By DOUG GRIFFITHS
I have been blessed to be able to witness some pretty incredible sporting events in my lifetime. There was the 2001 Rose Bowl, several NCAA Tournaments, other New Year’s Day bowl games, Big Ten Tournaments and countless regular-season games that were of the thrilling variety. But Oct. 15, 1988 was a day that ranks as memorable as any.
On that day one of my fraternity brothers and I were two of the lucky 59,075 to be in Notre Dame Stadium for the game that was known as Catholics vs. Convicts, which pitted Lou Holtz’s fourth-ranked Fighting Irish against Jimmy Johnson’s top-ranked Miami Hurricanes, the defending national champions.
Yes, we purchased the infamous t-shirts that said, ˜Miami Sux,’ on the front and had a phrase on the back that probably doesn’t bear repeating (remember it?). We proudly wore those mainly white tees as we took our seats above the north tunnel on that sunny fall day.
It didn’t take long for the fireworks to begin as the two teams got into quite a shoving match in and around the tunnel as pregame warm-ups were wrapping up.
You see, this was as heated a rivalry between two teams as any you could find at any level.
The bad blood had started in part because of how Miami had been known to run up the score a time or two against the Irish. After all, the Hurricanes had won the four previous meetings between the two schools, outscoring Notre Dame 133-20. One of those was a 58-7 shellacking in 1985 to Johnson’s bunch, which proved to be Gerry Faust’s final game as the Irish boss.
Holtz’s first game against Miami came in 1987. Although it wasn’t as lopsided as Faust’s finale, the Canes still had little trouble with the Irish, disposing of them 24-0.
So it came as no surprise that Holtz fired up his players prior to the ’88 kickoff by telling them they would fight Miami’s players, one by one. But they were to save Johnson for him.
Both teams were undefeated. Miami though was not only ranked No. 1, but had a 36-game regular season winning streak to boot.
The game didn’t disappoint. It lived up to all the hype and then some.
Miami scored a touchdown with just 45 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to pull to within 31-30. Rather than kick the extra point and settle for a tie – which would’ve been reminiscent of Notre Dame’s 1966 tie with Michigan State – Johnson opted to go for two.
Johnson’s decision proved costly. On the two-point conversion, Miami quarterback Steve Walsh’s pass was knocked down by Pat Terrell, giving Notre Dame the colossal victory.
The game was not without controversy. One play in particular is viewed as one of the most controversial in Hurricane history.
In the fourth quarter, Miami was faced with a fourth-and-seven deep in Irish territory. Walsh connected with running back Cleveland Gary across the middle of the field. Gary was hit and dropped the ball. Irish linebacker Michael Stonebreaker recovered the fumble at the 1-yard line.
Following the game, Johnson was adamant that Gary was down before fumbling and his team should’ve retained possession and had the ball first-and-goal from the 1. Even the Notre Dame school newspaper, The Observer, said Gary was down prior to coughing up the ball.
Nearly a quarter century removed from the game, Johnson is still bitter about that call.
In fact, this week he told Florida’s Sun-Sentinel that Holtz should be happy the Big Ten official gave him the game or he wouldn’t have won his national championship and I would’ve won my second.
Miami did get a break a few plays later when Irish quarterback Tony Rice fumbled giving the Hurricanes the ball on Notre Dame’s 21-yard line. Four plays later, Miami scored setting up the thrilling finish.
In all honesty, Miami had no one to blame but itself for losing. Notre Dame probably wouldn’t have had a chance had it not been for the Hurricanes’ seven turnovers, one of which was a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown by Terrell.
Rice, who threw for a career-high 195 yards passing, completing 8-of-16 aerials, started the scoring with a first-quarter seven-yard option keeper. He also accounted for a 57-yard bomb to wide receiver Raghib Rocket Ismail.
Notre Dame increased its lead to 21-7 when Rice hooked up with fullback Braxston Banks.
But the mighty offensive machine known as the Canes, led by Walsh, who ended the game with a career-high 424 yards passing and four touchdowns (completing 31-of-50 passes), mounted a furious rally to tie the game at 21 at halftime.
The Irish responded by taking a 31-21 lead in the second half.
After Miami’s two-point conversion attempt failed and Notre Dame ran out the clock, Irish fans stormed the field in celebration.
The game was named by USA Today as one of the greatest college football games of the period 1982-2002.
The Irish went on to finish 12-0 and won the national championship after beating West Virginia in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl. Miami wouldn’t lose another game the rest of the season and finished second in the polls.
Little did Irish fans know at the time that their beloved football program’s national championship that season would be their last.
So come Saturday night, Notre Dame and Miami will renew their rivalry for the first time in the regular season since 1990. I’m not sure what kind of fireworks there will be in the Windy City, but many of us college football connoisseurs will fondly remember back some 24 years ago to what truly was a college football classic. It was without question one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen in person and know firsthand why Notre Dame considers it the greatest victory in its storied history.