Revisiting the Chicken Dance, the sleepovers and Notre Dame's place in the Jim Harbaugh Era

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The conjecture about how the story will eventually end is so contemptuous these days, it’s easy to forget the headline-grabbing, genuflecting, media-manipulating, NCAA-taunting early days of the Jim Harbaugh coaching saga at the University of Michigan.

Like the recruiting sleepovers, the tree-climbing to impress recruits, the staging of satellite-camp invasions within the SEC and Big 12 footprints to lure recruits, the onset of foreign tours, the cannonballing into a swimming pool fully clothed and going shirtless in an impromptu camp scrimmage game with Harbaugh as a player/coach.

Saturday night, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will unwittingly help frame the five-year Harbaugh Era when the eighth-ranked Irish (5-1) become the 12th top 10 team to confront the Wolverines under their former star QB-turned-coach and look to be the 11th of those 12 to walk away as victors.

ABC’s start time at Michigan Stadium is 7:30 p.m. EDT for the matchup with the 19th-ranked Wolverines (5-2).

By game’s end, there may be more definitive answers to: Is Harbaugh good? Is he great? Is he simply an upgrade over predecessor Brady Hoke, currently the defensive line coach at San Diego State, and Hoke predecessor Rich Rodriguez, currently the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss?

It will be Notre Dame’s first visit to the Big House since 2013, when the Irish were escorted off the field to the sounds of the Chicken Dance blasting from the stadium’s speakers following a 41-30 ND loss.

There was nothing random about that, or the fact that the media was served chicken in the press box before the game. Hoke had said Notre Dame “chickened out” while talking to a group of boosters the previous May about why the series was coming to what seemed like a permanent close in 2014.

Harbaugh and Kelly are two big reasons why the two teams are playing Saturday night as well as having clashed in the 2018 season opener last September in South Bend. Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the Tribune last November that there’s an openness to reprising the home-and-home series in the years ahead.

Previous commitments, though, to Big Ten teams Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State — all rotating onto the Irish schedule in the 2020s — and the fact that Notre Dame is scheduling games in the mid-2030s at the current time will make it a challenge for ND-Michigan to happen again anytime soon.

Snap back to sur-reality

Harbaugh was between college gigs, coaching the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, the last time Notre Dame played at Michigan Stadium.

Of all the weirdness in that 2013 game and its aftermath, the largest dose of it may have come at halftime during an awkward 4 1/2-minute interview involving Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit and rapper Eminem.

Among the lowlights? When Musburger asked Eminem a question about who produced his latest video, he got this response: “So, live TV freaks me out a little bit. So yeah, I’m sorry. What was the question?”

Later Herbstreit asked what excited Eminem the most about his new album. The answer? “Nothing.”

As far as Harbaugh’s own weirdness/genius during his first seasons on the job, here’s some follow-up involving some of the key figures in it:

• The two players who gained national attention for allowing Harbaugh to stay overnight during his in-home recruiting visits were defensive end Connor Murphy and kicker Quinn Nordin.

Nordin, whom Harbaugh poached out of Penn State’s 2016 recruiting class, lost his regular kicking gig late last season to Jake Moody, though Nordin has attempted a couple of long field goals this season (missing both).

Murphy, meanwhile, opted not to sign with Michigan and ended up at USC. He’s a career reserve for the Trojans and has four tackles this season. He played sparingly in a 30-27 loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 12 and did not record a tackle.

• The player involved in the Harbaugh shenanigans who turned out to be the most significant contributor to the Wolverines was cornerback David Long.

Long’s younger sister challenged the coach to climb a tree in the family’s front yard during Harbaugh’s in-home visit in Los Angeles, which he did. Her brother verbally committed two days later.

Long went on to play three seasons for Michigan, earning All-Big Ten honors last season before leaving for the NFL Draft as an early entry. Long was a third-round draft choice by the LA Rams.

• Erik Swenson has gone on to big things elsewhere, specifically at Oklahoma, after Harbaugh pulled his scholarship late in the 2016 recruiting cycle.

The former four-star prospect from Illinois is the Sooners’ starting left tackle this season.

• Another starting lineman elsewhere is UCLA center Boss Tagaloa, whom Harbaugh attended a Worlds Religions class with at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., during a home recruiting visit. Tagaloa was a standout defensive prospect in the 2016 cycle and started his college career on that side of the ball.

• Wide receiver Oliver Martin ended up choosing Michigan over Notre Dame in the 2017 cycle in a tight recruiting battle. Harbaugh helped him celebrate his verbal commitment to the Wolverines by jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool with Martin.

Martin was a standout swimmer in high school in Iowa City, Iowa, and won eight state titles in the sport. He’s back in Iowa City now as a backup wide receiver for the Hawkeyes, having transferred. He has five catches for 28 yards this season, though none of those came against the Wolverines in a 10-3 Michigan win earlier this month.

• Finally, Orlando, Fla., linebacker prospect Jonathan Jones didn’t get a birthday cake from Harbaugh, but he got a photograph of a birthday cake designed for him on his 18th from the Michigan coach. Jones, eventually signed with Notre Dame and is a career backup for the Irish.

Bye week bliss

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly spent Saturday’s open date for the Irish going back to Cincinnati and back in time.

Kelly and his 2009 Bearcat football team — the last one of three he coached there — were inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, while the current Cincinnati team took care of Tulsa, 24-13.

Former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has been part of the Bearcats’ resurgence under head coach Luke Fickell — a combined 19-3 record the past two seasons and a current AP ranking of No. 18, one spot ahead of Michigan.

“I think we had over 50 players that came back,” Kelly said of the reunion, “from Travis Kelce to Andre Revels, Tony Pike. … Great to see Mike (Denbrock). … It was great to see all those guys and share some stories. Some were true; some were not true.”

One story that’s true but largely forgotten is how close Kelly came to either turning down the ND job or delaying his arrival a month because of the success of that 2009 team (12-0 regular season).

Had the current playoff format been in existence and the CFP committee viewed things similarly to the BCS formula, the Bearcats would have been in the four-team field, likely as the No. 3 seed.

Even under the old format, had Texas QB Colt McCoy held onto the ball for one more second, his Longhorns wouldn’t have had a chance to kick a game-winning field goal against Nebraska and win 13-12 in the Big 12 Championship Game.

Cincinnati instead would have moved into the No. 2 spot and played Alabama for the national title. And Kelly, who did not coach the Bearcats in the Sugar Bowl against Florida, said he would have coached UC against the Crimson Tide.

“I made that really clear,’ he said back in January of 2010, a month after succeeding Charlie Weis at ND. “I think that ship would have sailed, in my opinion.

“You’d have to ask (ND athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) that question. I’ve taken every job that I’ve taken, because I want to play for a championship. When you have an opportunity to play for a national championship, I’m going to be on that sideline.

“You know what I would have said, ‘Heck, we can make this work. We’ll be fine. Don’t’ worry about it.’ But those decisions would be made above me.”

Current ND offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, then UC’s offensive coordinator and line coach, served as interim head coach in the 51-24 Gator rout.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh looks on during the ND-Michigan game, Sept. 1, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, pictured here during his time at Cincinnati, returned to his UC roots on Saturday.

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Michigan Stadium; Ann Arbor, Mich.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Michigan by 1