Book excerpt: Perfect Rivals
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Jeff Carroll's book "Perfect Rivals." Reprinted with permission of ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN, Inc., New York, and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
In late August of 1988, Doug Browne was an anonymous Notre Dame freshman from Reno, Nevada, still trying to acclimate himself to life on the South Bend campus. Like the rest of his first-year classmates, Browne had arrived in Indiana a few days early in order to go through orientation. Also beating the rush of students back to Notre Dame were the members of the Observer student newspaper staff, and as Browne strolled across campus late one evening, he grabbed his first copy of the publication from a stack in Notre Dame's south dining hall.
College football is a sport of rivalries -- and no two teams were ever more perfectly matched than the Miami Hurricanes and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. In "Perfect Rivals," sportswriter Jeff Carroll takes us inside the locker rooms and onto the gridiron, as two storied programs with very different cultures battle for national supremacy, school pride, and the soul of the game itself. Excerpt | Buy the book
Browne had just attended a campus-sponsored "ice cream social" and had at one point during the evening also managed to down a few beers. Afterward, he and one of his two roommates headed up to their dorm room, where Brown flipped through the newspaper. An item in the classified section caught his eye.
"Beat the rush," it encouraged readers, followed by the phone number and address of the University of Miami football office. It was around 7 p.m., with dusk just starting to fall over South Bend. And probably, Browne thought, Coral Gables, as well. Browne decided to dial the number.
The phone rang a few times. Finally, a man answered.
"University of Miami football office," he said. "Jimmy Johnson speaking. Who is this?"
Expecting, at best, for the call to be answered by a UM secretary, Browne recovered from the shock of his good fortune quickly enough to move the conversation forward.
"I'm a freshman at Notre Dame," he told the Hurricanes coach, "and I'm beating the rush."
"What rush?" Johnson said.
"I'm beating the rush," Browne said. "I hate you now."
"He asked a couple other things," Browne recalls, "and then he started to scream and yell. He was like, 'Who the hell is this? Why are you calling me?' He was all ticked off. Then I think he hung up on me."
And that was that, Browne figured. A laugh between roommates. He tried to tell other students on campus.
"They thought I was full of it," Browne says.
But then the weekend rolled around.
Johnson spoke to a group of Miami boosters at a breakfast event on Friday morning. At the moment Notre Dame was about the last thing on anybody's mind. As the Hurricanes geared up for another possible national title run, the Irish were hardly the most daunting obstacle on the schedule, particularly with the way Miami had handled them in recent years. And besides, the weekend ahead brought an opening game showdown with No. 1-ranked and favored Florida State. But in South Bend, Johnson said, they already had their minds on the Hurricanes. He told the story of a Notre Dame freshman who had called him that week, sounding "like a little girl." Johnson then verified the story Browne had been circulating around the Notre Dame campus verbatim.
On Saturday morning, Browne returned to his dorm room after running some errands to find articles about Johnson's breakfast speech clipped from major national newspapers and taped to his door. But that was hardly the end of it. As the October 15 game date drew closer, and Miami and Notre Dame climbed the national rankings, Browne went from anonymous freshman quasi-celebrity. David Letterman had a Top Ten list on his show one night: Reasons Notre Dame Fans Hate Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson. Number One: "He was rude to our freshman caller."
Not everyone found the incident so amusing. Browne received anonymous phone calls in his Keenan Hall dorm room telling him he had helped contribute to heated feelings between the two schools and football programs that were apt to become dangerous when Saturday rolled around. After Browne granted a couple of lighthearted interviews, his Reserve Officers' Training Corps officers called him into his office and warned him to "lay low." Luckily for Browne, fate bailed him out of major temptation on game day. CBS play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger had called him, requesting an interview at Notre Dame Stadium for the pregame show. But Browne wasn't going to be anywhere near the stadium for the Miami game. He had already scheduled a deer hunt back home in Nevada, so he was long gone.
They began popping up around campus early in the week. By Friday they were ubiquitous. By broadcast time on CBS on Saturday, the entire nation knew about the T-shirts. Produced by some creative Notre Dame students as a surefire moneymaker, they read CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS, and they were an instant sensation.
"That whole CATHOLICS VS. CONVICTS thing," says former 'Canes defensive end Greg Mark, "that's money. That's TV ratings. Let's face it, if you looked at the police logs across the board, they were probably about even. But that was the perception that sold tickets and made it more than just another college game on Saturday."
"The fans wanted good guys versus bad guys," says Rob Chudzinski, Miami's tight end in 1988. "The Notre Dame players at that time weren't exactly choirboys, either. But they got the good-guy tag and we got the bad-boy tag."
Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz was asked about the T-shirts. He swore he hadn't seen them.
"Our secretaries don't wear them," he said. "My coaches don't wear them. The players don't wear them. And my wife doesn't wear one. And those are the only people I'm around this time of year."
One person who had seen them was Notre Dame vice president Reverend William Beauchamp. While Notre Dame's supporters thought the shirts were a hoot, buying them as quickly as they could be printed, the VP was troubled by the ugliness the series was beginning to bring out in the fans.
"To me, that was very problematic," says Beauchamp. "It was not the way we welcome people to our campus."
During the week, what was meant to be a humor column in the Notre Dame student newspaper, the Observer, took things a little too far. The piece was written as a parody from the point of view of Johnson, trotting out every stereotype about the Hurricanes that the writer could fit into the space allotted.
"You intellectual snobs like to poke at ... our academic program," the author wrote. "Now, we may not have any Rhodes Scholars, but I'll have you know that we have the nation's leading programs in intramural bowling, gator wrestling, drug running, and sports car appreciation."
Although he preferred to stay above the fray, Holtz was finally forced to respond. The last Notre Dame coach to write to the Observer had been men's basketball coach Digger Phelps, who had done so to thank the students for their support in an upset victory over No. 1-ranked North Carolina. Holtz, on the other hand, wrote his letter as a gentle rebuke -- and a preemptive move against the possibility of more ugliness on Saturday when the Hurricanes arrived.
"When I first came to Notre Dame," wrote Holtz, "I was impressed with four things about this student body -- its competitiveness, its intelligence, its intense desire to succeed and its closeness and caring for other people. I would hope our students display those same traits when it comes to football rivalries.
"We look forward to welcoming Miami's team and fans for our next home game. Let's make sure that the Hurricanes leave our campus impressed with the classiness of our program and fans."
In the other team's camps, meanwhile, Miami cornerback Donald Ellis wasn't nearly as diplomatic.
"People say Notre Dame and it's like that's supposed to mean something," he said. "I don't see Notre Dame as greater than Toledo or Wisconsin or anyone else. I don't see them any different than Central Florida."
Asked about the previous season's taunting and numerous late hits at the Orange Bowl, Holtz saw an opening to opine about Miami's program, although he did it with a light touch. Officials, Holtz explained, were taking a closer look at those kinds of extracurriculars in 1988.
"The reason it was brought around, as I understand, was two games that specifically almost turned into ugly riots," he said. "One of them was the Miami-South Carolina game and the other was Miami-Oklahoma. I think that's the way some people play the game, but they're not going to be able to play that way this year."
In this game, the fireworks would begin well before kickoff.
It had been easy for the two teams to mask their contempt for the other, to swear mutual respect when the players had been bunkered in their separate campuses during the week of buildup. But the charade fell apart as they moved into close quarters, the snug tunnel behind the north end zone of Notre Dame Stadium. As the stands filled up with fans, Miami's players headed back to the visitors' quarters in South Bend and took a shortcut through a Notre Dame punt drill.
"Total disrespect," says Andre Jones.
"I think there was a sense out there that you could intimidate Notre Dame," says Barry Alvarez, Holtz's defensive coordinator. "That was the wrong crew to try and intimidate."
The Irish took exception and tempers quickly flared. Barking players from both teams moved toward the exit tunnel.
Notre Dame linebacker Ned Bolcar, one of the men who had endured the 58-7 thrashing three years before, began jawing with Miami's Leon Searcy, who, along with his Miami teammates, liked to put on a show to intimidate opponents but never really expected to have to engage anybody for real.
"Ninety percent of the guys on our team couldn't fight worth a lick," Searcy says. "But we had to give that impression, that intimidation. We had to give that impression that we were the so-called bad boys, Miami Vice thug-life-living guys.
"A lot of the guys that you saw out front with their chest all out, half those guys weren't gonna play, first of all, and half of them couldn't fight. So there were some guys on that team that grew up on the streets and in the deep heart of the ghetto of Miami. But the majority of those guys -- and I look back and I laugh about it now, watching some of the games -- I see the guys who were out front bouncing around, man, half those guys were from the suburbs."
Another team might have backed away, sparing the Hurricanes the challenge of actually backing up their tough talk and posturing. But the Irish, with memories of those recent beatings very much in their minds, had no intention of blinking first.
"I turned around and said, 'Get the hell off the field,'" Bolcar says. "[Searcy] turned around and said something derogatory to me, and then I said something back, and then maybe one of us said something like 'Your mom&' and then I punched him right in the [expletive] throat. The next thing I know, at that point the whole field just erupted into a fight."
The fracas quickly moved from the end zone to the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. Some Miami players had already entered the tunnel and were waiting in line to head to the locker room, their backs turned toward the field and the quickly escalating conflict. Linebacker Jason Hicks and Walsh stood near the back, oblivious, but they would be drawn into things quickly enough.
"They smack Steve Walsh in the back of the head," Hick says. "We had our backs turned, so they smacked Steve. Steve's off-balance, so what am I to do? So I say, 'Yo!' and so ensued the brawl in the tunnel. I wasn't about to allow them to disrespect the 'U,' which they did. So they started it. They started it."
The teams performed hand-to-hand combat in the cramped quarters while police and stadium security rushed over to pull players apart.
"It erupted into a two-hundred-person brawl," recalls Notre Dame linebacker Wes Pritchett. "It was full-on. I think that set the tone: We were telling them, 'You're not going to intimidate us. You're not going to push us around.'"
In the Notre Dame locker room after the dust-up, the adrenaline was still flowing. Irish defensive end Frank Stams, who had stayed to the side during the fight, located fellow defensive starter Pritchett, who had yet to come down from all of the excitement.
"I got him! I got him!" Pritchett exclaimed, fire in his eyes.
"Who did you get?" Stams asked.
A lineup of Miami stalwarts raced through Stams' mind: gargantuan All-American candidates like tight end Rob Chudzinski or maybe defensive tackle Russell Maryland.
"I got the kicker!" Pritchett said.
"The kicker?" Stams asked. "What did you do?"
"I stepped on his foot!"
Stams broke up laughing. And all around him, a fired-up Notre Dame team could not be calmed down.
"Everybody was going nuts," Pritchett says. "Guys were throwing helmets. Somebody broke the chalkboard."
Because there wasn't enough room in the Notre Dame Stadium home locker room, some of the freshmen and walk-ons usually watched games in street clothes from the seats with the fans. But because Holtz wanted everyone in his program to experience what promised to be one of the special days in Notre Dame football history, he had his entire roster suit up. They dressed across the street in the basketball locker rooms at the Athletic and Convocations Center. The group walked to the stadium, through the cheers of fans congregating outside the gates, then into Notre Dame Stadium, down the stairs, and into the empty Notre Dame locker room. The quiet was soon broken by the whooping and hollering of nearly a hundred raging bulls dressed in blue and gold.
"The guys started running up the stairs," says Lindsay Knapp, a freshman who didn't play in the game, "and, I mean, you'd never seen people like that. I mean, they were just going crazy. They had blood on their hands. We're just kind of sitting there saying, 'What the hell is going on?' We had no idea what had happened."
"I'm seeing this," says Justin Hall, another freshman who was held out of the game due to an injury, "and I'm, like, 'Jesus, what the hell am I doing here? This is unbelievable.'"
As much as emotion had fueled Miami's performances the last few seasons, particularly in the Hurricanes' biggest games, the scene in the visiting locker room was quite different from the chaos that reigned in the Irish quarters. Far from being fired up to go play, the defending national champions were annoyed with the unnecessary distraction before the biggest game of the season.
"Usually that kind of stuff -- the sideline stuff and the stuff before games -- if you really look back, somehow it's always found to be a walk-on or a kid who's played three plays in a game at most," says offensive lineman Mike Sullivan. "The guys who are really getting ready to play, you generally don't want to expend that much energy. In warm-ups, you're just trying to get off the field.
"It was exactly that: A kid, a freshman, cut through their line, and the kid probably had more than enough room to run around the edge, but it was probably his first trip away," he continues. "The unfortunate part about being Miami, as time went on, were the kids who went to Miami expecting to carry the mantle of swagger that didn't understand that the guys who came before were football guys first and showmen later."
Instead of intimidating Notre Dame, the Miami freshman had ignited a pack of blue and gold dynamite. Holtz finally coerced his team to calm down and then ripped into them for letting the Hurricanes draw them into the pregame fight. That wasn't the Notre Dame way, he said. Holtz continued to talk for about ten minutes, skillfully bringing a room about to boil over down to a low simmer. Finally, as kickoff approached, he concluded perhaps the most important lecture he would ever deliver.
"You have an afternoon to play, a lifetime to remember," Holtz said. "But I want you to do one thing: You save Jimmy Johnson's ass for me!"
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