May 28, 2024

John Tondora: The legacy of Michigan is set, regardless of how things turn out.

Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and the Michigan football team right now.

Despite coming from various sports, backgrounds, and eras, their legacies are currently — or soon will be — viewed as cheaters.

It doesn’t matter that many other baseball players—famous or not—also used performance-enhancing drugs during the so-called “Steroid Era,” when Barry Bonds was playing. It doesn’t matter that during his seven championship run, Lance Armstrong doped, as did a large number of Tour de France cyclists—87 percent, to be exact. It won’t matter who stole which college football signs or when, though, not even now.

Regardless of blame or the extent of the issue, Michigan was caught—caught first and winning—and therefore caught. And on Friday, Tony Petti put Michigan’s history on death row by benching Jim Harbaugh.

 

Jim Harbaugh - Wikipedia

 

Let’s take a little look back. You wouldn’t really care if a sign-stealing scandal had surfaced, say, in 2017 when Michigan lost in the much-discussed Outback Bowl after losing its sixth straight game to Ohio State, punting away victory against Michigan State, running into a brick wall called Penn State, and slipping against Wisconsin. It’s not like you would.

No one outside the program could have demanded as much as they did for Harbaugh’s head. The fact that a lowly program was accused of foolishly attempting to advance would not have mattered as much. Furthermore, the commissioner wouldn’t have been in a haste to impose a penalty.

Yes, there would have been a negative public perception. It would have humiliated the Wolverines. Maybe the program would have had another reset and Harbaugh would have been fired. However, nothing would have happened so fast—suspensions would have been completed before the ink had a chance to set. At least nothing like this. All Michigan would have seen would have been mockery and jeers as more games were added to their losing record.

However, it wasn’t then. It has already begun. This is taking place while Michigan is making a comeback to the top of the sport. The Wolverines have made consecutive trips to the College Football Playoffs, won back-to-back Big Ten Championships, and appear to be a legitimate force in college football after two decades of failure and mediocrity.

And that is now tarnished, most likely permanently.

Talks about Michigan football’s success in a year or ten years, if not in 2023 and 2022 as well, will inevitably center on the keywords of the present: stallions, thieving, signs, and sanctions.

These remarks perfectly capture the public’s opinion of Michigan football, which will continue to exist.

Maybe you’re not feeling so harsh now. Perhaps you would like to refute my ideas with the expression that has horrifyingly permeated Maize and Blue’s consciousness. Many shouted, “Due Process!” at Petitti and the NCAA, referencing the pursuit of college football championships together with the fundamental values of life and liberty.

In response, let me state this: first off, the Big Ten and the NCAA are not the government. The NCAA and Big Ten can control what they want with Michigan, just as private universities can control what you and I say. They didn’t break the law, even if they did break what many consider to be a significant precedent.

Second, and perhaps more crucially, the Big Ten handed down the decision that the detractors had long been waiting for as the Michigan football team took off for Happy Valley and Tony Petitti delivered a devastating blow by suspending Jim Harbaugh for the remainder of the regular season.

That was when the legacy of Michigan was decided.

The fact that the NCAA was still conducting its inquiry made no difference. It made no difference that reports at the time indicated the NCAA could find no proof connecting Harbaugh to any form of sign-stealing. Furthermore, it made little difference that Michigan tried to uncover a history of Ohio State, Purdue, and Rutgers sign poaching. Because Petitti concluded the Wolverines case by eschewing due process, whatever that actually means in this situation.

Sign-stealing and Michigan are inextricably linked, for better or worse. And the death warrant was signed by Petitti.

Maybe tomorrow, maybe a year from now, Michigan will be emptied out entirely. Though they most likely won’t be. The NCAA notified the Big Ten that it possessed proof of the plot, which, we as spectators have to assume, is significant enough to breach the murky boundaries of sign theft and warrant consequences. However, let’s imagine they were exonerated, and in a Wolverine miracle, they defeated the prosecution on all counts.

It would be irrelevant.

Michigan already has a bullseye on its back after rising to the very top of the NCAA football world once more, winning every Big Ten game since 2021, and facing off against rivals along the way. And whether it cheated or not, the target walked into its own missile by getting entangled in yet another controversy.

With everything working in their favor, the Wolverines strode into 2023. A seasoned squad, two years in a row of enormous success, and a head coach who had, for the first time in his Michigan career, presumably hushed the on-field detractors. But going out, Michigan will always have a new legacy associated with them, regardless of whether they win the national championship or lose to Ohio State: tarnished by the acidic flavor

When the public opinion court made its decision, Petitti slammed the gavel.

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