Notre Dame-Miami: 1990’s Final Catholic Vs. Convicts War

The Miami-Notre Dame rivalry had defined college football for the past two seasons, settling the national championship in both 1988 and 1989. But the bad blood emanating from the two schools persuaded administrators on both sides to drop the series.

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The bad blood even spilled into American culture, with a “Catholics vs. Convicts” paradigm, named after a T-shirt sold on the Notre Dame campus prior to the 1988 game and meant to further the White Hats vs. Black Hats image the two teams had—an image, that like most stereotypes wasn’t accurate on either side, but in which neither side—including black-hatted Miami—backed away from.

There was still one “Final War” to play and it would be on October 20, 1990 in South Bend. Notre Dame and Miami weren’t running away from the rest of country—in fact, neither would win the national championship. By October, each had lost a game. But when they met on the field, both were still alive in the title hunt and even had they not, the grudge match alone would have had the nation tuned in.

Notre Dame led 22-20 with a little more than six minutes to play. With the ball on the Miami 21-yard-line, Irish quarterback Rick Mirer founding running back Rodney Culver out of the backfield, and Culver moved up the sideline for a clinching touchdown in the 29-20 win.

The Irish would eventually get back up to #1 in the polls, but give it away with a home loss to Penn State where Notre Dame let a lead get away. They lost a heartbreaker in the Orange Bowl, when explosive punt returner Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, appeared to beat Colorado with a 92-yard punt return as his team trailed 10-9.

But the play was called back on a clip and Notre Dame lost for the third time, a number that was unacceptably high, given the standards Lou Holtz established with the program.

Miami did not lose again and finished the year ranked #3 in the final polls, but their season ended on a note that underscored what many believed about their football program and fit the black-hat imagery.

The Hurricanes went to the Cotton Bowl, ranked #4 at the time and meeting #3 Texas. The top two teams in the polls—Colorado and Georgia Tech—were in separate bowls, so if both somehow lost, it would open the door to winner of this game to be national champion.

While neither of the top teams would lose, if we backtrack to New Year’s morning, neither the Buffaloes or Yellow Jackets were highly regarded, and the notion that they might lose to Notre Dame and Nebraska respectively, was hardly out of the question. In short, Miami-Texas was a big game.

Instead, game would be a travesty. Miami dominated every which way and won 46-3. But they also drew repeated taunting penalties and piled up over 200 yards of yellow flags, heavily on unsportsmanlike conduct calls. It brought down a lot of heat on the Hurricane program.

To the ‘Canes supporters, it was people overreacting to kids having fun. To critics, it was another case of kids being apologized for solely because they were good football players and being allowed to act in a way that would be permitted of no other college student.

The Miami and Notre Dame football programs might not be playing each other anymore—they wouldn’t meet again in the regular season until 2012—but the Catholics vs. Convicts cultural divide raged on.