The Big Ten Conference suspended Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh on Friday for the Wolverines final three regular-season games after uncovering what it described as an elaborate system of impermissible in-person scouting as well as a sign-stealing scheme.
While the penalty may sound imposing, and if it sticks it would be, Michigan has already threatened to seek legal recourse in overturning the decision.
It’s worth noting this is Harbaugh’s second suspension this season. He was previously sidelined three games for alleged recruiting violations during the COVID pandemic. The NCAA is investigating that potential infraction, too.
The really tasty aspect here is what the two entities, the Big Ten Conference and the University of Michigan, had to say to and about each other in dueling press releases on Friday night.
The Wolverines and indeed Harbaugh can participate in the Big Ten championship game, the college football playoffs, and a national title game if they get that far. Harbaugh will even be allowed to coach during the week at practice throughout his penalty, just not during the regular-season games — again, that’s if the announced penalties remain intact.
But none of that was the most intriguing part of this wildly entertaining story.
The devil, as always, lies in the details.
As the Wolverines noted in their response to the announcement, brand new Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti leveled the penalty just before 4 p.m. on Friday (Veterans Day), and on the eve of Michigan’s big clash at Penn State on Saturday at noon.
“By taking this action at this hour, the Commissioner is personally inserting himself onto the sidelines and altering the level playing field that he is claiming to preserve,” Michigan stated in a press release. “And, doing so on Veterans Day — a court holiday — to try to thwart the University from seeking immediate judicial relief is hardly a profile in impartiality.
“To ensure fairness in the process, we intend to seek a court order, together with coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect.”
That was a snippet of Michigan’s response to the Big Ten’s 13-page release on Friday.
Petitti was just as disappointed in the Wolverines, whom he noted didn’t deny their spying operation.
“The University’s November 8 response does not deny that the impermissible scheme occurred,” Petitti said. “Instead, it offers only procedural and technical arguments designed to delay accountability.
“The University also argues that because it believes that others are engaged in decoding signs, there must be nothing wrong with the University’s activities. In addition to impermissible activities of others being currently unsupported by facts, the University’s culpability is not dependent on the actions of other institutions.”
Petitti was incredulous that Michigan claimed it hadn’t seen “any evidence” of wrongdoing.
“… given the extensive evidence the University was in fact provided by the NCAA, it cannot possibly be true that the University had not seen ‘almost any of the evidence.’ “
In what might have been the saltiest part of his statement, Petitti noted the risk of injury that Michigan’s scheme could’ve led to for Wolverine opponents.
“Separate from both the damage to the reputational integrity of the Conference and its member institutions and damage from past and ongoing competitive disadvantage, physical injury is also a significant concern here,” Petitti stated.
“While the Conference is currently not aware of any physical injuries that resulted from the impermissible scheme, numerous coaches and athletic directors from other member institutions expressed concerns to me about the increased risks of injury to student-athletes resulting from the scheme.
“I have a responsibility to give serious consideration to those concerns. I find it credible that impermissible advance scouting increases the risk of injury to student athletes because if you know what play your opponent is running, then you also know where your opponents’ players will be on the field.
“Although the University attempted to downplay and disregard these safety concerns in its response, I am not willing to do so.”
Now it goes to the courts, with the Big Ten’s attorneys battling the legal representation of of Harbaugh and Michigan.
That will be a game all of its own, and we could have fireworks from that exchange at any moment.
I like butter with my popcorn.