The Big Ten penalized Michigan on Friday for the football team’s in-person scouting by banning head coach Jim Harbaugh from coaching during games the rest of the regular season — a decision school officials said will lead them to seek immediate relief from the courts.
In a letter sent by the Big Ten to Michigan, the conference said the Wolverines program “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.”
It added Michigan has not denied the impermissible activity took place and said Harbaugh’s suspension comes because he is the face of the football program.
The university, in its response, said conference commissioner Tony Petitti should not have taken action before the end of an NCAA investigation into the matter.
“Commissioner Petitti’s hasty action today suggests that this is more about reacting to pressure from other Conference members than a desire to apply the rules fairly and impartially,” the statement said. “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.”
The action taken by the Big Ten means Harbaugh, without intervention from the courts, won’t be on the sidelines during the No. 3 Wolverines’ two biggest games of the season: Saturday at No. 10 Penn State and Nov. 25 against No. 1 Ohio State.
Michigan, in its statement, contends both the action and timing are wrong.
“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.”
The games against Penn State and Ohio State could have implications on which Big Ten team is in contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Michigan (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) also plays Nov. 18 at Maryland.
Under the conference ruling, Harbaugh may attend practices and other football team activities, but he may not be present at the games. The conference acknowledged it had no evidence yet that Harbaugh directed the sign stealing or other unallowed acts.
“This is not a sanction of Coach Harbaugh,” the conference said. “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.”
In a statement issued Oct. 19, Harbaugh denied any involvement in stealing signs.
“I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed staff members or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment,” he said.
“I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.”
So far, only former staff member Connor Stalions has been tied to allegations of in-person scouting and sign stealing.
Michigan suspended Stalions with pay on Oct. 20, pending the outcome of the investigation, and he resigned on Nov. 3. Stalions has refused to cooperate with both internal and external investigations since then, ESPN and The Athletic reported last week.
After Stalions’ suspension, multiple outlets reported that Stalions had purchased game tickets to watch Big Ten foes as well as several potential College Football Playoff opponents such as Georgia, Clemson and Alabama. Stalions also reportedly bought seats at numerous Big Ten games in areas where the opponents’ sideline play signals could be viewed.
Yahoo Sports and ESPN reported that Stalions transferred tickets to others who attended games and allegedly made videos of sideline signals that later could be deciphered.
–Field Level Media