No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 7 Miami will play Saturday (8 p.m., ABC and ESPN App) as ranked teams for the first time since 1990, rekindling memories about the heated, and sometimes nasty, rivalry between the two schools in the late 1980s.
Thirty years later, the emotions are still raw for anyone who had a stake in the games. Between 1987-90, Miami and Notre Dame faced off as top-10 teams every season; in 1987, 1988 and 1989, the winner of their game went on to win the national championship.
Former Miami WR Randal Hill: "This rivalry is good vs. evil. It is the Hall of Justice vs. the Legion of Doom. It is the Jedi Knights vs. the Sith Lords, because we were the everyday men, and they were the ones with the silver spoon. In our opinion we represented the people who are working hard to get to that plateau being champions. They represented the total opposite."
Former Notre Dame DL Chris Zorich: "That game was absolutely different. We had been looked upon as these choir boys, and Miami walked in as these renegade rebel guys, so we had something to prove. They have this legacy of having these bad-ass players kicking butt in college and then the NFL. A lot of it wasn't that we were intimidated. I was recruited by them. A lot of these guys had friends on the team. It wasn't like we were some high school team. We felt we could go toe-to-toe with these guys, where in the past, guys were scared of Miami."
So what is the best way to explain this rivalry? How did it become so big that 30 years later, the memories come flooding back on cue? We talked to former and current players and coaches to get their perspective now that the rivalry is renewed.
First, we should go back to the beginning.
Miami and Notre Dame began an annual series in 1971, one the Irish dominated up until 1981, when Howard Schnellenberger began to transform Miami into what we know it to be today. In 1983, Miami was unranked; Notre Dame was No. 13. Miami won 20-0.
Schnellenberger: It was a pivotal game. When we started in 1979, I said we would win a national championship in five years, so this was in the fifth year, so it was very, very important that we do what we promised we would do. This was a stepping stone toward our master goal."
In 1984, Miami won for the first time in South Bend, in just the second night game played at Notre Dame Stadium. But the game in 1985 is when everything changed. By then, Jimmy Johnson had taken over for Schnellenberger.
Johnson: "We won 58-7, and they accused us of running up the score, but we didn't run up the score. They did. They played so poorly, and we emptied the bench. We played every substitute we had throughout the whole second half of the ball game, and they criticized us for blocking a punt. They only had 10 players on the field when we blocked the punt. It wasn't our doing that ran up the score it was their poor play that ran up the score. But that kind of built it up."
Miami safety Bennie Blades: "Those of us who played during my era, most of us grew up watching Notre Dame football. Win one for the Gipper and all that. I took a trip to Notre Dame. I wanted to be a Golden Domer. But when I got up there, a few of the recruits I was up there with, they knew they were coming to Notre Dame -- the arrogance of those guys, just pissed me off. My weekend there I told them, 'I tell you what. I'll be back, I'm going to sign with a school where we're going to come back and whip y'all ass.'
"Wait, so Notre Dame is beating teams 49-0, 56-6. ... Oh there was no problem as long as you were doing it; the minute Miami started doing it, we were low class, a bunch of hoods and thugs. Wait a minute. We're just a bunch of kids having fun. Just because you couldn't play good defense and your offense was terrible, that doesn't mean it was us."
Barry Alvarez, Notre Dame assistant from 1987-89: "The guys that had been there when they were humiliated, there was probably a little more animosity and dislike than the ones who were there. ... Ara [Parseghian] was doing TV back then. The Notre Dame people thought that Jimmy Johnson ran the score up, and it was humiliating for them. What did Ara say? 'From these ashes, Notre Dame will rise again.' There were T-shirts made up for that."
The win in '85 gave Miami four wins in five games against the Irish, after Notre Dame had reeled off 10 straight victories from 1971-80. That didn't sit well in Notre Dame.
The teams didn't play in 1986. But when they took the field on Nov. 28, 1987, Notre Dame was No. 2 and Miami was No. 10.
Miami won again, this time 24-0.
Blades: "It started manifesting itself because of that '85 year. So when we played them again in '87 and they got another beatdown, the rivalry really intensified because they knew man for man, pound for pound, player for player, they were not as good as anybody we put on the field. ... They all thought we were thugs. If that's what you think we are, we're going to take that persona and use it to our advantage. They were just a spoke in the wheel that was on our way to the national championship."
Then came 1988.
Zorich: "They talked about the Catholics vs. the Convicts. The players had nothing to do with that. It was just some guy who created the T-shirt. We had great respect for them. ... . The media jumped on the whole bad guys vs. good guys. For us, it was like those are our friends on the opposite side of the ball. They're good and we have to prove ourselves because before '88, we weren't that good."
It was not just the media that jumped on that perception. Things looked different from the Miami sideline.
Hill: "When we visited Notre Dame, we were called every N-word in the book, we were spit on and we basically got off on it. We enjoyed it because we enjoyed doing our best to embarrass people and making them understand that in South Florida we're very diverse and we represented not just a school but an entire community. It's not the individuals we disliked because a lot of us are still friends. It is what Notre Dame stood for: Touchdown Jesus, them talking Catholics vs. Convicts; them letting the grass grow a little bit higher so they could slow us down on game day; them getting all the calls because they're Notre Dame. So when you get to the University of Miami, you have to play your schedule, but there are certain games you're automatically drawn into like a black hole: Notre Dame is one."
"This rivalry is good vs. evil. It is the Hall of Justice vs. the Legion of Doom. It is the Jedi Knights vs. the Sith Lords because we were the everyday men, and they were the ones with the silver spoon." Former Miami WR Randal Hill
Former Notre Dame assistant Pete Cordelli: "Nobody's going to come into South Bend and intimidate us. But the big deal was these guys from Miami, they had that swagger. So they're in the end zone [pregame] and they're coming through our guys, and they hit a couple guys in the back. That's when the fight broke out."
Cordelli: "You know that concrete tunnel at Notre Dame? Rocket [Ismail] climbs up the side. He looks like Spiderman. I'm going, 'No! No!' He jumps off the wall onto one of the Miami players and he's trying to hit his helmet with his hand. He came off the top rung, no fear. I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me?' When we went back in the locker room, he goes, 'Did you see me? I wore that guy out. I won the fight.' I said, 'Let me see your hands.' His knuckles were bleeding. He said, 'I won the fight.' I said, 'You didn't win anything.'"
Former Notre Dame flanker/defensive back Pat Eilers: "As dominant as they had been that season and the prior season, not losing a game and the swagger that they carried, it was a real challenge them coming in. But we had a bunch of tough, hard-nosed players that weren't going to be intimidated by that. So we probably brought the best out in Miami, just because of how we carried ourselves in our program, and they brought the best out of us, for the same reasons."
No. 4 Notre Dame upset No. 1 Miami 31-30 after Pat Terrell batted away a 2-point conversion pass with 45 seconds to play. But the controversial play happened earlier in the quarter, when Cleveland Gary was ruled to have fumbled on the goal line.
Johnson: "Had we had instant replay in those days, we would have beat them four straight and won another national championship, but unfortunately it didn't work out that way."
Notre Dame won the national title instead.
Johnson left after that season, but Miami and Notre Dame weren't done.
Former Miami receiver Lamar Thomas: "I will never forget JJ's last words before he walked out the door. With tears in his eyes, he said, 'BEAT NOTRE DAME!!!'"
In 1989, Dennis Erickson took over as Miami head coach. This would be the first time he'd ever coach against Notre Dame.
Erickson: "I've been in a lot of rivalries in my life, but those games against Notre Dame at that time were the biggest ever in college football. There was nothing like it. So in '89, it was built up because we had lost the year before. I remember going to the Orange Bowl, and our locker room was kind of underneath the Orange Bowl, and two hours before the game, I hear this foot stomping and the whole place is packed, screaming and yelling. This is two hours before everyone comes out and warms up. It was unbelievable. I've never been in a game like that."
"This week is kind of like -- it's old-fashioned. It's both where these programs should be. It's what college football wants and in some ways, it's what it needs." Notre Dame OL Mike McGlinchey
Zorich: "There was a lot of controversy because we started to get in a fight again, and [Lou] Holtz said, 'If you guys get into a fight again, I'm going to retire and leave.' That was in our pregame. So we go back in the locker room, that took all the air out of us."
The play that changed the momentum happened when Miami faced third-and-43 from its own 7 in the second half, with the score tied.
Hill: "People ask me well that play was called in the huddle. It was called as a draw to get back a few yards. And we all looked at each other in the huddle and with the egos and the intensity that we had, there's no way we were going to call a draw so we called, I remember the play, 93 Y up tailback option, which is basically three verticals and another receiver doing an option route, so of course the ball is going to go to the fastest guy, which is me."
Erickson: "It was an unbelievable play. Randal was faster than anybody Notre Dame had. It was a great throw and catch and turned the game around from that time on. Biggest play probably in Miami-Notre Dame history."
Hill gained 44 yards and Miami won 27-10 en route to another national championship.
Cordelli: "The week of the game in '90, we had a feeling that this was going to be it, that the administration made a decision that this was going to be it. As coaches, we didn't want to lose to Miami if this was the last time we played them. All we could think about is we're not in a conference, only time we're going to play Miami is if it's a bowl game. So we prepared our guys like, 'Fellas, this is the last time. Let's get after their ass.'"
Hill: "We weren't the ones who stopped the rivalry, they did."
Notre Dame won that final meeting 29-20. The teams played three times after that, but never with the stakes as high as they will be on Saturday.
Though no player on either team was born during the heyday of the rivalry, players from both sides know exactly what is on the line.
Miami linebacker Shaq Quarterman: "I don't know how much the whole team knows, but we all know that we can't lose to them. It's just the standard that was set before us."
Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey: "This week is kind of like -- it's old-fashioned. It's both where these programs should be. It's what college football wants and in some ways it's what it needs."
Miami receiver Ahmmon Richards: "They don't like us and we don't like them, but that's pretty much how it goes. It makes you want to play even that much better. But at the end of the day we have bigger goals in mind."
Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini: "I saw the '30-for-30.' Before that I really didn't have a great knowledge of what the rivalry was. It was kind of my own experience with it. ... I thought it was really interesting. But it got out of hand. But now it's just more about two really good teams playing against each other."
Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz: "They hear about it in the way grandparents tell stories to their children, but they are aware, they know. For me, the third-and-43 game -- I remember being there that night, a night game in a Saturday night in Miami, and the Canes weren't going to lose at home."
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: "You know Jimmy Johnson, Lou Holtz. You know that kind of the tension around the game. They didn't like each other. And I think it was a big news story back then. I think it was probably the first time when news was created around the game."
Zorich: "I would just say it was indescribable playing in that game and having our little four-game run because it would be the equivalent of two Alabama teams playing each other."
Eilers: "I go back to what Coach Holtz said in the locker room before our game: 'You've got an afternoon to play and a lifetime to remember.' That's what makes it special. I hope they have as memorable an afternoon as we did."