Notre Dame at Miami was not supposed to matter this year. It was merely going to be a chance to once again — for the fourth time in eight years — reminisce about the good ol’ days of the ‘80s. Perhaps the Irish or the Hurricanes could bolster their Camping World Bowl résumés, if not even catch the Citrus Bowl’s eyes. That would be an exceeding of expectations.
Miami finished 2016 with a victory over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl — formerly known as the Champ Sports Bowl and now the aforementioned Camping World Bowl. Mark Richt’s first season quieted the few doubters of his hiring, but it did not quite prove right those who believed from the outset in his return to his alma mater.
Notre Dame’s players spent December individually meeting with head coach Brian Kelly to discuss how to recover from a dismal 4-8 season. Many fans wanted to know only how Kelly still had a job.
This game was not supposed to matter. Publications were going to save on travel and cover it remotely. The few beat writers who made the trip southward could spend more time on the beach than preparing for the game. The talk of “Catholics vs. Convicts” would be soon followed by talk of how far away those years seemed from a football perspective.
Clearly, that is not the case. This is, quite literally, the greatest hurdle remaining for the Irish in the chase for a bid to the College Football Playoff. A loss would similarly dispatch the Hurricanes from those conversations.
Such a reversal is not usually this quick. Even if fans exercised the patience Kelly suggested they could have just earlier this week, that patience would have been considered short-tempered if it lasted through only this season.
Richt took over a program that had gone an even 16-16 in ACC play over the last four years. Contending for a conference crown, let alone a national title, in his second year seemed an outlandish proposition.
Take a look at Nebraska. Mike Riley would jump at these turnarounds. He hired Bob Diaco — yes, former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — to take over his defense with hopes similar to Kelly’s ideal scenarios with newly-hired Mike Elko. Elko is now a finalist for the Broyles Award, given to the best assistant coach in college football. Diaco is belittling the tackling techniques taught by his predecessor.
This game was not supposed to hold any of the importance of those late ‘80s matchups. It was not supposed to further the spread of that lore. Yet, this matters as much as those “Catholics vs. Convicts” tilts did.
But this is not Catholics vs. Convicts. This is not a rivalry rekindled. This is not a return to a few raucous evenings three decades ago.
Notre Dame and Miami met every year from 1971 to 1990 except for 1986. The Irish went 13-6 in that stretch, though only 3-6 from 1981 to 1990. By the time that legendary 1988 game rolled around, the two teams could not stand each other. Familiarity really did breed contempt. Their successes came to be defined by each other.
“Who are you without your fierce rivals?” Patrick Creadon will ask rhetorically. Creadon is the director behind the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “Catholics vs. Convicts,” released about a year ago. “You’re boring. You’re just some small program that doesn’t matter. Your heated rivals really are what define you as a program.”
Both independents, it made sense for Notre Dame and Miami to see each other every year. There was a rivalry, but it derived solely from the frequency of engagement, not actually from a perceived difference in cultures. The “Catholics vs. Convicts” angle was a catchy t-shirt phrase that caught attention because some considered it edgy.
“The thing about the film I’m really proud of, frankly, is I thought the t-shirt was awful,” Creadon said. “I really didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now. I think it smacks of bad sportsmanship and it’s very judgmental and it’s kind of hypocritical. All these awful things are kind of emblazoned across that shirt.”
There is an understandable irony to the director of the film criticizing the very catchphrase his documentary uses as its title. What was he supposed to call it? What if I told you Notre Dame and Miami played a football game in 1988 … just doesn’t set your DVR for you, does it?
Then the Hurricanes joined the Big East in 1991. They no longer needed the Irish to both bolster and fill up their schedule. That’s when the rivalry died. It didn’t die in a scuffle in a tunnel. It didn’t go over the edge when a special teams unit of only 10 men managed to block a punt. It died as everything dies in college football, with conference realignment.
It did not come back to life in the 2010 Sun Bowl. Held in El Paso, Texas, that event is absurdly, even bothersomely, close to both Juarez, Mexico, and New Year’s Eve. With snow outdoing the game’s namesake and Miami lacking a head coach, the Hurricanes looked so lackadaisical a spectator could have been forgiven for wondering how much the Dos Equis must have cost across the border the night before. (It was 75 cents a bottle, and the ‘Canes were nowhere in sight.)
Catholics vs. Convicts did not materialize in Solider Field in 2012 amidst a 41-3 Irish victory.
Aside from the premiere of Creadon’s work, the ethos of the late ‘80s was nowhere to be seen last year when Notre Dame bumbled its way to a 30-27 triumph, Miami’s last defeat to date.
This rivalry will not be renewed this weekend, not when the two teams are not scheduled to face off again for another seven years.
This is not Catholics vs. Convicts. It hardly ever was.
Thirty years ago, this was an annual game with many national implications. Somehow, that is what it is already again.