Friday, December 31, 2010

Catholics vs. Convicts: The Story Behind ESPN's "Shirt of the Century"

By game day, young entrepreneurs were adding fuel to the pregame fire, selling anti-Miami T-shirt propaganda to tens of thousands of fan. Although officially frowned upon by the university, Notre Dame fans can still be spotted from time to time wearing the most popular of those ’88 Miami game T-shirts “Catholics vs. Convicts—Unfinished Business.”

Perhaps by the world’s standards they are an unlikely duo, but not by those under the Golden Dome. Mike Caponigro and Joe Frederick were roommates, good friends and the very entrepreneurs the book “Echoes of Notre Dame Football” speaks about. And here, ladies and gentlemen is their story--the official story behind “Catholics vs. Convicts.” The business may now be finished, but the memory lives on.

The ratio of “Mikes” to every other male name at Notre Dame is at least three to one, so Mike Caponigro like many others became something else. Known even to Lou Holtz as “Eggroll,” Mike hails from Middletown, NJ. Proud of his Italian heritage (understatement of the year) Mike arrived at ND wearing a couple of chains, replete with the bullhorn and the boot of Italy, white shoes and the proverbial wife beater undershirt. Although the disciple Nathanael asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he may well have been inquiring about Middletown. Funny thing is, like the answer to the former question, “The Roll” was also a savior in this story.

Joe Frederick on the other hand hailed from a suburb of Cincinnati Ohio. Standing 6’5” he came as a scholarship athlete to Notre Dame. In fact, his three other siblings were D1 athletes as well. Tall, dark and handsome, Joe could sell ice to an Eskimo. Joe somehow managed to be both the brains and the brawn behind this ponzi scheme.
The front of the shirt read “Unfinished Business” and South Bend meant it. The October 15, 1988 match up was to be the first in three years between the Hurricanes and the Irish. Salt was still in the wound from the 1985 season finale. In that game Jimmy Johnson, Miami’s infamous coach poured on offensive scoring well into the fourth quarter, winning 58-7. Nearly three years later, “Scholastic,” the university student magazine featured a full-page ad that read, “Avoid the Rush, Hate Miami Early. Only 198 Days Left!” It was payback time.

Joe’s older brother, who played hoops at Rollins a college in Central Florida had a T-shirt that read “FSU vs. Miami: Unfinished Business.” In the late summer/early fall, Mike and Joe got the idea to make shirts for the impending match up of the #1 vs #4 teams in the land.
Mike and Joe used the same slogan for the front. They included the date of the game and “Go Irish” but needed something for the back of the t-shirt. Mike’s temper started to rise as he once again described Miami. “That defines hatred in rivalries. What they stood for and how they conducted themselves—the showboating, their names on jerseys, ruthless punishment of players until the final whistle—they were the antithesis of the Irish.” Catholics vs. Convicts fit the mold.“For a moment, football history seemed to be dangling in the balance—old vs. new, tradition vs. modern domination, heart vs. hype, “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Watch ESPN's 30 for 30: The U for much more evidence.

Mike and Joe were friends with Pat Walsh, a guy from the south side of Chicago. Since Pat was already selling t-shirts as well—his featured one with a game day ticket: Miami vs. Notre Dame, Notre Dame Stadium—Joe and Mike decided to work with “his guy.” Shirts were printed and delivered to the main circle on campus, without receipts. As hype for the game only intensified, so did demand for the shirt.

Mike admitted sales kept him so busy, he did not go to class for three weeks (but he somehow found time to dine at Macri’s deli every night?!). He woke up every morning in Alumni Hall to hear Joe playing The O’Jay’s “For the Love of Money” on their stereo. They convinced the student body that the team would be wearing the shirt underneath their jerseys. With no supply and high demand, Mike sold the shirt off his back for $75. And silver tongued Joe? $100.

In the Shawshank Redemption Andy Dufresne, a righteous man, wrongly convicted of killing his wife said to Red: Yeah. The funny thing is - on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to become a criminal. I hate to say it, and it’s an overstatement, but it’s a funny similarity--our proprietors had to come to Notre Dame to become convicts.

The administration caught word of the T-shirt sales. Mike and Joe were without a license to sell on campus. They also used logos trademarked by the university, without permission. They had to meet with student affairs and settle their debts; a lot was at stake. Joe was NCAA athlete and Mike was already familiar with the “Iron Maiden” Ann Firth.

Mike, president of Alumni Hall, did what any good Catholic would do, he met with (and greased) his rector, a Holy Cross priest. Mike explained that what they did was in the spirit of good fun and a great rivalry. He also donated a chunk of change for improvements to the Alumni chapel. No wonder St. Charles Borroemo chapel is one of the most beautiful and prayerful places on campus.

Obviously the highlight of this story is that Miami came to town as the number one ranked team and lost 31-30 to who was to become the National Champions.

Based on their meetings with the discipline board, Mike and Joe decided not to run anymore “Catholics vs. Convicts” t-shirts. Someone however continued had them print, without logos and with a license to sell. Catholics vs. Convicts II, Catholics vs. Convicts III. They made a whole lot of money, money, money, money, money, money, MONEY!

Mike concluded his remarks with a question he posed to himself. Would I rather have the money or the story? I guess the money...not wait, at the end of the day, I would rather have the story. Yeah, the story.

Thanks Mike and Joe for a great story. It’s been fun to relive it as the Irish prepare for post-season play in the Sun Bowl. Let’s hope we have a similar outcome.

Photo Credits
Coach Holtz & Coach Johnson
Alumni Hall
SI Cover
T-shirts: taken by the author!

1 comment:

  1. I was Roll's buddy and he "gave" me the t-shirt for a Walmart-like price of $25. As for the rector he supposedly greased, Father George was allergic to everything including greenbacks. The Fred was a whole other story - he now resembles Gordon Gecko, but lives in Kentucky.