Football: Notre Dame, Miami set to renew rivalry at Sun Bowl

15 Oct 1988: Quarterback Steve Walsh of the Miami Hurricanes passes the ball during a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won the game 31-30. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

Steve Walsh throws a pass in the legendary '88 Catholics Vs. Convicts game. (Source: Yardbarker.com)

Notre Dame and Miami planned to renew their rivalry in 2012 at Soldiers Field in Chicago, but the Sun Bowl football selection committee had other plans.

Sun Bowl chairman John Follmer confirmed Sunday that Notre Dame will play Miami in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Though both teams are just 7-5, Follmer was ecstatic to have landed such a prestigious rivalry. (Chicago Breaking Sports)

“It’ll be a great matchup,” longtime Sun Bowl selection committee chairman John Folmer said. “In our 77 years and my 40 years (with the bowl), 35 years as chairman, I never thought this would happen. You gotta be kidding me.”

Notre Dame and Miami first played in 1955, but the rivalry did not heat up until the mid-80’s, when both teams were national powerhouses. Miami won three national championships during the 80’s, and they beat Notre Dame in each of those three seasons (’83, ’87, ’89).

The rivalry gathered steam in 1985 when Miami stomped Notre Dame, 58-7, and the Canes were criticized for running up the score in Gerry Faust’s last game as the Notre Dame coach. But the rivalry we know truly began the next season when Lou Holtz took over as the head coach of Notre Dame.

Lou Holtz was the perfect foil to Jimmy Johnson, the Miami head coach from 1984-88. Johnson, a former national champion as a defensive lineman at Arkanas, was a fast-talking southerner: brash, cocky, and full of bravado. Holtz was a lily-white, bespectacled coach known for his enthusiasm and affability.

Both teams adopted the personality of their coaches. Miami was a lawless bunch, best known for its trash-talking and showboating. Michael Irvin best exemplified the Hurricane stereotype. Irvin was an all-world talent and he wasn’t shy about telling anybody. He’d celebrate his touchdowns by pointing skyward, he’d celebrate wins with cocaine, strippers, and all-night parties. The Miami Hurricanes of the ’80’s were the ‘bad boys’ of college football and that was just fine with them. They had an us-against-the-world mentality and were motivated by all the criticism.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, was America’s darling. To so many people, the Irish represented what was great about college football. Notre Dame was–and is– a Catholic school with a reputation for both academic and athletic success. Notre Dame prided themselves not only on winning, but on ‘winning the right way.’ The Irish were motivated by the hallowed tradition of Notre Dame, by the ghosts of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, and the other Notre Dame greats.

But the rivalry was about more than just Holtz vs. Johnson, or the up-and-comer (Miami) vs. the traditional power (Notre Dame). The rivalry was so heated, so explosive, because of its racial undertones.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I think its fair to say most whites rooted for Notre Dame, while most blacks rooted for Miami. Miami was one of the first major programs to focus its recruiting on inner-city athletes. Most of Miami’s players were poor, black kids who grew up in the ghettos of South Florida. The Hurricanes burst onto the national scene in the 1980’s, proudly displaying and representing black culture at a time when many college football fans weren’t ready for it.

A Notre Dame student named Patrick Walsh summed up white America’s attitude toward ‘The U’ perfectly when he began selling Catholics vs. Convicts tee shirts in advance of the 1988 game between the two teams. Yes, the Miami football program had had a few arrests, but the underlying message  that the poor, black kids from Miami were convicts, while the privileged Irish players were “good Catholic boys” was certainly racist.

The two teams disliked each other and the importance of the game served to ratchet up those emotions. Miami was ranked No.1 and riding a 36-game regular season winning streak, while Notre Dame was also undefeated and ranked No.4. The winner of the game had a good chance of winning a national championship. Emotions boiled over even before the opening kickoff, in this pregame shoving match:

The game was ultimately decided in the final minute, when Johnson elected to go for a two-point conversion with his team trailing 31-30. The two-point conversion failed and Notre Dame  finished the season 12-0 and No. 1 in the nation–right ahead of the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes.

Miami turned the tables in 1989, defeating the Irish 31-10, halting Notre Dame’s 23-game winning streak. In 1990, the last game between these two teams, Notre Dame crushed No. 2-ranked Miami’s national title hopes with a 29-20 victory in South Bend.

A lot has changed since these two teams last met in 1990. Miami won two more national championships (’91, ’01) and ascended to the college football elite before faltering under recently fired coach Randy Shannon. Shannon took over the head coaching position from Larry Coker, who had an .800 winning percentage as the Hurricanes coach and won a national championship in 2001. Shannon never met the high expecations surrounding the Miami football program, struggling to a record of 21-18 in his tenure.

Shannon was finally fired after his team, ranked 15th in the preseason, lost to South Florida to fall to 7-5 on the season. The Hurricanes are stocked with talent, recently placing nine players on All-ACC teams, but the talent has not translated into wins.

Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has assumed the head coaching duties as the Miami athletic director frantically searches for a high-profile replacement. Jon Gruden was approached about the job but declined, while former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is lobbying hard.

 Notre Dame, meanwhile, has recruited, scheduled, and received the exposure and attention of an elite football program, but has not won enough football games to realistically claim that status. However, Notre Dame is one step ahead of Miami, already having made their high-profile hire in first year coach Brian Kelly.

Earlier in the season, Kelly took a lot of heat from fans and media alike–with some even calling for his head–but Kelly has turned his team around, winning his final three games without his starting quarterback, All-American tight end, starting halfback, and starting nose guard. 7-5 is certainly not the goal in South Bend, but there are a lot of positive to take from Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame and the progress that’s been made.

Both teams are now in the odd position of being judged against history, of having to restore their program to national prominence. In the 80’s, Miami was the up-and-coming team, while Notre Dame was the college football power. Now, both teams are trying to claw their way back to the top–one win at a time.

A win over Miami or a win over Notre Dame might not pack quite the punch it did in the ’80’s, but it still means something. Most of the players on both teams are too young to remember the rivalry, but they should still provide us a great game.

These two teams are no longer standing in each other’s way of a national championship, they are standing in each other’s way for a return to national significance.

The game may not have the luster, the shine, the build up of those games in the ’80’s, but it will certaintly have the effort and the determination to succeed.

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