July 23, 2024

Jim Harbaugh of Michigan is Out for the Remainder of the Regular Season

The Wolverines’ biggest game of the season, against Penn State, on the eve of the Big Ten’s decision.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti suspended Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh from game-day duties for the remainder of the regular season on Friday, setting off an unusual chain of events that culminated in one of the most intense disputes in college sports history.

This means that Harbaugh will miss the Wolverines’ games against Ohio State on November 25, Penn State on Saturday, and Maryland on November 18. However, he may be able to coach against the Nittany Lions, at least, if Michigan files an emergency lawsuit.

Why new Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti fit the bill for one of college  sports' biggest jobs - The Athletic

In a three-paragraph release time-stamped at 3:31 p.m. ET, less than 21 hours before the Wolverines take on the Nittany Lions, the conference stated that Michigan was “found in violation of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Policy for conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years, resulting in an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition.”

After Michigan had left Ann Arbor for what should be the hardest game of the season for the Wolverines—a trip to State College, Pennsylvania—a decision in the Connor Stalions sign-stealing scandal was rendered. Although he is unable to enter Beaver Stadium and lead the team for the game, Harbaugh was likely on the bus to Detroit and then the charter flight to Pennsylvania.

“We are entitled to a fair, deliberate, and thoughtful process to determine the full set of facts before a judgment is rendered, like all members of the Big Ten Conference,” Michigan stated in a statement. Commissioner Tony Petitti’s decision today defies fundamental principles of due process, disregarded the Conference’s own guidelines, and establishes an unworkable precedent of imposing fines prior to the conclusion of an investigation. We are shocked by the Commissioner’s snap decision given that the NCAA is still conducting an investigation, with our full cooperation.

“Commissioner Petitti’s precipitous action today implies that this is less about following the law and more about caving in to pressure from other Conference members,”

“The Commissioner is putting himself on the sidelines and changing the level playing field that he is purporting to protect by taking this step at this hour. Furthermore, it is scarcely neutral to try to prevent the University from requesting urgent legal relief on Veteran’s Day, a court holiday. Along with Coach Harbaugh, we plan to request a court order to stop this disciplinary action from happening in order to guarantee justice in the proceedings.

Though it doesn’t bring anything to a close, the ruling at least makes it clear how Michigan and its opponents will play the remainder of the season. It may take several months for this NCAA infractions investigation to be concluded, possibly not even before the 2024 season begins.

The Big Ten’s choice is dangerous, highly consequential, and likely to face strong backlash. With a perfect record, a No. 3 ranking from the College Football Playoff selection committee, and one of the most dominant seasons in the esteemed history of the university, Michigan may have the best opportunity in the conference to win a national championship since Ohio State did so in 2014.

Put in an agonizing situation was Petitti, a first-year commissioner with no prior experience in campus politics or as a college administrator. Target a premier institution while endangering the league’s championship aspirations in the process? Or dismiss the protests of fellow members who believe Michigan has been deceiving them this season by spying on their teams? Tension surrounding the conference increased due to the urgency of the issue, which culminated this week.

In separate conference calls with Petitti earlier this month, Big Ten coaches and athletic directors encouraged the league to move immediately rather than waiting for an NCAA probe to take several months to complete. Rather than duck a decision that would create a bad precedent, spur a Michigan temporary restraining order request, and turn one of the biggest national fan bases against him, Petitti made a bold move.

Because there is essentially no precedence in this case, there was significant ambiguity regarding the punishments that applied, when they may be applied, and by whom. Very few coaches, if any, can remember ever hearing of a staff member setting up a large-scale espionage ring to record opponents’ signals in real time. Beyond that, allegations regarding the possible—and presumably probable—presence of Stalions disguised as a Central Michigan employee at the Chippewas’ season opener versus Michigan State, a member of the Big Ten, have elevated the plot to an even more egregious violation of the law.

The Auburn 2010 team was possibly the only other time a well-known football program was involved in a scandal this serious that could end their championship drive. Towards the end of the season, Auburn defied an NCAA suggestion to sit quarterback Cam Newton while the inquiry was ongoing, and Newton was under investigation. The Tigers won the national championship and he played the whole season. For the most part, the Southeastern Conference did nothing but watch this unfold.

Sports Illustrated has been informed by sources that Harbaugh was unaware of the claimed conspiracy by the Stalions, and that as of right now, no proof has been found linking the Michigan coach or any of his aides to the attempted theft of signs. That does not, however, absolve him of responsibility in accordance with NCAA regulations, which hold coaches accountable for their programs regardless of knowledge—or, evidently, in the Big Ten’s eyes.

On October 19, Yahoo Sports broke the story, claiming that the NCAA had notified the Big Ten that Michigan might have been scouting future opponents in person and that this was against the law. Multiple media outlets swiftly identified Stalions, a staff analyst, as the investigation’s primary target, and the school suspended him on October 20. (He left on November 3.) Following weeks of revelations, the overly ambitious former Marine and alumnus of the Naval Academy cemented his place in college sports annals of ignominy.

Following that, a divisive three-week ordeal that has put Michigan against its own league ensued, with numerous member institutions siding with the Wolverines and pressuring Petitti to impose sanctions. Michigan and the Big Ten were in a better position to take action because the NCAA investigation was still in its early stages. The conference bore the brunt of the action (or inaction) as Stalions were the only ones subject to internal discipline at the institution.

This week, Michigan reacted strongly to what it believed to be Harbaugh’s impending penalty. Michigan argued that the Big Ten lacked the authority under its own bylaws to suspend Harbaugh for a sportsmanship infraction and that trying to do so during the season was a hasty decision that denied the coach and the school due process in written responses from the school and Harbaugh’s attorney, Tom Mars.

This week, Michigan sources also revealed information they had obtained regarding copies of the Wolverines’ play signs being sent to Purdue by other Big Ten schools, supposedly Rutgers and Ohio State, prior to Purdue’s matchup with Michigan in the 2022 Big Ten title game. The school claimed that exchanging signs in that way amounted to almost the same behavior as the charges made against Stalions, and asserted that this was evidence of “collusion” between Michigan and other conference schools.

These arguments ultimately had no effect on the Big Ten decision. The Wolverines went 3-0 to begin the season sans Harbaugh, but it was against significantly weaker opposition than what is coming up against Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State. Now, let’s see how well they do (assuming there isn’t any legal interference) without him calling the shots.

Due to Michigan’s other ongoing NCAA investigation into improper recruitment during the COVID-19 dead period and improper coaching by non-designated staff members, Harbaugh was suspended from the team for the first three games. The NCAA Committee on Infractions is expected to hold a full hearing on the investigation, most likely in 2024, after it has been underway for nearly 2.5 years.

That investigation could result in more penalties for Harbaugh. If he is still the Michigan coach the next season, he may face serious consequences in addition to the signal-seating element.

Michigan’s only goal will be to complete the regular season undefeated despite having a coach who missed half of the games. On Friday, a large number of Wolverines rode the bus to Detroit sporting jerseys that said, “Michigan vs. Everybody.” We’ll see how far they can go with that catchphrase.

 

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