Oct. 5, 2012
By: Lou Somogyi, Blue and Gold Illustrated
A “classic” is defined as something that is most representative of the excellence of its kind.
Pachabel’s Canon in D, Dom Perignon 1921, a 1955 Ford Thunderbird … and Notre Dame-Miami 1987-90.
Once upon a time, the Irish-Hurricane football series was the most heated, intense rivalry in the nation.Tonight’s meeting marks the first between the two programs during the regular season in 22 years.
Two decades later, there was enough thaw in the history to renew the rivalry for three games over a five-year period from 2012 through 2017: Oct. 6, 2012 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Oct. 8, 2016 at Notre Dame and Nov. 25, 2017 in South Florida.
The two programs also met in the Dec. 31, 2010 Sun Bowl held in El Paso, Texas. Notre Dame’s 33-17 victory between the two 7-5 teams was a long ways from their titanic clashes 20-plus years ago, but it stirred the memory banks on both sides in “classic” fashion.
“I don’t care what the University of Miami’s record is, if you have Notre Dame on the schedule, you have to win that game,” former Hurricane wideout Randal “Thrill” Hill (1987-90) told The Palm Beach Post shortly after it became official that Miami and Notre Dame would play in the Sun Bowl.
The series became a classic somewhat by accident while encapsulating three different chapters.
Chapter One: Notre Dame Dominance
Heading into the 2010 Sun Bowl, Notre Dame held a 15-7-1 series advantage, with the first meeting in 1955, when Irish head coach Terry Brennan’s No. 5-ranked Irish won at Miami 14-0.
After three more meetings in the 1960s — all at Miami in November so the Irish could travel to a warm-weather site — the two programs agreed to a 20-year home-and-home series from 1971-90. They met each year except 1986 during that time.
A main reason why Miami became an attractive foe was because Notre Dame wanted to end each regular season at a warm-weather location. In even-numbered years it would be at Los Angeles versus archrival USC, and in odd-numbered years it would be Miami. However, the 1979 finale with Miami was moved to Tokyo, Japan, and the 1983 contest was shifted to the third game of the season.
In the 10 years from 1971-80, Notre Dame was 10-0 against the Hurricanes while out-scoring them 331-85, or an average victory of approximately 23 points per contest. It was hardly a “classic” rivalry because it was so one-sided, with the Irish holding a 12-1-1 advantage through 1980. The lone Notre Dame defeat occurred during the 2-8 campaign in 1960.
Miami had seven different head coaches in the 1970s.
Charlie Tate (1970) and Walt Kichefski (1970) — Tate coached two games in his seventh season at Miami before resigning because of what he called burnout from “fighting the money battle and other battles.” Kichefski was the interim coach the final nine games of a 3-8 season.
Fran Curci (1971-72) — The former All-American quarterback at Miami was only 32 years old when he was hired. Neither of his Hurricane teams produced a winning record, so he bolted at the opportunity to take the Kentucky job in 1973.
Pete Elliot (1973-74) — After producing the program’s first winning season in seven years — 6-5 in 1974 — Elliot stepped down to become the athletics director.
Carl Selmer (1975-76) — The future Notre Dame offensive line coach under head coach Gerry Faust finished 5-16 at Miami while attendance continued to dwindle. The 1975 Notre Dame game in Miami featured a paltry 24,944 in attendance.
Lou Saban (1977-78) — The well-regarded NFL coach took the position, but attendance remained disappointing. Even the 1977 national champ Notre Dame team drew only 35,789. Saban left after two seasons to take a position at Army.
Miami had become the consummate “NFL town” during that era, highlighted by Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins that produced the astounding 17-0 season in 1972. The offensive coordinator of that perfect team was Howard Schnellenberger.
The 1980s: The Rise Of “The U.”
Miami’s program finally rebounded once Schnellenberger was hired as the head coach in 1979.
In the 1980s, the balance of power in the Notre Dame-Miami series took a seismic shift in power for two reasons:
Schnellenberger’s recruiting prowess in the talent-laden state began to make “The U” into a national power.
Notre Dame hit a rough cycle when it hired Gerry Faust, the nation’s most venerated high school coach, to run its show.
Schnellenberger and Faust were both dynamic salesmen who enjoyed outstanding recruiting success. Faust’s first three recruiting classes at Notre Dame from 1981-83 were all ranked No. 1 or among the top three.
Conversely, Schnellenberger went into the inner cities of South Florida to recruit speed, speed and more speed. He developed an esprit de corps with the premier athletes — highlighted in ESPN’s “30 For 30” series in 2011 that featured “The U” and built a community pride, referring to his city as “The State of Miami.”
Then Schnellenberger would also cherry pick other sections of the country and find the proverbial diamonds in the rough whose talents he maximized.
An example was Jim Kelly of western Pennsylvania in 1979, Schnellenberger’s first year on the recruiting trail. The in-state Penn State Nittany Lions recruited Kelly as a linebacker — but Schnellenberger told him he can be a quarterback in his dynamic pro-style offense.
The future All-Pro gravitated toward Schnellenberger and received his first career start at quarterback in the eighth game of his freshman year in 1979 — at Penn State. Miami pulled off a 26-10 upset with Kelly passing for 280 yards.
A sleeping giant — The U –was beginning to awaken from its slumber despite a 5-6 finish in 1979.
In 1980, Schnellenberger steered Miami to a single-season school-record- tying nine wins, but Notre Dame still recorded its 11th consecutive victory against the Hurricanes, 32-14, in head coach Dan Devine’s final season.
In 1981, though, Schnellenberger’s third year and Faust’s first, the worm had fully turned in the series. Notre Dame ended Faust’s debut season with a 37-15 loss at Miami in which the Hurricanes built a 30-6 halftime advantage.
Further, Miami was beginning to rival the Dolphins as the hottest ticket in town. The 1981 victory versus Notre Dame drew 50,681 fans in the Orange Bowl, its highest total in 10 years — and nearly double the crowd at the 1975 Notre Dame game.
The U became “The Team of The `80s” with national titles in 1983, 1987 and 1989 under three different coaches (Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson), and near misses in 1985, 1986 and 1988.
Miami also was 5-1 against the Irish from 1981-87 while out-scoring them 184-51. Its five victories against Notre Dame were by an average of 27 points per game, and none by less than 18.
In games at Miami, Notre Dame was shut out in 1983 (20-0) and 1985 (24-0), defeated in 1981 (37-15) humbled 58-7 in Faust’s last game in 1985.
Closing Chapter: 1987-90
When Lou Holtz was hired by Notre Dame in November 1985 to succeed Faust, the program’s modus operandi was to recruit the caliber of athlete who could compete against the mighty Hurricanes.
From 1987-90, Holtz and recruiting coordinator Vinny Cerrato recruited four straight classes that were ranked No. 1 — most notably with future luminaries such as quarterback Tony Rice (1986) and defensive lineman Chris Zorich (1987) to help defeat college football’s new power.
Furthermore, the silver-tongued Cerrato was recruiting speed and premier talent at the skill position by the droves, highlighted by Ricky Watters and Todd Lyght in 1987, or Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and national player of the year Derek Brown, a tight end, in 1988.
Notre Dame didn’t play Miami in 1986, Holtz’s first year, and the lone break in the series from 1971-90.
Holtz’s first encounter with Miami came when his 1987 Irish were shut out 24-0 in the Orange Bowl (capacity audience of 76,640) while the Hurricanes were en route to their second national title. Thus, in the four meetings from 1983-87, Miami out-scored Notre Dame 133-20.
By his third year, Holtz had built a powerhouse that was validated with a 31-30 triumph against No. 1 Miami on Oct. 15, 1988, snapping the Hurricanes’ 36-game regular season winning streak.
That 1988 showdown is considered the most intense, electrifying and exciting game in Notre Dame Stadium’s 80-year history.
In a 1999 vote tabulated on Notre Dame’s athletics web site, Irish fans selected it No. 1 among the 20 greatest Notre Dame football moments in the 20th century.
The Irish finished No. 1 in 1988, while Miami was No. 2.
In 1989, those two rankings were switched when Miami ended Notre Dame’s school-record 23-game winning streak with a 27-10 victory. The Irish had built momentum and trailed only 17-10 in the third quarter when they pinned Miami deep in its own territory with a third-and-43 situation. The Hurricanes converted with a 44-yard completion to Randal Hill en route to a touchdown.
Finally, in 1990, a Notre Dame record five field goals by Craig Hentrich and a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ismail propelled the No. 6 Irish to a 29-20 victory over No. 2 Miami in 1990.
It was the final installment of a classic for the next 20 years.
With Miami now competing in the ACC and Notre Dame adding five games per season against ACC opponents beginning in 2014, the rivalry could have a renaissance in coming years.
Some classics do come back to form many years later.