Remembering 'Catholics vs. Convicts:' A conversation with Notre Dame's Pat Terrell

Remembering 'Catholics vs. Convicts:' A conversation with Notre Dame's Pat Terrell

With Notre Dame and Miami playing an on-campus game for the first time in 26 years this Saturday in South Bend, CSNChicago.com talked at length with former Irish safety Pat Terrell about the most epic game in the history of the heated series: The 1988 "Catholics vs. Convicts" game. Terrell's breakup of Miami quarterback Steve Walsh's pass on a two-point conversion attempt sealed Notre Dame's win, and the Irish went on to be crowned national champions at the end of the season. Terrell's responses are below and have been edited for clarity. 

What was the atmosphere on campus like leading up to the game? Was it a different vibe given the magnitude of the game?

Pat Terrell: Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt. The atmosphere was one created by the hype of the game, obviously you have a No. 1 team coming into town, and the fact that we truly thought at the beginning of that season we had something special. And so really, we knew we wanted to test how good we really were. We had confidence, we knew we had the players. And the atmosphere that week was crazy intense. I remember practice being like you were preparing for a playoff game or a national championship game.

There was no secret it was a big game. We were used to the media attention. But this was different. Thirty percent was fueled by the student body talking a lot of trash, which (laughs), hey, you guys need to pump the brakes a little bit. And 70 percent was just we had — we went into the game with confidence, but we wanted to see how good we were against the best. 

You mentioned the student body, and “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirt, were you worried Miami was going to take extra motivation from those?

Pat Terrell: No, quite frankly, that T-shirt came out — for a lot of the players, we chuckled, but it was kind of cold. We were kind of tongue-in-cheek, because we were like wow, we know the university’s not going to be too excited about this, but it just took off on a life of its own. But you can control what happens on the football field, you can’t control what happens out in the media and what have you. I’m not going to exaggerate and make up something that we were fired up about the T-shirt or anything else. It was just, for us, about a big game being a big game. Obviously the T-shirt added fuel, but to answer your question, we’re playing Miami. That’s a team with swagger. They were going into every game, every stadium facing the scrutiny of people’s interpretation of how they celebrate and how they play.

But no, we never thought, oh my gosh, they’re going to put this up on the locker room chalkboard. And Miami knew it didn’t come from the players. They’re watching film of us, we’re watching film of them. They had some respect for us, but we didn’t get worried that was going to fuel the fire. These guys hadn’t lost a (regular season game in over 30 games I believe, so they didn’t need any extra motivation to keep their streak going and maintain their No. 1. Because if I remember correctly, they had just won a National Championship the year before and they started the season off ranked (sixth). And they quickly went to No. 1 after they beat Florida State, but they were already motivated. I don’t think the shirt motivated them anymore. 

In the years since that game, what have your interactions been like with guys who played on that Miami team? How much did you talk about the game, the shirts and the history that came with it?

Pat Terrell: My rookie year in the NFL, next to me in my locker was Cleveland Gary. And Bill Hawkins was on my defense. And Robert Bailey lived with me. Believe me, we talked about that for 16 weeks straight. Cleveland had the fumble to — there was a lot of respect. The Miami guys were ‘What an atmosphere, what a game.’ But the shirt, I heard an earful about that. It was great fodder. Here we were, two or three years removed from that game in the NFL, in that locker room we had Todd Lyght, Frank Stams and me and, I don’t want to forget anyone else, but we had a ton of Notre Dame guys who played in that game and a bunch of Miami guys that played in that game. It was a fun, fun, fun atmosphere. 

What do you remember about gameday, specifically the build-up to it? 

Pat Terrell: It’s funny, you play so many years in the NFL and a lot of games in college, I remember more about that pregame and the night before and the game itself than probably any other game I’ve played in. I just remember getting up in the morning and it was a beautiful, beautiful day. A little crisp, a little wind, a little breeze and the whole day was gorgeous.

For me personally, I had so much family, I had so many family members come up for the game. Remember, I’m from Florida, so I had a ton of family there. I was relieved that the weather was good for them — I didn’t really care — and I just remember that, oh my gosh, just the electric atmosphere as we rolled up in the bus and walked through campus after mass, it was special. It was different.

Older fans, they were fired up because they wanted revenge from the (Faust) game (in which Miami won 58-7 in 1985, former coach Gerry Faust's final game at Notre Dame), and the younger fans just bought up the hype. It was funny, because I do remember just whispering to my teammates, these fans aren’t even playing and they’re — they’re like Cubs fans (now), they want this game, I can’t say more than we did but they were equally motivated. 

What was coach Holtz’s message in the days before the game? (We all know about his “Save Jimmy Johnson’s ass for me” line) Was it different, the same, what was it?

Pat Terrell: Coach Holtz had a very good way of relying on consistency. He would give us a formula to be successful in winning. I can’t remember it exactly, but it was seven areas: no big plays, no turnovers, win the special teams battle. And he proved to us over and over, if we succeed in five out of those seven areas, we will win the game. … Internally, he’s telling us, there’s no way we can lose this game if we execute in those seven areas.

So leading up to the game, I’ve never seen him more emotionally fired up in a pregame speech. It was amazing. But as far as him, he was very consistent on, that’s how he prepared us to play Rice or SMU, he was very consistent. It was a special game. Practice was extremely intense. He’s always a stickler for perfection. … You can’t have your hand in front of the line or behind the line, it had to be on the line. And that was just kind of his attention to detail, and it had never been so evident in that week. But he also instilled confidence in us, talking about respect and not flinching. He was fired up. 

So take me through the moment that went a long way toward cementing your legacy at Notre Dame, batting down that pass. What do you remember about the read you had on that play? Did you know immediately you had a shot to get your hand on it?

Pat Terrell: Right before the play, coach Alvarez — Barry Alvarez, he’s at Wisconsin now, he was our defensive coordinator — he had a calm demeanor about himself. He had complete confidence in us at all times. And we had a TV timeout or something, we came to the sideline, and he just kind of calmed us down. He looked each one of us in the eye and said hey look, we’re going to win this game. Go out there and execute. We’ve practiced what we have to do. And for me personally, it was so exciting. You got caught up in the moment. As a defensive back, you want the quarterback to throw it to your man. That’s the mentality that I had. I hope he throws it to my guy because you don’t want to have to cover somebody for five or six seconds.

So with that confidence — you don’t have that confidence if you’re playing scared — one of the things coach Alvarez did is fortunately we were able to watch on film Miami a few weeks before against Michigan State when they had a very important goal line play. And typically when you scout a team, the playbook shrinks when it gets down there around the goal line. It’s college, you just don’t have time to prepare for 12 different plays. You’re going to have your favorites and you’re just going to execute those. So we knew what Miami wanted to do.

So the first thing I was doing was trying to get recognition on a play. So when the formation came out and it looked familiar, my confidence level went up a little bit. What was kind of ironic and funny, though, is the guy who I was covering, it was kind of a flashback, I played against Leonard Conley all though high school. We were big rivals. And so that was kind of neat, one of those ‘here we go again.’ He was a big player on his high school, I was a big player on my high school. That was fun. If it wasn’t for George Williams, I remember, he hit Leonard quick. He gave me a great move to the inside and broke out and I was just fighting to get in position.

When the ball was up I was just like, you know, it’s one of those things, I was just praying to let me have some hang time. And obviously from all my teammates, they said okay, you should’ve caught it. But I was just so focused on knocking that ball down.

And it’s never personal — when I knocked that ball down, it was a win for the entire university. At that point it was almost like being a fan of the game. I was so excited that we won, not that I made a play. And then fast-forward, in my NFL career, to be frank with you I almost kind of got tired of people talking about that play. I was like hey, I spent four year at Notre Dame, I did a few more things while I was there — I had a 60-yard pick six (in the Miami game), which defensive backs really love that.

But it probably wasn’t until I had kids, when you walk back on campus — and one of the reasons you go to a place like Notre Dame is its reputation and high standards and tradition, and to be able to make it and have your name associated with the tradition, I appreciate that play way more now than I did even a decade after. I’ve said it several times as a joke, but the stadium held, what, 59,000 people before expansion? I swear, I think I’ve met 80,000 people that weren’t just at the game, but were sitting right in that corner. ‘I was right there in that corner when you knocked that ball down!’ That’s been kind of funny.

But like I said, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you when you go back on campus, and now people remember you for that play and being a part of that huge game, it’s a special feeling. It was an intense game. There were so many big plays made by so many players on both sides of the ball. I just think it was a true thrill to be a part of that win. 

Were you able take a moment to yourself after the game to collect your emotions and thoughts, or was it just such a whirlwind that it didn’t stop?

Pat Terrell: It was emotional. I remember after I made the play, I was so excited that we won, that as I was jogging back from the end zone to the sideline, and being from Florida and having my mom and dad there — and I remember I got kind of emotional because my grandmother passed away earlier that year. And the reason that was significant, my grandmother passed away in training camp of the ’88 season. I wrote her name on my footband, my wristband. I remember just feeling really emotional about that. That what I was thinking about.

But when she passed away earlier in the season, I missed the team photo. So think about it: of any team photo to miss, don’t miss the ’88 national championship team photo, right? And so, believe it or not, coach Holtz remembered that so after we won the championship, it was right before we went to the White House, he rescheduled when we got back we were going to re-take the team photo. And I really thought that was special, he was doing that for me. And then when we got back, the worst thing in the world that could’ve happened, happened, and we lost a teammate who died of congenial heart failure, an enlarged heart that no one knew. Bobby Satterfield. And he passed away, and so there was no way I wanted to re-take that picture without him in it.

So yeah, to bring a long story around, that’s what I was thinking about when I was running back. I didn’t really realize the magnitude of that play. The magnitude really grew after the championship, because you look back, we had a great season and that was a pivotal point in the season, beating No. 1 Miami and we went on to win the national championship. But I’ll tell you what, that game was way more intense than the championship game. We played USC, one against two that year too, and that was intense but it still couldn’t match the intensity of the Miami game. It’s kind of fun to celebrate it now.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018. 

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows earlier this month when, in announcing the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Long, said he would not be calling plays for Notre Dame's offense in 2017.

Instead, the 33-year-old Long — who spent 2016 as Memphis' offensive coordinator — will handle play calling duties for a Notre Dame team desperately needing to reverse course after last year's disastrous 4-8 record. Kelly's decision to hand over play-calling duties to someone with whom he's never worked — something he'd never done at Notre Dame — is perhaps the most interesting development in a hectic two-month stretch for the Irish coaching staff. 

In announcing Notre Dame's 2017 coaching staff on Monday, Kelly explained why he won't be calling plays in a pivotal year for the veteran coach's legacy. In conducting exit interviews with 96 players in the days after Notre Dame's season-ending loss to USC, Kelly noticed a common theme: The defensive players said they liked having him work on that side of the ball, which Kelly did after firing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season. 

"Most of the time I'm on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said. "So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides, offensive, defensive and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody calling plays. If you're calling plays, you have to spend so much time on one side of the ball, and so after making the decision that I would not have the influence on a day-to-day basis, it was simply easy for me to know what I was looking for offensively and that was a play caller."

All of Notre Dame's assistant coaches had previously been announced by the program, but a refresher of who's who on the staff:

Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Quarterbacks: Tom Rees (who will be a graduate assistant until, as Notre Dame expects, the NCAA allows for a 10th full-time assistant coach)
Running backs: Autry Denson
Wide receivers: DelVaughn Alexander
Tight Ends: Chip Long
Offensive line: Harry Hiestand
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Defensive line: Mike Elston
Linebackers: Clark Lea
Defensive backs: Todd Lyght
Special teams: Brian Polian
Strength & conditioning: Matt Balis

Only Denson, Hiestand, Elston and Lyght are back from last year's coaching staff, with no surprises on any. Denson is an ace recruiter with strong contacts in talent-rich Florida; Hiestand has a sparkling reputation as a recruiter and developer of offensive linemen; Elston also serves as the team's recruiting coordinator; and Lyght, while inexperienced as a coach, presided over promising development from a number of Notre Dame's freshmen defensive backs last year. 

Longtime Kelly lieutenants Mike Denbrock (now the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati) and Paul Longo (who, Kelly said, was unable to fulfill his dues as strength coordinator due to a long-term disability) are no longer around. Mike Sanford cashed in on his up-and-coming coaching stock and accepted the head coaching position at Western Kentucky, where he got his first assistant job. Scott Booker (tight ends/special teams), Keith Gilmore (defensive line) and Greg Hudson (interim defensive coordinator) were all relieved of their duties, though Kelly said he'd like Hudson to still have a role in the program. Hudson was a defensive analyst last year before being promoted to defensive coordinator after VanGorder was jettisoned.

From a player standpoint, there's not the same level of drastic turnover that hit Kelly's coaching staff. DeShone Kizer is gone for the NFL, but redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush has a tantalizingly high ceiling and both the mental and physical attributes to be an excellent quarterback. Torii Hunter Jr. and Tarean Folston are the only other key offensive players to not return in 2017, but the injection of receiver/tight end hybrid Alize Jones (who was ineligible in 2016) and running back Dexter Williams (who flashed potential in limited use last year) should cover for those losses. 

On defense, losing defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke create holes, but perhaps a more teachable defensive scheme implemented by Elko will help shore up a group that's been a weakness since Bob Diaco left for UConn. 

"Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught," Kelly said. "And his experiences in college and coaching and teaching and communicating; and he does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he's teaching. And we're teachers. He's a really good teacher at the end of the day."

The weakest link for Notre Dame last year was special teams, though, but Kelly was able to convince a former head coach and Irish assistant under Charlie Weis to return to South Bend to solely focus on that unit. The hiring of Polian may ultimately be the most important hire Kelly made after the 2016 season: the Irish ranked 36th in offensive S&P+, 28th in defensive S&P+ (though that's skewed by facing two option teams and playing in a hurricane) and 80th in special teams S&P+ in 2016. Even a modest improvement in special teams could've got Notre Dame at least six, maybe more, wins last year. 

"To have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away," Kelly said, "I think it's just an upgrade and allows us to really think about excelling and gaining an advantage in that area."

So this is the coaching staff Kelly will ride with in 2017, as the pressure to win swells with every day that someone remembers the team went 4-8 last year. That lack of success is unacceptable in South Bend, and not significantly improving off it is a fireable offense. 

Notre Dame couldn't stand pat after last year. Whether this new mix of coaches buoys a nine- or 10-win season (at the least) remains to be seen, but make no mistake: The buck stops with Kelly, who will sink or swim with this coaching staff.

But for now, with kickoff of the 2017 season still over seven months away, Kelly isn't viewing this as a make-or-break year. Instead, he's content to paraphrase Shakespeare and focus on the more immediate future. 

"I know there's more scrutiny on this year because of last year's poor performance, but I am focused on the present," Kelly said. "And I know that there's going to be a ton of talk about that, and I get that. That comes with this.

"But I think every year that I've gone into this position that it's about excellence. It's about championships. And if you fall short of that, it's the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune."