The legacy of the infamous 'Catholics vs. Convicts' T-shirts

At the end of ESPN's newest 30 for 30 film, "Catholics vs. Convicts," as the curtains drop and the credits roll on the piece that looks back at the T-shirt that inflamed the Miami-Notre Dame rivalry in 1988, former Irish basketball captain Joe Fredrick recounts how a friend told him he would have been better off trademarking the phrase, a move with which Fredrick wanted nothing to do.

"Until I read later there were a couple finance kids [who] did trademark the phrase and they sold about a half-million dollars worth of Catholics vs. Convicts shirts," Fredrick says, laughing. "Then I said, 'Man, maybe I should’ve trademarked it.' "

Fredrick is a heavy presence in the documentary premiering Saturday, after the Heisman Trophy ceremony, on ESPN and the ESPN App. The film mostly revolves around Fredrick's college buddy Pat Walsh, who is largely credited with coming up with the "Catholics vs. Convicts" T-shirt idea, a label that follows both the Irish and the Hurricanes to this day.

When the two programs met Oct. 29 at Notre Dame Stadium for their first on-campus matchup in 26 years, a handful of Irish fans were spotted around tailgates wearing shirts bearing the phrase. Likewise, several visiting Canes fans got into the spirit of the rivalry (and looming Halloween) by wearing orange jumpsuits to the contest, a 30-27 Notre Dame victory.

But did others really capitalize that much on the intensity of the rivalry, which grew so hot that the series was canceled after the 1990 season?

Said Victor Bierman III, a former Notre Dame student who, along with fellow student and business partner Alan Sorce copyrighted the popular phrase in 1990: "No, none whatsoever. I could tell you I wish we actually made half a million dollars off it."

Bierman estimated the total to be in the $25,000-$30,000 range.

Added Sorce, when asked how much he grossed: "I don't know. One of our strong suits was not necessarily keeping the books straight. There's an old saying that when you're charging a dollar and it costs you a penny, who needs accounting? That wasn't really the thing. We just kind of took it by storm.

"Now, I'll tell you this: We played the marketing game. How many shirts were we selling? We were selling a lot. We sold a lot. We sold a lot. We paid for a lot of it to happen for ourselves. So what's the exact number? I don't know. It was a good number, but I don't know really. I really don't. I should go back and count the numbers some day, but I don't even know if I could."

The budding entrepreneurs were profiled the day before the Oct. 20, 1990, meeting by Notre Dame's student newspaper, The Observer, which noted the two had "not grossed over $100,000 in T-shirt sales overnight. But close to it." The article also stated that the duo sold more than 14,000 T-shirts in less than three months. And that was before game day.

An Indianapolis Star article from Oct. 15, 1990, stated that the two "have grossed $108,000 so far."

The copyright issues that got Walsh in trouble were avoided with the 1990 version that simply stated "Catholics vs. Convicts III" on the front and on the back read "The Final War. October 20, 1990. Take no prisoners." There was no mention of either school or images of logos. The only real "rule" was that the shirts could not be solicited or sold on campus grounds.

Instead, local businesses ate the shirts up, with Sorce recalling Bierman selling the first 100 shirts to a bar owner who asked for more to sell at his establishment. Ads were taken out in The Observer and Blue and Gold Illustrated. Mail orders were accepted, too.

On the morning of games, Bierman's dad, who lived in South Bend, would run over doughnuts to his son and his colleagues. The group set up shop off campus, not far from the Linebacker Lounge, Sorce said, with a rental truck storing the shirts and an assembled group of roughly 15 who had obtained licenses from the city to do mobile sales. Those workers would skate and bike across town with shirts, returning with bags of money. Among the luminaries to stop by their hut was Paul Hornung, Bierman and Sorce said.

Having both graduated in 1991, Bierman is now a business health professional in Cleveland, and Sorce works in commercial construction outside Chicago. They have never talked to Walsh, the godfather of the phrase Catholics vs. Convicts, but spirits are congenial.

"When you think about it, it's flattering to have somebody copy something that you did," Walsh said. "And so how could I [do] anything but say, 'Yeah, that's cool.' "

Sorce, who like Bierman was a finance major, has long been fascinated with the ownership debate from a philosophical standpoint.

"We never looked at enforcing it," Sorce said. "We looked at this most recent game thinking about doing something to revive it, but we never did. It is what it is, and if someone wants to do it just like kind of in a way the original guys, if you would say, did it, and didn't do anything to protect it, is it our guys'? That's a good question."

He later added, "It was always for the fans, it was always for the fun of it. It was nothing but fun. The money is the byproduct, right? They usually go hand-in-hand. So who owns it? It's a good question. I don't know. Who owns it? I mean, we do, but who really does?"