Outside of championship rings, the most famous piece of jewelry in sports this year belongs to the University of Miami Hurricanes. “The U” turnover chain — comically huge, made of 10-karat gold and flooded with sapphires — has since the start of the season been momentarily given to defensive players who cause fumbles, recover fumbles or grab interceptions. This new age reward system is, in many ways, a relic of its yester-decade swagger, when The U’s players proclaimed their own greatness and then lived up to it. The team reveled in its bad boy image and intimidated All-Americans even before the coin toss.
On Nov. 4, as the waning seconds ticked off the scoreboard at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, it was clear that “The U” is back. The field was in shambles. They remain undefeated. Alex Rodriguez even wore his own version of the Hurricanes’ turnover chain while cheering Miami on last week — beside his girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez. Its iconic “The U” nickname — bestowed upon the Hurricanes for their rebellious, tyrannical, infectious and infamous dominance over college football in the ’80s and again in the early 2000s — is once again part of the national conversation. Nov. 8’s 28-10 drubbing of ACC foe (and then 13th-ranked) Virginia Tech was a statement win. And as destiny mapped out in its own high-stakes GPS navigation, the Hurricanes now have a chance at revenge against the last team to defeat them and perhaps, historically, their most notorious rival: Notre Dame, which won 30-27 vs. The U on Oct. 29, 2016.
Saturday’s showdown, also at Hard Rock Stadium, is urgent for a litany of reasons. Future Sunday talent resides on both squads — Miami’s star safety and reigning ACC Defensive Back of the Week Jaquan Johnson and Notre Dame’s star running back and long-shot Heisman Trophy hopeful Josh Adams are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Both teams are ranked in the Top 10, meaning very real college playoff implications will be decided before a nationally televised audience. The No. 3 (Notre Dame) vs. No. 7 (Miami) clash is just a third of what will be a monstrous weekend in college football, with No. 1 Georgia taking on No. 10 Auburn and No. 6 TCU squaring off against No. 5 Oklahoma.
Players on both teams are, of course, cognizant of the Miami and Notre Dame lineage. Miami head coach Mark Richt makes it plain: “This is why I came back to my alma mater.” But none of his current players was alive when barely coded lines such as “playing the game the right way” and “Thug U” were a part of the national conversation. “Catholics vs. Convicts,” a T-shirt slogan created by a Notre Dame student and later the title of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, is a phrase firmly supplanted in football lore, describing their October 1988 clash — a titan of a sporting event surpassed only by a chaotically beautiful and controversial fourth quarter. Saturday’s game is important for what it means for the near future of both programs. Yet, the game itself takes a back seat to the hatreds it took to get here.
To understand Miami/Notre Dame is to understand the cultural dichotomies of the ’80s. President Ronald Reagan’s blueprint to “Make America Great Again” divided an already divided country that was neck-deep in recession. Crack cocaine flooded poor neighborhoods , setting off an epidemic that ripped apart black America. Inner-city plight was the backdrop for political campaigning and newscasts thirsty to capitalize on pain (but not the source). Race was still the straw stirring America’s proverbial drink. Sports were a big part of the cocktail.
“[The American public] likes narratives, and narratives are constructed in a lot of ways in sports. Sometimes it’s good guy vs. bad guy. Sometimes it’s black guy vs. white guy,” said University of North Carolina sports history professor Matthew Andrews. “Those … narratives historically have gotten a lot of juice.” Notre Dame and Miami, in many respects, would follow this same blueprint in the decade of Reagan, N.W.A and Showtime. But not before others paved the way first.
No fight, in the ’80s, represented black vs. white more than the June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney clash. “It was a dumb thing to do,” Cooney said later. He vehemently opposed the title of “Great White Hope.” Holmes walked away victorious after a 13th-round stoppage — and later became close friends with Cooney. “I made a lot of money that night,” Cooney told The Washington Times this year, “but the rest was all distasteful.”
The rivalry of the decade, between Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, represented two Americas despite the presence of black and white players on both squads. “People can say all they want about ‘it was just basketball.’ No, it was racial drama. That was part of the allure. Different styles of play, different places. Boston has its racial history. We saw that recently again with the whole Adam Jones incident,” said Andrews. “There was a lot of meaning and narrative in there.” Notre Dame and Miami followed a path already emboldened.
The Notre Dame/Miami matchup is 62 years old; a 14-0 shutout by the Fighting Irish in 1955 marks their first meeting. Notre Dame won 12 of the first 13 matchups, including a 40-15 thrashing at the Mirage Bowl in 1979 in Tokyo. Until the ’80s and the arrival of coach Howard Schnellenberger, Miami was a school with no conference, no tradition and nearly no football team altogether, as the school seriously considered dropping the sport because of funding and lack of overall interest.
Under Schnellenberger, Miami won the 1983 national championship. The arrival of coach Jimmy Johnson, and a 58-7 thrashing of a once-proud Notre Dame in 1985, changed both programs. Johnson represented Miami. A young, handsome, outspoken leader of men who could’ve been a Miami Vice regular, Johnson had players instantly enamored with his coaching style. He cornered a talent-rich region of South Florida, recruited young men from poor neighborhoods and placed them in what seemed the utopian Coral Gables campus. “A lot of my kids come from inner-city backgrounds,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons Miami doesn’t get a lot of respect, because your average football fan might not relate to that.”
In Miami/Notre Dame’s 1985 meeting, Johnson refused to take the foot off the gas, though often lost to history is the fact that Johnson played reserves the majority of the fourth quarter and a blocked punt came with only 10 players on the field. The Fighting Irish were in the midst of a coaching change, from beleaguered Gerry Faust to Lou Holtz. Johnson and Miami could not care less. From that moment on, hatred was cultivated. And Miami bathed in it.
As Miami’s program ballooned into a national powerhouse, so did its reputation. They were the bad boys of college football — an image that followed them throughout the decade and beyond. They bullied, trash-talked and ran by and through opponents. Numerous off-field incidents, alleged recruiting violations and rendezvous with law enforcement hung over the program. In January 1987, many members of the team exited a plane in Phoenix wearing Army fatigues — days before playing Penn State in the national championship. They lost 14-10. In a quote still embedded with the program, defensive tackle Jerome Brown notoriously asked, in what was supposed to be a skit, “Did the Japanese sit down and eat dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed it?” This was before the entire team walked out of a dinner catered for Miami and Penn State players. Regardless of their loss to Penn State, 34 players on that 1986 team were drafted. Twenty-eight went on to play in the NFL. By 1988’s meeting between Notre Dame and Miami, the game itself was billed as one of the biggest of the decade: “Catholics vs. Convicts.”
“Notre Dame hasn’t cornered the market on Catholic football players,” then-Miami quarterback Steve Walsh said before the game. Yet, the four Miami quarterbacks who defined the ’80s were all white and Catholic: Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Walsh. At the time, Miami’s entire starting offensive line and tight end Rob Chudzinski were too. Notre Dame ranked fourth in the country and was viewed as the college responsible for producing arguably the most NFL’s most recognizable megastar in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. The Irish were viewed as the classier squad, the Irish-Catholics who “played the game the right way.”
Meanwhile, the reigning champion Hurricanes rode a 36-game winning streak that spanned three seasons. The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins. The Hurricanes were as explicit as hometown heroes 2 Live Crew and, in their own way, as militant as Public Enemy. Miami football, Mike Tyson, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense and the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons — these four balls of energy ruled during a decade when America struggled to find its footing economically, racially and culturally.
Preceded by a raucous pregame brawl, the Saturday heavens favored Notre Dame in a highly debated 31-30 finish with controversial touchdowns and two-point conversions. Miami and Notre Dame played four consecutive years between 1987 and 1990. Miami lived up to its own hype, capturing national titles in 1987 and 1989 — the latter being Jimmy Johnson’s final request before moving on to the NFL ranks, where he’d soon ignite another generation-defining dynasty in the Dallas Cowboys. Notre Dame, immortalized by its 1988 victory over Miami, capped off its season with a title of its own. After the 1990 season, Miami would join the Big East, putting the rivalry on ice for 20 years. The two institutions have played twice since 2010, with Notre Dame winning both times and owning an overall 17-7 series lead.
The stereotypes of both schools remain. And with Miami’s resurgence has come the revival of the wicked narrative of “The U” being no more than a collection of correctional center All-Americans. Yet, in this decade there has been unfavorable publicity from South Bend to Coral Gables — Notre Dame during the embarrassing Manti Te’o debacle and ugly sexual assault and cheating scandals. The latter forced the university to vacate 21 victories from its 2012-13 seasons, including a 12-0 campaign that propelled the school to a national title matchup versus Alabama. And Miami with its crippling battle with former booster Nevin Shapiro that led to a self-imposed postseason ban and a 2013 ruling of losing nine scholarships after an NCAA investigation. Miami, though, has revamped its image in recent years. The team is a current co-recipient of the American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award, and its No. 3 ranking in the NCAA Community Service Top 25 is the highest in the ACC.
Now, the series shifts to its most important meeting in two and a half decades. National championship dreams and season-altering nightmares await both teams. The U’s chain will glisten under the prime-time lights of South Florida for the second consecutive week. Although Notre Dame’s game plan calls for the chain to be a moot point rather than a star attraction, as it was last week when Miami’s defense forced four Virginia Tech turnovers. It’s a fitting revival of a rivalry to serve center stage during a period of American unrest, as it did 30 years before.
History provides the foundation that gives this 2017 installment something no other game on Saturday’s schedule boasts. Notre Dame vs. Miami isn’t what it once was. And maybe that’s a good thing in some ways. But that doesn’t mean Saturday night can’t be the start of something real and relevant. Again.