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 "Italian dinner jacket" undershirt. Those are just a few reasons so many people love a man no longer even called "Eggroll"...but "Roll." 

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 (blonde) 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 matchup 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. Truth be told, they sold shirts without any logos that would require permission. Nice work guys! Regardless, 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 Borromeo 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 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. 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.

  2. In the documentary I just watched, the guy said he sold them for $10 each & cost him $1 to make. Sold 3,600 t-shirts, so he spent $3,600 making them but made $36,000 in sales (which doesnt deduct the $3,600 in production costs) but damn! THIRTY-SIX-THOUSAND BUCKS?? makes you wanna go into the College Alumni T-Shirt business! Just be sure to get a license to sell on campus and don't infringe on any Trademarks! So no school or team Logo's! (but this might affect the profits, so it may not be worth it unless you take the risk like he did & print/sell them anyway! that is if you don't mind being labeled a CONVICT! haha)

    1. Thank you for reading. Small distinction: the creator of the shirt "Catholics vs. Convicts" did NOT have violate any trademarks (Joe Frederick walks through the design. He also speaks to label "Convict" and what we all can understand/appreciate now). They sold between 2,000 and 3,000 of those shirts (they had them printed, as mentioned about 4 weeks before the game). Walsh, "Walshy" was the middle man for those shirts; they were technically not his design or creation. He got $1 from each of the shirts sold (which were sold for $10 each....would they be $20 today?!). Walshy's shirt violated several trademarks, the University, the USPS, etc. Walshy's good friend was the creator of the film, so I understand the emphasis on his story. He sold those on game day and got ALL the profit from that. A young entrepreneur, no doubt. College kids are no less creative today...just probably (hopefully?) more careful...and culturally sensitive?!. Who knows!