Notre Dame vs. Miami has everything a prime-time game needs.
Two top-10 rivals, hype leading up to it, and College GameDay in town. Neither team was really expected to be this good this season, but they’re welcome surprises. The Canes built their undefeated record largely on one-score wins before dominating Virginia Tech while ND has looked dominant against everyone other than No. 1 Georgia.
But for all the fun inherent to this game, there’s something else: That nickname.
Let’s just get it out of the way.
If you’re still referring to the Notre Dame vs. Miami game as “Catholics vs. Convicts,” you’re using coded language. It’s become the unofficial name of the rivalry, and college football fans like to hang on to evocatively named games like the Red River Shootout and the World’s Largest Cocktail Party. But those rivalry names don’t deride a group of athletes as “convicts” for the image obtained by their predecessors 30 years prior.
As far as Miami’s concerned, these Canes are markedly different than their predecessors.
I’m not sure that even Miami fans really know what to do with them. This team has swagger, but it isn’t the same as it was in the 1980s or early 2000s.
No team is devoid of disciplinary issues. A walk-on QB was arrested for DUI and cocaine possession last September, and two were arrested for resisting arrest right before Mark Richt’s first spring practice. The QB is no longer on the roster, but the other two had their charges dropped and remain with the program.
At Georgia, Richt embraced one of the more strict drug policies in the country. The origin of the “Mark Richt has lost control” meme sprang from him constantly suspending and booting players for infractions that many other schools would’ve handled more quietly. So in fact, Richt tends to exercise more control that most coaches.
His Hurricanes lead the nation in community service, not player arrests.
Miami, in fact, was the No. 1 FBS football program last year in the NCAA’s community service competition. Players are required to put in hours in the offseason visiting parks, schools and places of charity, and in my experience covering those events, they do so eagerly. UM has players like Demetrius Jackson (a budding politician with big goals of helping his community), Chad Thomas (organizing a Christmas toy drive) and Braxton Berrios (finalist for a national “man of the year” award as well as the “Academic Heisman”).
And a coaching staff that once employed a much wilder version of Ed Orgeron now has guys who do this:
So what did these Hurricanes do to get people to invoke the “convicts” moniker? The answer lies in the turnover chain.
These badass Cuban links that adorn the neck of any Canes player who gets a takeaway:
They’re created by Miami’s own AJ the Jeweler, an idea spawned by former Cane Vince Wilfork. It is awesome, and probably the best of college football’s sideline props. And the links look familiar to anyone who’s seen a rapper from South Florida.
You know what comes next.
When the racists come out, you know THE U is back. pic.twitter.com/maYG8Agm8S— Billy Corben (@BillyCorben) November 6, 2017
Convict, like thug, can be a racial epithet. A Miami player wearing a prop to signify an achievement shouldn’t have any more of a “thug” connotation than Tom Herman wearing his custom-made grill to celebrate at Houston.
In the hook to the song that made the jewelry a national phenomenon in the early-2000s, Nelly sings, “Rob the jewelry store and tell 'em make me a grill,” but no one accused Herman of planning a robbery.
Richt says the chain is nothing but fun.
He went on The Herd and gave these comments about the jewelry:
“What’s wrong with that, you know?” Richt said. “People want to build it into something else. I can tell you — I tell my guys — I care more what is in your heart than how you wear your hair, if you’ve got a beard, or whatever the heck it may be.
“I care about how you act as a person and how you act as a teammate and a fellow student and all that. That’s what’s most important to me. We’ve got great — not good guys — we’ve got great guys on this team.”
For Richt, the concept of swag is just different.
“Swag is whooping the man on the other side of you! That’s what swag is,” he says. “Swag is, when the game’s over, we win the game! That’s what swag is.”
The rivalry’s unofficial name first adorned a T-shirt in 1988 made by two ND students.
At the time, the teams met every season, and that meeting determined the national champion in ‘88. Notre Dame won by one point on a questionable call in South Bend, then finished undefeated and No. 1. The Hurricanes finished 11-1 and No. 2.
Notre Dame has always purported itself to stand for everything that is good and pure in college football. The Catholic school in America’s heartland wants you to believe it is holier than thou. The words “God, country, Notre Dame,” appeared on the sleeves and helmet of an alternate jersey, and Touchdown Jesus oversees all.
In stark contrast, there was Miami. The 1980s Canes embraced the bad boy persona. They were loud, proud, and largely black. They showed up to a Fiesta Bowl in fatigues. They asked at a pre-bowl luncheon, “Did the Japanese sit down and eat dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed it?” before walking out. They owned their brashness. There were guns, alcohol, and drugs aplenty. There were also multiple run-ins with law enforcement.
But it’s not like those Irish were squeaky clean.
It took two teams to have a pregame brawl in 1988, after all. Afterward, then-coach Lou Holtz told his team to keep the game clean, but said that if the Canes wanted to throw down after the game in the parking lot, “hell yeah, if they do, fine,” per the 30 for 30 made about the ‘88 game. Per Pat Eilers (a player on that team) Holtz said, “You do me one favor: you save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me.”
That doesn’t exactly vibe with the image. Neither does five players testing positive for steroids from 1987-1990, or an allegation by a former player of much more rampant PED use. Holtz reportedly spit in a player’s face during a public scrimmage, and a longtime Holtz assistant said he saw the coach passing money to a recruit while at Minnesota. Holtz had a penchant for leaving NCAA violations in his wake. He did it at three different programs, including Notre Dame.
Toward the end of Holtz’s tenure, a booster was found to have embezzled over $1 million from her employer and lavished gifts on Irish players, mothering a child with one of them in a stretch from June 1995-January 1998. Holtz abruptly left after the 1996 season.
The recent Irish haven’t been without disciplinary issues and other off-field controversies. Six Notre Dame players were arrested in the summer of 2016, with one booted from the team. That was nothing out of the ordinary, but it shows Notre Dame has never above the fray.
Miami and Notre Dame have a classic rivalry. It doesn’t have to try to match an image, just because there was a 30 for 30 about it.
The Catholics are headed to Miami in one of this season’s biggest games. They will meet Canes, not convicts.