Big Ten Suspends Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh from Coaching in Games for Remainder of Regular Season Amid NCAA Investigation Into Sign-Stealing Scheme

By Garrick Hodge on November 10, 2023 at 3:41 pm
Jim Harbaugh
Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Jim Harbaugh is facing repercussions for Michigan's sign-stealing scheme.

The Big Ten has suspended Harbaugh from coaching in games for the rest of the regular season after determining that Michigan violated the Big Ten Sportsmanship Policy ”for conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years,” the league announced on Friday.

Per the statement from the Big Ten, Harbaugh will be prohibited from being on the sideline on gamedays, but will still be allowed to coach during the week.

The full statement from the league:

The Big Ten Conference announced today that the University of Michigan has been 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. 
Big Ten Conference Agreement 10.01 states in part that “The Big Ten Conference expects all contests involving a member institution to be conducted without compromise to any fundamental element of sportsmanship. Such fundamental elements include integrity of the competition, civility toward all, and respect, particularly toward opponents and officials.”
As a penalty imposed on the institution, the University football team must compete without its Head Football Coach for the games remaining in the 2023 regular-season, effective immediately. This disciplinary action shall not preclude the University or its football team from having its Head Football Coach attend practices or other football team activities other than the game activities to which it applies. For clarity, the Head Football Coach shall not be present at the game venue on the dates of the games to which this disciplinary action applies.  
The Big Ten Conference will have no additional comment at this time.

In a statement released shortly after the Big Ten’s announcement, Michigan said it intends “to seek a court order, together with Coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect.” Michigan argues that the league’s action “disregards the Conference’s own handbook, violates basic tenets of due process, and sets an untenable precedent of assessing penalties before an investigation has been completed.”

Michigan officially filed for a temporary restraining order on Friday night, but that request was not granted before Saturday’s game against Penn State. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore will serve as Michigan’s acting head coach against the Nittany Lions, while a hearing next Friday will determine whether Harbaugh can coach in Michigan’s final two games of the regular season against Maryland and Ohio State.

The suspension comes three weeks after the Big Ten announced Michigan was being investigated by the NCAA for scouting opponents in person and filming opponents’ signals, both of which are prohibited by NCAA rules. Connor Stalions, a former staffer for the Wolverines, allegedly purchased tickets to more than 35 games at a minimum of 17 different schools over the past three years, including games involving at least 12 of the Big Ten’s other 13 teams. Images also emerged last week that appeared to show Stalions on the sideline of Central Michigan’s season opener against Michigan State.

Stalions resigned from Michigan last Friday after he was initially suspended with pay by the university on Oct. 20.

Harbaugh has claimed he was unaware of the alleged sign-stealing scheme, saying in a statement on Oct. 19 that he did “not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment.” That said, Harbaugh can be found culpable for NCAA violations committed by his staff if it is determined he should have been aware violations were occurring even if it is not proven that he was directly involved in the scheme.

“We impose this disciplinary action even though the Conference has not yet received any information indicating that Head Football Coach Harbaugh was aware of the impermissible nature of the sign-stealing scheme,” Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti wrote in the Big Ten’s official notice of disciplinary action to Michigan. “This is not a sanction of Coach Harbaugh. It is a sanction against the University that, under the extraordinary circumstances presented by this offensive conduct, best fits the violation because: (1) it preserves the ability of the University’s football student-athletes to continue competing; and (2) it recognizes that the Head Coach embodies the University for purposes of its football program.”

The NCAA’s investigation into Michigan remains ongoing. The expectation has been that the NCAA investigation would not conclude until 2024, though CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported Friday that the investigation has been put on a “very fast timeline,” opening up the possibility that it could be completed this fall. Even so, Petitti opted to take action against Harbaugh now after calls with conference coaches and athletic directors last week in which they urged the commissioner to hold Michigan accountable.

“The integrity of competition is the backbone of any sports conference or league,” Petitti wrote. “Competition that is only about winning while disregarding the rules of fair play diminishes all of us, including our institutions. The integrity of the competition must be preeminent. Its value is fundamental and far exceeds the value of winning; indeed, it is the very source of any value in winning. Enforcing the Sportsmanship Policy with appropriate discipline this season in light of the University’s established violations this season is thus of the utmost importance to protect the reputation of the Conference and its member institutions and to ensure that our competitions on the field are honorable and fair.”

Petitti met with Michigan officials, including university president Santa Ono, last Friday in Ann Arbor. The Big Ten then sent a formal notice of allegations to Michigan on Monday. The Wolverines sent a 10-page response to the Big Ten on Wednesday, in which it argued that Petitti did not have the authority to suspend Harbaugh and that the Big Ten should allow due process to play out with the NCAA‘s ongoing investigation. Nevertheless, Petitti decided to proceed forward with suspending Harbaugh.

“Notably, the University’s November 8 response does not deny that the impermissible scheme occurred. Instead, it offers only procedural and technical arguments designed to delay accountability,” Petitti wrote in his letter to Michigan. “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.”

Michigan will play without Harbaugh on the sideline for its matchup with No. 10 Penn State on Saturday at noon. The Wolverines then play Maryland on the road before hosting Ohio State on Nov. 25 in a contest that will have no shortage of both off- and on-field storylines as the Buckeyes look to avenge their losses in The Game from the past two years and get back to the Big Ten Championship Game, which will likely require a win over the maize and blue as Michigan remains eligible to win the Big Ten East title.

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