Aspen Times Weekly: ESPN’s ‘Catholics vs. Convicts’ explores glory and shame at Notre Dame

by Andrew Travers
"30 for 30: Catholics vs. Convicts" will premiere on ESPN on Saturday, Dec. 10. The Denver Film Festival hosted an early screening last month.
Courtesy photo |


‘Catholics vs. Convicts’ premieres Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. MT on ESPN after the Heisman Trophy presentation.

The 1988 battle between the Miami Hurricanes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish football teams was more than a game, as Patrick Creadon’s new ESPN “30 for 30” documentary makes clear.

It also was a Reagan-era culture clash between Jimmy Johnson’s flashy Miami bad boys and the “spoiled, briefcase-carrying prep boys” of Lou Holtz’s Notre Dame.

As one commentator puts it in the film, it was Notre Dame’s iconic “Win one for the Gipper” versus Miami’s “Win one for the stripper they had in the locker room.”

Improbably, a bootleg T-shirt by an enterprising and reckless Notre Dame student escalated tensions between the schools and gave the rivalry a name that’s lived in infamy ever since: “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

Creadon was a senior at Notre Dame in 1988 and was close friends with Pat Walsh, the kid behind the T-shirt. Creadon’s documentary, which premieres on ESPN on Sunday, Dec. 10, reflects his conflicted feelings about that season. The documentary is at once a fan’s celebration of his beloved team’s last championship run and a penitent look back at the T-shirt stunt that offended — and continues to offend — for its racist overtones and churlishness.

“You can call it racial undertones, socio-economic, ‘We’re the good guys and you’re the bad guys’ — whatever you want to say about that, I just though it was kind of tacky,” Creadon said last month after a screening of “Catholics vs. Convicts” at the Denver Film Festival. ”That was my take. And I thought it was not in the spirit of good sportsmanship.”

Walsh’s T-shirt business made him something of a campus renegade long before he silk-screened his “Catholics vs. Convicts” creation. His clever homemade shirts were wildly popular around campus, and made him a lot of money for a college kid, but flouted copyright laws and had drawn the ire of Notre Dame brass. He’d already been explicitly barred from making shirts before he crafted the infamous Miami-Notre Dame batch. And when the “Catholics vs. Convicts” shirts were traced back to him in October 1988, it had some relatively dire consequences for Walsh, including losing his walk-on spot on the Notre Dame basketball team.

“To this day it’s a very painful chapter in our lives,” Creadon said.

Creadon narrates the film himself and weaves together archival footage with commentary from Walsh, his classmates, players and fans on both sides, along with Johnson and Holtz. Together, this cast of characters tells the story of the T-shirt, the game and the implications of both. We hear Miami native and “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd explain the bitter resentment the shirt caused. We hear Notre Dame professor Richard Pierce explore the shame at his university over Walsh’s “not very Catholic” stunt.

Miami football’s bad-boy image was well-documented in ESPN’s two-part “30 for 30” documentary “The U,” and Creadon doesn’t re-tread that territory here. What he does instead, to fascinating effect, is examine Notre Dame’s perception of Miami and of itself.

The bigger cultural questions that Creadon asks in his film help it transcend the confines of a conventional sports doc. Landing in this fraught moment of late 2016 in the U.S., it can’t help but make you think about today’s roiling debates over white privilege and micro-aggressions and political correctness — not to mention the allegations of racism that have followed Holtz from his early-’80s dismissal from the University of Arkansas to that 1988 season at Notre Dame to his bombastic anti-immigrant speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention (Creadon’s film, for the record, does not mention them).

As for the game itself, it’s often cited as the greatest in Notre Dame’s great gridiron history. Creadon does it justice in the film. He tracks the rivalry from the bad blood sown by Johnson’s Miami running up the score against the Irish in 1985 to the pre-game fistfight that raised the already sky-high stakes. The documentary’s rousing portrait of the 1988 Notre Dame season and its riveting 30-minute retelling of the game itself will be catnip to the Fighting Irish faithful (as the product of a Notre Dame family, I can attest to the ’88 season’s enduring allure: my brother was a senior at the time and as an 8-year-old I attended the Purdue game in South Bend the month before the “Catholics vs. Convicts” matchup).

Two questionable calls late in the action — one going Notre Dame’s way, another going Miami’s — have kept arguments going about the matchup for 28 years and cemented its legendary status.

“I do think the shirt played a part in that,” Creadon said of the game’s place in college football lore. “It took that game and it elevated it. It gave it a name. It gave it a story — whether the story is true or not, whether the story is fair or not.”

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