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.