Some rivalries are noteworthy because of their length. Some rivalries are noteworthy because of their geographical proximity. Some because the teams are natural rivals. And sometimes, a rivalry flourishes for none of those reasons, but because of the white hot animosity and hostility which just a few contests, and many words, can produce. So it it with Miami and Notre Dame.
The series started innocently enough in 1955. Miami was a southern independent without conference foes and without a natural rival in those days. The Florida State-Miami rivalry did not ingnite until the 80’s. Notre Dame dominated the early games against Miami, standing 12-1-1 against the Hurricanes throught the 1980 season.
Howard Schnellenberger was a fiery man who had played college football for Bear Bryant at Kentucky and later served as offensive coordinator for three of Bryant’s national championship teams at Alabama. When Schnellenberger arrived in Coral Gables in 1979, there were still high level administrative discussions debating whether Miami should drop football.
Schnellenberger would have none of it. He realized the immense talent under his nose and staged a football coup d’etat, against which the folks from Gainesville and Tallahasee were powerless to protest. Schnellenberger simply drew a line between Tampa and Daytona Beach and declared the rich talent preserve south of the the “State of Miami.” He considered it his private hunting ground. Schnellenberger was rising just as Faust was imploding and he started beatng the Irish including a 20-0 dismantling of the Irish in 1983 as the Hurricanes were marching to an unhthinkable National Championship. Schnellenberger grabbed the trophy and then went off to the NFL to coach the Colts.
A high school classmate of Janis Joplin in Port Arthur, and a college teammate of Barry Switzer and Jerry Jones at Arkansas, Johnson had a hard edge and preferred to provoke rather than engage people. Having come from Oklahoma State, where he never beat Switzer’s Sooners, Johnson was gleeful about the talent he inherited and the talent under his nose. He wasn’t recruiting Okmulgee and Sapulpa any more!
He looked around and decided to let his children play. You see, Howard Schnellenberger had coached “The University of Miami at Coral Gables.” About 18 months into his reign, Jimmy Johnson was coaching “DA U,” a toxic cocktail of finger-pointing, trash-talking, intimidation and badassitude. Texan or not, Jimmy Johnson was born to coach “Da U.” He even had Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew serve as his de facto “Director of Player Development and Makin’ it rain.”
Into this maelstrom, like a lamb invited to a slaughter stepped Gerry Faust. In his first year, in 1984, Johnson was still instralling a reign of terror on his defense. But the Canes were good enough to waltz into Notre Dame Stadium on a rainy night and thrash Faust’s Irish 31-13.
But the series’ die was cast in Faust’s finale in the Orange Bowl in 1985.
If ever sportsmanship had an antonym, it was Jimmy Johnson. Poor Gerry was in his finale, a dead man walking into the Orange Bowl. But Johnson chose to rob Faust of his last shred of dignity, cackling, smirking, calling punt block plays in the fourth quarter and running up both the indignity of it all and the final score to 58-7.
In a scheduling quirk, the Irish returned to the Orange Bowl for the next game in 1987. Holtz was molding his Irish but they were still a year away, and Johnson, his defense now in place, hung a rare shutout on Holtz, 24-0.
Christian University or not, Notre Dame students and fans seethed with vitriolic hatred against Johnson and his minions. It is suggested that revenge is a dish best served cold, but this plate would be piping hot. The Notre Dame community circled the date, October 15, 1988. As it approached “Catholics versus Convicts” t shirts sold like hotcakes.
October 15, 1988
Bright, sunny, football time in Michiana. The campus had that special aura, the aroma of a stew of equal parts adrenaline, vitriol and anticipation that had been simmering all week. These were not the tickets you gave away to the dentist or doctor. These were the ones you kept.
Da U came in chippy, but Notre Dame would not back down. A pregam skirmish erupted near Notre Dame’s hallowed tunnel as the teams left the pregame warmup. Never one to let a crisis go unexploited, Holt warned his troops that they were not to initiate any shenanigans.
“But, if Miami starts something, you are honor-bound to respond. JUST SAVE JIMMY JOHNSON FOR ME!” The team erupted on to the field, without even waiting for Holtz’ weekly “Let’s go.”
The Fighting Irish drew first blood, with Stams slapping the ball out of Walsh’s hand, but the Irish could not convert.
But the Irish were attacking, and later scored the first touchdowon of the game on a Tony Rice keeper from 7 yards out, following great blocks by the right side of the line and a fine block by Tony Brooks—for a 7-0 first quarter lead.
The Canes struck back in the second quarter on a short pass from Walsh to Andre Brown to knot the score at 7.
In the second quarter the Irish had the best of it for most of the quarter, with a long 57 yard pass to Ismail setting up a drive capped by a nine yard pass from Rice on a delay to Braxston Banks for the score. Later, the Cave family of Mishawaka would name their baby boy “Braxston” after Banks. Not a lot of people in Mishawaka named “Braxston.!!” 14-7 Irish.
Then came the play that caused the biggest eruption in Notre Dame Stadium since the green jersey entry of ’77. It was cooked up by the two defenders who had converted from offense. Walsh dropped back, heavily harassed by Frank Stams. Walsh got a little too much air under the ball and swooping in, with a receiver’s stride, hands and fluidity, Pat Terrell snatched the ball out of the air, and raced into the south end zone from 60 yards out and a magnificent and delirious 21-7 lead. The rout was on! Or not.
People who had watched Miami come back in Ann Arbor for a 31-30 victory by overcoming a 30-14 deficit with 5 minutes to go, then suffered deja vu. Johnson and Walsh turned up the jets and put up 14 points against a proud Notre Dame defense in just 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The score was 21-21 at the half, and serious, not morose, fans wandered the concourse at halftime. Jaws were clenched. The game was living up to the buildup. And then some.
Nervous, but excited fans filed back into the stands. Notre Dame belonged on the same field with the mighty Canes. But they sure belonged on the field with Notre Dame.
Midway through the third quarter, Johnson let impatience and hubris get the best of him. With a fourth and three at his own 46, Johnson went to an old standby, the fake punt. But you don’t outwit Lou Holtz on special teams, and indeed, the team did “save Jimmy Johnson for me.” Miami fans love to yak about the Cleveland Gary play, but this was the fulcrum of the second half. The fake punt. That Notre Dame stuffed.
Seizing the moment, on the next play, Rice went long to Watters to the 3 yard line. Then, on the next play Pat Eilers, the secret weapon, dove in from the three. punched it in. Irish 28-Canes 21. Holtz, five years later, would use this “unexpected weapon” ploy in a big game sending little-used Adrian Jarrell around right end on a thirty yard reverse against Florida State.
Later in the third quarter, Jeff Alm dropped into a lane and intercepted a pass, and the Irish marched down close enough for a Reggie Ho field goal as the third quarter waned for a 31-21 lead.
With about 2 minutes gone in the fourth, Carlos Huerta kicked a field goal from 23 yards and it was Notre Dame 31-Miami 24. Miami drove and with 6 minutes left, was knocking on the door, and Walsh tossed to Cleveland Gary who lost the ball and it was ruled a fumble with Notre Dame recovering at its 1. With a little over 3 minutes left, Stams banged Walsh again, forcing a fumble which Zorich recovered. But Rice, under duress from future Cane coach Randy Shannon, coughed up the ball inside the 20.
Time had seemed to stop. The game clock seemed as gooey and gelatinous as Dali’s famous clock.
With 45 seconds left, as he had for Miami’s first score, Walsh hit Andre Brown for an 11 yard touchdown Notre Dame 31, Miami 30.
Moment of truth. 2 point conversion. It seemed that destiny required this moment. 59,075 on their feet. George Williams pressured Steve Walsh, and Pat Terrell easily batted the ball away from Leonard Conley.
The Irish ran it out after the onside kick was recovered by South Bend Adams’ Anthony Johnson.
The Irish fans were delirious. The streak was over. Johnson and the Canes had been defeated. They stayed in the parties and the bars, and a surprising number looked up at the TV screen that night to see Kirk Gibson’s marvelous home run against Rollie Fingers and the A’s. During that telecast, Vin Scully offered “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” One quote, dual application.
The animosity was so great that the good Fathers at Notre Dame decided to let the series have a cooling off period after Notre Dame’s victory in ’90. The teams did meet in the Sun Bowl after the 2010 season and the 2012 Shamrock Series game in Soldier Field, both Irish victories to run the Irish edge up to 17-7-1. But now the Irish will meet the Canes about every third year as part of the ACC rotation. And those thrilling days of yesterday may return.
Notre Dame vs Miami
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