-10 to end the regular season.

The Canes won another national championship a month later by beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, firmly stamping themselves as the program of the '80s.

The two played one last time, in 1990. Miami was No. 2, Notre Dame No. 6. For the third straight time, the lower-ranked team won. The Irish took that game 29-20.

[+] EnlargeSteve Walsh
Jonathan Daniel/Allsport Miami QB Steve Walsh lost only one game as a starter -- at Notre Dame.
In the 20 years since, The U and the Golden Dome have not played. They've scheduled three games in the next decade -- a Soldier Field meeting in 2012, plus home-and-home dates in 2016 and '17. That will be a welcome return of a once-great rivalry -- if the schools have reinvigorated their programs by then.

Miami won a couple more national titles since '89 but sits well outside the sport's elite. It just fired its second successive coach, Randy Shannon, and has not been able to win consistently in an underwhelming Atlantic Coast Conference.

"It's just been frustrating as an alum watching them," Walsh said. "Just when you think they're going to turn the corner, they lay an egg."

Notre Dame hasn't had a title since '88 -- which makes that victory over Miami all the more important. Can you imagine if Terrell hadn't batted down that pass? Can you imagine how distraught the subway alumni would be if the title-less drought stretched all the way to Joe Montana and 1977?

"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't frustrated," Stams said. "Everyone's been frustrated, including the coaches of the teams. ... But I think Brian Kelly is the guy that's going to do it."

Stams and Walsh both said they will tune in Friday. Both will assuredly feel the old emotions percolating inside all over again. And both will assuredly wish there were more on the line, like there was 22 years ago.

"I'd like it to be other circumstances," Walsh said. "It's kind of an afterthought for it to be in the Sun Bowl."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.