Saturday, October 16, 2010

Book Review: Perfect Rivals

Among the (interminable) number of games billed College Football's Game of the Century, the first I remember was the game that bore another, more distinctive moniker: Notre Dame and Miami's 1988 meeting dubbed "Catholics vs. Conflicts." The two programs bestrode college football almost like juggernauts; Notre Dame with the most-storied history of any program, returning to glory after the Gerry Faust Error, and the brash upstart Miami Hurricanes, super team of the 1980's.

Notre Dame would walk away with a 31-30 triumph after a Miami failed 2-point conversion that October day, and finish an undefeated national champion, while the Hurricanes would otherwise be unblemished and stuck a bridesmaid. The return visit to the Orange Bowl the next year saw a reversal of fortune; the once-beaten Hurricanes (by Florida State) would beat the Irish 24-10 and win a national championship after Notre Dame toppled unbeaten Colorado in the Orange Bowl. The programs would meet again in 1990, but they'd both already suffered a disappointing loss and, well, whatever.

This is the story told in Jeff Carroll's Perfect Rivals: Notre Dame, Miami, and the Battle for the Soul of College Football. Carroll begins his story in 1985 with Miami's 58-7 rout in Gerry Faust's last game as Notre Dame head coach and spends the first chunk of the book setting the stage for the 1988 (and 1989) games. He's a former Notre Dame beat writer (currently a student at mine graduate alma mater, if twitter is to be believed), so the story is somewhat ND-slanted. In fairness to him, ND's story is probably more narratively interesting, as Miami had reached elite status and stayed there, while Lou Holtz was dragging the Irish out of the dregs and building a real team.

The stage duly set, Carroll takes us through the 1988 game, the rest of the 1988 season, then the 1989 season, the 1989 game, and the rest of the 1989 season. The 1990 game is discussed in the book's third part, which features a discussion of Notre Dame's decision to break away from the CFA and sign its own television contract. That's a very interesting issue, but one covered in more detail in Dunnavant's Fifty-Year Seduction and feels out of place here since it didn't really affect the game on the field at all.

Now is the time for me to begin my ritual complaint about how the subtitle vastly overpromises what the book delivers. Catholics vs. Convicts really felt like a big deal, and a big culture clash. In terms of national reputation and fanbase, it was, but in terms of player profiles and whatnot, it really wasn't, or at least if it was you don't really detect it from Perfect Rivals. Rather than a "battle for the soul of college football," it comes across as just a series of games between two very good football teams that ended up being meaningful in terms of its impact on the national rankings.

In case you can't tell from the review, Carroll's book is best described as workmanlike. The events are competently related, the generally right sources properly read, and the major events covered, but the narrative never really rises above the mundane. The book is none too long, only 262 pages including epilogue, but my reading of it dragged because I just never got into it. Carroll's ND slant (though he really did try to be fair) will likely put off some Cane-focused readers as one of the Amazon reviews points out, but didn't really bother me that much. This was a library rental for me, and that's all it was worth to me.

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