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How the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry earned the nickname ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’

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A t-shirt made in 1988 gave the rivalry a nickname that still sticks today and led to a new ESPN doc, debuting after the Heisman ceremony.

Craig Erickson
From the 1990 game

If you’ve ever been around the Notre Dame-Miami series — one that’s been around since the 1950s — you’ve probably heard the nickname “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

The “Catholics” part is obvious. Notre Dame is a Catholic university whose history dates back to the 1840s. However, if you’re a younger fan, you might not connect the dots to the usage of “convicts” right away.

Toward the end of the annual series, Miami and Notre Dame had one of the most heated and substantial rivalries in all of college football. They’d played almost every year since 1971, but the game took on national stakes in the 1980s.

They later met in the 2010 Sun Bowl and in 2012, and now that Notre Dame has an ACC partnership, they’ll play every three years, including this Saturday in South Bend (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Until 1980, Miami was nobody special. Notre Dame was.

The Canes had been to a couple Orange Bowls, but had otherwise made little national impact. That changed when Howard Schnellenberger arrived, established the “State of Miami” as a recruiting priority, and installed winning swagger, later elevated by Jimmy Johnson.

That meant Notre Dame, one of college football’s greatest powers at the time, suddenly had a new threat among its fellow independents.

Schnellenberger’s Canes broke an 11-year losing streak to Notre Dame and won the 1983 national championship. The program would win five of six meetings with the Irish before the fateful 1988 game.

After the Canes’ second title in 1987, everyone in the country was looking to knock off the cocky, incredibly talented team.

The Hurricanes had shut out the Irish, 24-0, in 1987, Notre Dame’s first shutout since ... Miami shut them out in 1983. Johnson’s Hurricanes were widely criticized in 1985 for putting up one of the worst beatdowns in Notre Dame history, 58-7. From an ESPN 30 for 30 on the Canes:

Oct. 15, 1988 in South Bend, Notre Dame was out for revenge. The Hurricanes entered as the No. 1 team in the country and ND was ranked fourth, the fourth time the two had met as ranked teams but by far their highest-ranked meeting yet.

The shirts seen ’round the college football world

Two Notre Dame students — Joe Fredrick and Pat Walsh, with the help of Patrick Creadon, who is the director of ESPN’s upcoming 30 for 30, Catholics vs. Convicts — had decided to come up with t-shirts to sell leading up the the big game.

Walsh, who had a passion for entrepreneurship, was attempting to walk-on to Digger Phelps’ Fighting Irish basketball team when he met Fredrick, the hoops captain.

From the director’s take for the upcoming 30 for 30, which will air on Dec. 10 following the Heisman Trophy ceremony:

He [Walsh] had built an underground t-shirt empire on campus out of our dorm room, and by the beginning of senior year he'd been warned by the university to shut it all down. Students were not only prohibited from running a business on campus, they were certainly not allowed to break copyright laws in the making and selling of t-shirts. Determined to keep his nose clean senior year, Walshy put aside his entrepreneurial pursuits and focused only on basketball.

[Fredrick]: "Walshy, I have a great idea for a shirt for the Miami game."

"No way," said Walshy. "That shirt will get me kicked out of school."

The shirts alluded to the Hurricanes’ brash, rule-breaking image and the Fighting Irish’s clean-cut persona (Miami players strongly disagreed with the latter assessment). As former Miami offensive tackle Leon Searcy puts it: “Spoiled, briefcase-carrying prep boys,” when describing Notre Dame players in the documentary, according to the Palm Beach Post.

What Frederick and Walsh probably didn’t realize was how popular the shirts would become. The saying went wild in the days leading up to kickoff and got national recognition.

Notre Dame beat Miami, 31-30, and would go on to win the national title.

But the game was ugly even before kickoff:

A fight ensued between most of the players on each team that had to be broken up by security officials. But what happened afterward in the locker room is what the Irish say really motivated them.

“Tempers were flaring,’’ [former ND linebacker Wes] Pritchett said. “There had been a fight of 80-on-80 and guys in our locker room were fired up. They were throwing chairs. One of the coaches broke a chalkboard. And Lou Holtz gets up and gives a speech. He ends it with ‘Guys, leave Jimmy Johnson’s butt for me.’ The way we stormed out of the locker room to go out there was like in ‘Braveheart.’ ’’

The two teams agreed to drop the rivalry after 1990, with Notre Dame officials feeling the series was too heated to continue.

The Irish won that game, which was dubbed “The Final Conflict.”

A few years later, Sports Illustrated called for the Hurricanes to get rid of football entirely, citing arrests, NCAA violations, and more.

Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Miami, 18–7–1, after a 30-27 2016 win.