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Penn State gave Notre Dame an opportunity to duck Miami.
The story of how No. 1 Florida State came to play No. 2 Notre Dame in the “Game of the Century” starts, oddly, in Coral Gables.
“Topping the agenda was soothing hard feelings that have developed because of a football rivalry that has turned bitter,” The Palm Beach Post reported on Aug. 10.
Miami and Notre Dame had played 17 of the prior 18 years at that point, but Irish players felt they were mistreated during the previous two games in Miami in 1985 and 1987.
In 1988, “a brawl in the tunnel leading to the field … culminated a week of verbal abuse between fans and players from both sides,” the Post wrote. “Former Hurricanes coach Jimmy Johnson received hate mail from Irish fans during the season, and the Notre Dame administration was embarrassed at the off-color remarks emblazoned on T-shirts circulating on campus.” (Besides the famous “Catholics vs. Convicts,” another T-shirt called Johnson “pork-faced Satan.”)
Miami’s Sam Jankovich and Notre Dame’s Dick Rosenthal told the press they did not discuss extending the series beyond the contract’s final game, which would be played at Notre Dame in October 1990.
“There should be no suggestion that Miami doesn’t want to play Notre Dame or Notre Dame doesn’t want to play Miami,” said Rosenthal, as quoted in the Miami Herald. “We are committed through 2004, but there is every reason to believe — and I have every confidence — that when those schedules free up we would play again.”
Little did the Notre Dame athletic director know that his schedule would have multiple openings the very next year.
In 1990, the Big Ten universities agreed to expand to 11 teams and invited the Penn State Nittany Lions to join. The Lions agreed to make the 1993 football season their first in the conference, so they called Notre Dame to ask out of their planned games in 1993 and 1994.
Jankovich alleged that he had letters from Rosenthal saying Notre Dame would contact Miami if their schedule opened up, but the Irish reached out instead to two other independents: Florida State and the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Rosenthal said he called FSU because he had a “very attractive offer” to play a two game series at Notre Dame and in Orlando. Miami wouldn’t go for that arrangement.
Jankovich agreed, saying his Hurricanes wouldn’t have agreed to an away-neutral site contact, but “we were never given that option, either.”
“I’m really confused,” he told the Herald in 1990. “There hasn’t been any dialogue. We would have made adjustments. There was an understanding.”
Rosenthal, who had said a year before that he would call Miami, told the Herald in 1990 that the rivalry “is a little bigger than it should be” and added: “Many fans have a passion for this game that is unhealthy. Maybe cooling it off for a period of time isn’t such a bad idea.”
After the 1990 game, Miami and Notre Dame wouldn’t meet again until the Sun Bowl twenty years later.
In July 1990, The Orlando Sentinel reported that the Florida Citrus Sports Association would pay $1 million to both Florida State and Notre Dame to play a game in Orlando in either 1993 or 1994. The other game would be played at Notre Dame.
The Citrus Bowl executives were enamored by the possibility of hosting Orlando’s first ever matchup between top five schools. The Seminoles finished No. 3 in both 1988 and 1989’s AP polls, while the Irish were No. 1 and No. 2.
By September 1990, the deal had been consummated.
Notre Dame dropped Penn State from its 1993 and 1994 schedule and the Navy Midshipmen swapped their home-and-home dates with the Irish so that Notre Dame could go to Orlando on Nov. 12, 1994. (The Irish played the Mids away in 1992 and 1993 and at home in 1994 and 1995; the regular rotation resumed in 1996.)
“I’m for it,” Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden told the Tampa Bay Times in August 1990. “I’d rather play them in Tallahassee of course. But they are the one school I’d love to play anywhere. It’s sort of like fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. Whether it’s in Zaire or Tokyo, you don’t care as long as you’re in it. I’ve always been wanting to play them, but I’ve never been able to make headway.”
Notre Dame went on to host the game that Orlando wanted — No. 1 vs. No. 2 — while the Citrus Bowl hosted the No. 8 Seminoles versus an unranked Notre Dame the following year. West Virginia, who Rosenthal said he picked because “he wanted Notre Dame to play a different opponent in another part of the country,” were added to the 1997, 2000 and 2001 schedules. Only the 2000 game was played in Morgantown.
In July 2002, Penn State and Notre Dame announced their series would resume in 2006 and 2007.