Why 'Catholics vs. Convicts' is such a memorable game

The film "Catholics vs. Convicts" tells a terrific story that is mostly, but not entirely, about a terrific game. On Oct. 15, 1988, No. 4 Notre Dame upset No. 1 Miami, 31-30, when Irish free safety Pat Terrell batted away a two-point conversion pass by Hurricanes quarterback Steve Walsh with 45 seconds to play.

The film has several stories to tell, all of them compelling and not all of them about the play on the field. The story of bootleg T-shirts that a couple of enterprising Notre Dame students sold, including the one that gave the film its title, provides an emotional twist that makes "Catholics vs. Convicts" more than just a documentary about a football game.

But the game would have been a sufficient topic. The coaches, Jimmy Johnson of the Hurricanes and Lou Holtz of the Fighting Irish, had a history. The teams had a history. The game made history, although nearly three decades later it's still not even the most-remembered sporting event of that day.

A few hours after the game ended, Los Angeles Dodgers pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson limped to home plate and hit one of the most famous home runs in World Series history, the walk-off, two-run shot off Dennis Eckersley to beat Oakland, 5-4, and win Game 1.

Jack Buck's national radio call -- "I don't believe what I just saw!" -- is stamped indelibly in my memory, because I heard it as I drove to Chicago on the Indiana Toll Road after covering the Notre Dame-Miami game for The Dallas Morning News.

The football game, however, did not stay in memory. After watching "Catholics vs. Convicts," I wish it had. The film lays out the many story lines of the game:

  • How Miami, the defending national champion, had won 36 consecutive regular-season games and 16 in a row overall

  • How the Hurricanes had humiliated the Fighting Irish, 58-7, in 1985, five days after Notre Dame head coach Gerry Faust announced his resignation, and again in 1987, 24-0, on the way to their second national championship in four years.

You didn't do that to Notre Dame in those days, and the affront felt in South Bend added a tang to this game that is hard to imagine. I quoted Irish linebacker Ned Bolcar in the Morning News that week describing Notre Dame fans calling him in tears on the Sunday and Monday before the game.

"You hear the stir on campus about what Miami has done to Notre Dame over the years and [the Irish students] want this payback coming to them at home," Tony Rice, the Irish quarterback that season, said Friday on the ESPN Championship Drive podcast. "Coach Holtz wanted to take us out of that element."

  • How one of the great disappointments of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson's career occurred in 1975 when his retiring boss at Arkansas, Frank Broyles, did not promote him from defensive coordinator to head coach and instead hired the New York Jets head coach -- Holtz

  • How Miami back Cleveland Gary fumbled (the officials) or didn't fumble (the film) at the Notre Dame goal line in the fourth quarter

After the game, a disconsolate Gary said, "I just wish [the official] could explain the call. I don't understand. If my hand is on the ball and I broke the plane [of the goal line], and my knee is down, the ball is supposed to be ruled dead."

In the film, Gary said, "The toughest loss I've ever experienced in my life. If I could change that one play, maybe I would. Maybe I wouldn't."

He chuckled.

"Naah," Gary said, "I'm OK."

Walsh threw for 424 yards that day, an Irish opponent record (since broken). It would be the only loss of his two-year career as a starter at Miami.

"We knew that defensively Notre Dame was going to be talented," Walsh said on the podcast. "They had a much better pass rush than I was expecting. They put a lot of pressure on me. So that was something that we certainly weren't expecting. Normally we go into a game and Miami wanted to run the ball for 125 yards and throw for 275. We couldn't run it very well. I ended up throwing for 400. So we were a little out of our element.

"It kept us from winning the national championship."

There are many other stories told in the film, but what struck me the most wasn't said at all. The players, coaches and fans of Notre Dame and Miami sound like two retired heavyweights reliving a championship fight. Back then, no one could stop them. Now, they're old and out of shape.

It's not just that Irish went 4-8 this season. It's that they haven't won a national championship since the year that Catholics vs. Convicts took place. Notre Dame won its last six games by at least 13 points, defeating West Virginia, 34-21, in the Fiesta Bowl to finish No. 1. Miami, gave up 52 points total in its last seven games and finished No. 2.

It's not just the Hurricanes went 8-4 this season. They haven't won a national championship since 2001 and haven't won even the ACC since they joined the league in 2004.

"Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion," Walsh said. "The fondest thing I take from this game is it lived up to the hype."

The film resurrects that hype, too. It's great fun. And so long ago.