Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti has suspended Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh for three games — or the rest of the Wolverines' regular season — citing the league’s “sportsmanship” provision. The suspension applies only to game days, so Harbaugh will be able to coach the team during the week.
The punishment is in response to Michigan staff member Connor Stalions allegedly running an in-person scouting operation where he sent friends to games to video record the sideline play signals of future Michigan opponents.
The decision comes just hours before No. 2 Michigan is set to play at No. 11 Penn State on Saturday. The Wolverines were in the process of traveling to State College, Pennsylvania, when the decision came down.
Both the University of Michigan and Harbaugh’s personal attorney, Tom Mars, have vowed a legal challenge. It is expected they will seek a stay from a judge on Friday that would allow Harbaugh to coach Saturday. A more permanent injunction would be sought after that.
While Friday is a federal holiday — Veterans Day — it is common for courts to have a judge present or on call for emergency stays or issues that arise in all kinds of business disputes.
"We are dismayed at the Commissioner’s rush to judgment when there is an ongoing NCAA investigation — one in which we are fully cooperating,” Michigan said in a statement that included its intention to seek an injunction.
"To ensure fairness in the process," the statement continued, "we intend to seek a court order, together with Coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect.”
If the suspension holds, it would force Harbaugh to miss Michigan’s final three regular-season games — at Penn State, at Maryland and home in the end-of-the-season rivalry contest against Ohio State.
Michigan offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore would be expected to serve as interim head coach if Harbaugh is not able to coach. ESPN was the first to report the suspension.
Both the Wolverines and Buckeyes are currently 9-0 and that game will likely hold significant Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff implications. Harbaugh would be eligible to return for both the Big Ten title game on Dec. 2 and the CFP if Michigan qualifies.
At the center of the case is Stalions, a former U.S. Naval Academy grad and Marine captain, on the staff and serving as both a recruiting analyst and a sign decipherer.
He is accused of sending as many as 65 people, according to Yahoo Sports sources, to record games across the Big Ten and the country. Yahoo Sports first reported on Oct. 19 that the NCAA was investigating Michigan after a third-party investigative firm — still yet to be identified — presented evidence of Stalions' actions.
Harbaugh immediately denied having any knowledge of how Stalions was able to gain information to steal signs. Harbaugh almost assuredly knew Stalions was stealing signs, but virtually every team in the country has someone who handles those duties. Stalions, who resigned from the program on Nov. 3, said through his attorney that no one at Michigan was aware of what he was doing.
It is legal under NCAA rules to steal an opponent’s signs. It is against the rules to “in-person scout.” Coaches routinely decipher signs via television broadcast, coaching film and even in-game. They also routinely “share” their findings with other coaches who are about to play a certain team.
While college coaches view the sharing of stolen signs as part of the game, some believed Stalions' actions to be dramatically different even though the result is essentially the same.
Big Ten coaches outlined that position in a conference call with Petitti that ESPN cited as “angry” and “demanding.” Apparently Petitti agreed and decided to apply the league’s little-used “sportsmanship” policy to immediately apply a penalty to Harbaugh even though the NCAA investigation is still ongoing and the Association has not been able to present any findings to either Michigan or the Big Ten that Harbaugh was involved.
Thus far, sources tell Yahoo Sports, the NCAA has found no ties to Harbaugh or knowledge that Harbaugh knew of Stalions' in-person tactics. Under a “strict liability rule” that just took effect this year, the NCAA can hold Harbaugh responsible for the actions of any of his assistants or staff members regardless of knowledge. The Big Ten has a similar rule, but it applies to “institutions,” not individual coaches.
In a letter sent to the Big Ten, Michigan has demanded the Big Ten wait until the full NCAA investigation plays out before issuing a punishment, warning that a lack of “due process” is not only unfair on its own right but sets up a dangerous precedent that the league will regret going forward.
The 59-year-old Harbaugh is in his ninth season at his alma mater, posting an 80-25 record. He previously coached Stanford and the NFL's San Francisco 49ers and is almost annually linked as a candidate to professional football coaching vacancies. He served a school-issued three-game suspension at the start of this season for an unrelated NCAA infractions case.
Michigan has won the last two Big Ten championships, both with Stalions on staff.