The Big Ten banned Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh from coaching at the team’s three remaining regular-season games Friday, defying a warning from the second-ranked Wolverines in an extraordinary confrontation over an alleged sign-stealing scheme that has rocked college football.
“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,” the conference said in a statement.
Harbaugh can coach the team in practice during the week but won’t be able to be on the sidelines for its matchups against No. 10 Penn State, Maryland and No. 1 Ohio State. Harbaugh was disciplined by the conference less than 24 hours before the Wolverines play at Penn State in their toughest matchup of the season so far (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). His team (9-0) has a shot to win a third straight Big Ten title and the school’s first national championship since 1997.
Michigan had said it was prepared to take possible legal action if the conference punished the football program before a full investigation into allegations of an impermissible scouting and sign-stealing operation, and on Friday, the university responded with a statement of its own, indicating it would seek a court order to allow Harbaugh to continue coaching.
“Like all members of the Big Ten Conference, we are entitled to a fair, deliberate, and thoughtful process to determine the full set of facts before a judgment is rendered. Today’s action by Commissioner Tony Petitti 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,” the statement read.
“We are dismayed at the Commissioner’s rush to judgment when there is an ongoing NCAA investigation — one in which we are fully cooperating. 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. 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. And, doing so on Veteran’s 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.”
Such a fight between a conference and one of its most storied members is fairly unprecedented. The dispute began three weeks ago and the allegations leaked day by day, with it becoming clear the Wolverines do not want their undefeated season derailed by an unfinished investigation of activities it says Harbaugh knew nothing about and are not unheard of across college football.
Michigan says it is cooperating with the NCAA, which does not outlaw sign-stealing, but has rules against in-person scouting of opponents and using electronic equipment to steal signs. The allegations against Michigan suggest a far more robust approach to gathering signs.
The allegations against Michigan center on a former low-level staffer, Connor Stalions, purchasing tickets to the games of future opponents and sending people to those games to record video of that team’s signals.
Multiple Big Ten schools say they have found records of tickets purchased in Stalions’ name to their games and surveillance video of the people sitting in those seats pointing their phones toward the field.
Photos on the internet also suggest Stalions was on the Central Michigan sideline during the Sept. 1 game against Michigan State, wearing CMU gear and sunglasses. Central Michigan said it was working with the NCAA to determine who the person was.
Just how elaborate the scheme was has not been detailed by investigators, though media reports suggest it was an organized and well-funded plan. Just who tipped off NCAA investigators is among the unanswered questions.
Michigan and Stallions parted ways earlier in the month.
The NCAA probe is likely to stretch well past the season. Big Ten’s rules allowed for swifter action, and coaches and athletic directors in the league had pushed Petitti to discipline Michigan under conference bylaws that cover sportsmanship and competitive integrity.
Harbaugh served a school-imposed, three-game suspension earlier this season for an unrelated and unresolved NCAA infractions case tied to recruiting. The former star quarterback for the Wolverines has an 80-25 overall record and a 59-17 mark in Big Ten games over nine seasons with the Wolverines.
Michigan has contended that other schools steal signs. A former employee at a Big Ten football program, whose role was to steal signs, said he was given details from multiple conference schools before his team played Michigan to compile a spreadsheet of play-calling signals used by the Wolverines last year. He spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing the disclosures could impact his coaching career.
The person said he also passed along screenshots of text-message exchanges with staffers from a handful of Big Ten football teams with the Wolverines, giving them proof that other conference teams were colluding to steal signs from Harbaugh’s team.
He said he gave the additional details to Michigan last week because he hoped it would help Harbaugh’s embattled program, adding he believes the head coach and his assistants are being unfairly blamed for the actions of a rogue staffer.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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