ESPN's 'Catholics vs. Convicts' tackles epic Miami-Notre Dame game

ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary "Catholics vs. Convicts"

(CNN)ESPN likes to schedule "30 for 30" documentaries tied to college football history using the Heisman Trophy presentation as a blocking back, and it has found a worthy topic in "Catholics vs. Convicts." Inspired by the epic 1988 showdown between Notre Dame and Miami, the special profiles not just one great game but lingering attitudes around college athletics.

The story actually begins in 1985, when Miami, after Fighting Irish Coach Jerry Faust had announced his resignation, pummeled then-struggling Notre Dame by a score of 58-7.
Enter Lou Holtz, who instilled a new ethos at Notre Dame, setting up an eventual payback game against Miami and its coach, Jimmy Johnson, with whom Holtz had an antagonistic and complicated personal history.
All that, however, was augmented and framed by the "Catholics vs. Convicts" label, a name coined by then-Notre Dame students Pat Walsh and Joe Frederick, who had an enterprising (translation: unauthorized and trademark violating) side business selling T-shirts.
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As documented by director/narrator Patrick Creadon, who was a classmate of Walsh's as well as then-ND quarterback Tony Rice, the slogan took off -- inspired by legal difficulties experienced by a few Miami players -- despite its troubling racial implications, in the way that young black men are sometimes cavalierly referred to as "thugs." As the former Notre Dame players interviewed note, nor were they exactly choirboys, the "Catholics" label notwithstanding.
Holtz and Johnson were such colorful coaching figures that the project can't help but be entertaining, including Holtz's deadpanned line to his team that if they were going to brawl with the Hurricanes, to save Johnson for him. But the bigger picture is not just how such a personality can revive an ailing football power, but a larger view of the way people view and talk about athletes. (Announcer Brent Musburger recalls being handed one of the controversial shirts, which sold like hotcakes, but having the good sense not to mention it on air.)
ESPN, of course, contributes more to the excesses of college football than any single entity. The drumbeat begins with a host of mostly meaningless bowl games throughout December, leading up to the breathless analysis surrounding the four-team college football playoff, culminating with the championship game on Jan. 9.
Still, "30 for 30" is one of the few showcases where the sports juggernaut consistently aims higher. In that regard, "Catholics vs. Convicts" is both a nostalgic look back and a welcome table-settler for the coverage to come. And unlike most sports journalism, it tackles issues that can't easily be summed up on a T-shirt.
"Catholics vs. Convicts" premieres December 10 at 9 on ESPN.