When ESPN was looking for a filmmaker to document the 1988 clash of football cultures that was Miami against Notre Dame, it began with a Google search, and a Wikipedia listing of Notre Dame alumni.
There, under the “entertainment” section, was Patrick Creadon, a documentarian whose work was familiar to ESPN executives. Hmm. Bonus: It said he graduated in 1989. Hmm.
Soon John Dahl, executive producer of ESPN Films, was on the phone asking what Creadon might know about the “Catholics vs. Convicts” game during his senior year.
“I said, ‘How much time do you have? I know every single thing about it,’” Creadon recalled with a laugh. “I mean, those T-shirts were in my dorm room.”
Thus was launched a “30 for 30” documentary on that game and its infamous moniker, “Catholics vs. Convicts,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday, after the Heisman Trophy is presented.
Creadon is a third-generation Notre Dame alum. His grandfather initially was recruited to play for Knute Rockne but had to settle for a seat as a fan in the student section. His father, who died in May of last year, attended 380 Notre Dame games in his lifetime.
So Creadon’s Golden Dome credentials are impeccable. But his personal connection to the football program of that era – and to the T-shirts that made the 1988 game famous – add a layer of context.
“In a million years I would have never pitched this to them,” he said after a screening in Manhattan on Thursday night. “Not because it’s not a good story. It’s not a story [to me]. I lived it.”
To make a long, complicated story short, Creadon’s best friend and roommate, Pat Walsh, an entrepreneur of not-necessarily-legal printed T-shirts, found himself in the middle of the sales and marketing of perhaps the most notorious – and popular – sports T-shirt of all time.
It captured the oversimplified contrast of Notre Dame’s squeaky clean image to that of Miami’s renegade rep, and was a hot commodity in its time.
No spoilers here about the effect that episode had on Walsh’s lifelong dream of playing basketball at Notre Dame, but suffice to say it remains a difficult subject for him nearly three decades later.
Walsh initially agreed to talk to Creadon on camera, then he changed his mind three weeks later. Then he finally agreed.
“It’s still hard for him; it is,” Creadon said. “It’s hard for all of us who know him because it was very difficult for him. But now that he’s seen the film and saw how it came together, he borrowed a line from [former Miami player] Cleveland Gary, which is: You know what, I wouldn’t change a thing. He is finally at peace with what happened.”
So close were Creadon and Walsh that the documentary includes footage of Walsh’s game-day T-shirt operation from their college days. Creadon documented it for a short film he made.
“I told John [Dahl], I’ve been making this film for 28 years,” he said.
Creadon also speaks to another old friend, Joe Fredrick, who was behind the T-shirt, as well as former quarterback Tony Rice, yet another longtime friend, plus other figures from the game including Miami quarterback Steve Walsh and both coaches, Lou Holtz of Notre Dame and Jimmy Johnson of Miami.
Even as a student Creadon did not like the “Catholics vs. Convicts” line.
“I hated Miami, but I thought that shirt was a low blow,” he said. At first he was reluctant to use it as the movie’s title. “I didn’t know what to call it. I was reluctant to call it ‘Catholics vs. Convicts,’ but I came around to the notion that a movie is different than a T-shirt.
“A T-shirt is 19 letters and no explanation. The movie gave me a chance to tell the story of how that shirt came to be and shed some light on it.”
While Creadon puts a Notre Dame-oriented theme on the Fighting Irish’s 31-30 victory, which paved the way for their last national championship, he is more than fair to the once-hated enemy.
“When I was a senior in college Jimmy Johnson was Darth Vader,” Creadon said. “He was the embodiment of all the things we hated about that team and the revenge we wanted to get.”
Before interviewing him in Los Angeles, Creadon was unable to sleep for several nights, unsure whether Johnson would show up or perhaps bolt after a couple of questions.
“And he was just great,” Creadon said. “As soon as I started showing him plays, it was 1988 again. He was right in that game . . . After we sent a copy of the film to Jimmy, a few weeks later I got a thank-you note, a hand-written little card saying, ‘I really enjoyed your film despite all your ND biases. Great job, Jimmy Johnson.’
“I think the Miami guys feel like we gave them a fair shake.”
Creadon said the Hurricanes’ story is more nuanced than memory suggests.
“I think it’s more than just the brash behavior,” he said. “They were an outstanding team with sound fundamentals. Jimmy really emphasized graduation rates. So the story of Miami was in some ways as interesting as telling the story of my friends and Notre Dame.”
One of the producers, Jerry Barca, wrote a book about that 1988 season, “Unbeatable,” and Creadon credited it with being a valuable source material.
Barca, a 1999 Notre Dame alum, attended the 1988 game at age 11.
Few people younger than him remember it, so one benefit of the film is educating those sports fans.
“I think that depending on how old you are, you either know almost everything about this rivalry and why it mattered and you know that [‘Catholics vs. Convicts’] saying or you don’t know anything about it,” Creadon said.
“This is an opportunity to tell the story about Notre Dame and also tell a story about the rivalry.”
The T-shirt subplot is almost as good.
“I feel like this is an opportunity to shine some light on the story,” Creadon said. “I really do almost think it’s kind of a cleansing process. This is how this came to be. There’s remorse from both guys who did it, and this guy [Pat Walsh] paid a really high price.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the game from a football perspective is a reminder of what life was like before replay reviews. Two pivotal plays likely would have been overturned today.
Also, there was no provision for overtime, which prompted Johnson to go for a winning two-point try rather than settle for a tie. Noble, but doomed.