Those who put on a Charlie Coyote suit these days are climbing into a history built over the decades. It’s a different suit now, of course, but all those Charlie Coyotes are still representing the same character.
In Jody Harnois’ case, that legacy has given him the opportunity to go back in time.
Rather than starting at the beginning of this adventure, let’s give away the ending right at the top:
In 2020, Harnois will be able to say he’s served as the University of South Dakota’s beloved mascot in six different decades.
It has not been every game – years and years have come and gone between appearances – but he will have served at least once as Charlie Coyote in every decade since the 1970s when he puts that suit on one more time vs. Peru State at the Sanford Coyote Sports Center on Tuesday.
It’s a reunion tour that began with an appearance for the first half of the Friday, Dec. 6, men’s basketball contest with Mount Marty.
“I’m very honored by this,” Harnois said. “I put my heart and my soul into this for a long time and I know a lot of other people have too, so I was very conscious when I took this on that I wanted to pay respect to the other people who do it now. It’s a lot of work, a lot of commitment, and they’re doing a lot more games now than I was back in the late 1970s.”
Witnesses to Harnois’ work as Charlie remember the intensity and the commitment. He burned the calories.
“I remember him being everywhere all the time,” said Dave Hanna, who was in grade school then in high school during Harnois’ first two stints. “You would never not see Charlie when he was doing a game. He was very athletic.”
Hanna was so smitten by Harnois’ routines and by Mick Shaeffer, the first “human Charlie,” that he took it up himself when he got to USD in the mid-1980s. He approached his own time in the suit with Shaeffer’s and Harnois’ exploits in mind. Hanna was going to sustain their efforts.
“For those two guys especially, the Charlie Coyote brand was about being a perpetual smart aleck,” Hanna said. “It was about purposely antagonizing the visitors’ fans. It was about being into the game and being into the moments of the game to make sure the crowd was paying attention. And then always taking a few minutes for the little kids. All those things combined became the essence of Charlie Coyote.”
Harnois, who now owns and operates Heck’s Dakota Style BBQ catering, was right in the middle of creating that essence.
Six decades ago, Harnois, who also runs Heck’s Rib Shack, a brick-and-mortar ribs place in Vermillion during the summers, first took on the role of Charlie Coyote at the recommendation of a USD cheerleader who knew him to be an animated character who would be well-suited for the job.
“I spent a lot of time at the disco,” Harnois explained.
Harnois also watched Shaeffer work the crowd in his day, and modeled his behavior after him, weaving in some of his own personal touches. Shaeffer went into the Coyote Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 for his role in creating the Charlie Coyote mystique.
“He made Charlie Coyote one of the premier mascots not only in the North Central Conference, but in the country,” Harnois said. “There was no one for him to emulate, so he came up with his own identity.”
That meant proper mascot conduct was as yet unwritten. Translation: A fellow had a little more latitude.
“There weren’t a lot of rules out there for mascots,” Harnois said. “And the rules that there were, I’d always test. I prided myself on pushing the envelope. But I never pushed it too far.”
There are some stories one could hear Harnois tell where some would dispute that last sentence, but there were no suspensions.
“When you went too far, you’d hear from the athletic director,” he said. “As long as you didn’t hear from God, you figured you were doing okay.”
Harnois began spending time as Charlie Coyote in the late 1970s and early 1980s during his first stint as a student.
He left school before he got his degree when he took a job in the 1980s, but returned to finish up in the 1990s.
The late Jack Doyle, the basketball coach during Harnois’ first term in the suit, asked him – this time as athletic director – to be the mascot again when he returned to campus. Harnois accepted and played the role for a football season.
Okay, that’s three decades accounted for.
With degree in hand, he started a career in medical sales, but returned again in the late 2000s to work for the USD Foundation.
One weekend the weather kept the regular mascot from returning to Vermillion. Dan Hanna, Dave’s brother who was in the USD administration at the time, asked Harnois, once more, to get in what was now a new-and-improved Charlie Coyote suit.
Harnois was more than happy to oblige, knocking down a halftime half-court shot in the process. You can still find the video on the internet. Charlie Coyote was plenty proud of himself that night at the DakotaDome.
“I couldn’t really see the basket,” Harnois said. “I just threw a hook shot up there and the darn thing went in.”
So now we’re up to four decades.
This past summer Harnois got to know a lot of USD athletes and coaches while spending time at Heck’s Rib Shack. In the process, Harnois offhandedly mentioned that he’d been the mascot in four decades and that 2019 would represent a fifth decade. A month later it would be 2020, of course.
Eventually this six-decade deal gained the proper steam.
He first met with current Charlie Coyotes – the school uses several these days – and reintroduced himself to the life. One of the things he learned was that the suit they wear is worth more than most new cars cost in 1978. Hence they don’t slide around on the gym floor like they used to.
Throughout his first time back in uniform he tried to live up to the standards of the current staff, who are all about 40 or so years younger than he is.
“It’s so much more planned out these days,” he said. “Everything is so well organized. It goes from minute-to-minute and the improv thing is not always such a great idea.”
Physically, he got through it. Always one of the more athletic Charlies, he got a big laugh when the university made him sign a waiver before he could participate.
“They asked me if I wouldn’t mind,” Harnois said. “I said, ‘Not only do I not mind, I think it’s very advisable.’”
A state champion Golden Gloves boxer back in the day who now runs a boxing club in Vermillion, he was going to do some “road work” before his 2020 gig to make sure he brought the energy the current Charlie Coyotes bring.
“It was getting toward halftime vs. Mount Marty and I was thinking I had another half in me,” Harnois said of his fifth decade performance in December. “Then they started playing Cotton-Eyed Joe and I’m kicking it up pretty good next to the cheerleaders. After that, I needed a break.”
Perhaps at some point after changing out of the suit, he’ll regale his new colleagues with tales of yore. Turns out Harnois’ version of Charlie has lived quite a life.
Some of the highlights:
— “The other team always seemed to have an open seat next to the last guy on the bench,” Harnois said. “Whoever that guy was, he was fair game. I’d sit next to him and I’d mimic him, you know, do whatever he did just to give him a hard time. It was all in good fun and usually pretty well received.”
Later during Harnois’ career in medical sales he discovered one of the Jackrabbit players he was trying to agitate was Dr. Brian Aamlid, who would go on to become a Sanford Health orthopedic surgeon.
“Brian is one of the coolest guys ever,” Harnois said. “We had a pretty good laugh over that.”
— He got banned from performing as Charlie Coyote at games at Frost Arena, though one year he snuck in anyway. When he replaced his cowboy hat that night with Charlie’s head, he very quickly began attracting attention. It eventually led to security leading him away. They stayed with him until the end of the game. Years later he would discover the fellow operating security detail that night at Frost Arena was Mike Rounds, current U.S. senator who was running for governor when the pair later made the connection.
“I was able to look back and say I got arrested by the future governor,” Harnois said.
—There was the time an opposing fan stole Charlie’s head. Harnois chased him down and tackled him and got the head back. When the fan came at Harnois again, there were football players there to intercede. Not that Harnois would have needed the help.
“Coach Dave Triplett tells the guy ‘Son, if I was you, I’d take what’s left of my pride and head home,’” Harnois said. Triplett would later tell Harnois: “That was our best hit of the night.”
Ever the battler, Harnois is looking forward to one more night as Charlie.
“I can tell you I’ve loved every game I’ve ever done,” he said. “From Mick Shaeffer to Dave Hanna to everybody else, the people who put that suit on put their heart and soul into it.”
There are talks of a Charlie Coyote reunion in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Charlie next September. In addition, Dave Hanna has started a Charlie Coyote scholarship fund that would help pay tuition for future Charlies.
It is a brand that has come a long way, bolstered at the beginning by people like Shaeffer, Harnois and Hanna, and sustained enthusiastically thereafter by the countless Charlies to follow.
The mascot’s stature within the athletic department didn’t happen overnight. One Saturday, Harnois decided to hitchhike all the way to Fargo for a game dressed as Charlie. He wanted to draw attention to the fact that he wasn’t being allowed to travel with anyone affiliated with the team.
Travelers heading north could see a fellow dressed as a Coyote holding his paw out looking for a lift.
“USD always found me a ride after that,” Harnois said.