Big Ten to ban Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh from field, sources tell ESPN

ByPete Thamel and Adam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Friday, November 10, 2023
Big Ten to ban Michigan's Jim Harbaugh from field: ESPN sources
Coach Jim Harbaugh has been banned by the Big Ten from coaching during games amid the Michigan sign-stealing investigation, sources told ESPN.

The Big Ten has suspended Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh for the remainder of the regular season as the league disciplines the program under its sportsmanship policy amid the ongoing NCAA investigation into the school's in-person sign-stealing ring.

The decision was announced Friday afternoon as the third-ranked Wolverines (9-0) head to No. 10 Penn State (8-1) for a critical road game Saturday.

Michigan was found to be in violation of the Big Ten's 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.

In the 13-page letter to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, the Big Ten cited preserving the ability of the team to play out its season and Harbaugh being the public face of the program as the reasons for Harbaugh serving the penalty, though the punishment is levied against Michigan.

"This is not a sanction of Coach Harbaugh," the conference said in its report. "It is a sanction against the University that, under the extraordinary circumstance presented by this offensive conduct, best fits the violation."

Harbaugh's suspension only bans him from the sideline on game day, as he's allowed to coach the team the remainder of the week.

His status for Michigan's game against Penn State could come down to a court ruling. In a statement, Michigan president Santa Ono said the school seeks to get a court order "preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect."

Michigan's plane landed in Pennsylvania shortly before the announcement. Getting a court order could prove difficult before Saturday's game; Friday is the recognized federal holiday for Veteran's Day and courts.

Additionally in the statement, Ono expressed his displeasure with what he deems to have been a rushed process by the Big Ten.

"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," Ono said in the statement. "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. We are dismayed at the Commissioner's rush to judgment when there is an ongoing NCAA investigation -- one in which we are fully cooperating."

The suspension of Harbaugh comes more than three weeks after the Big Ten took the rare step of announcing the NCAA investigation into Michigan's alleged illicit sign stealing Oct. 19.

The league's timing comes in part because Michigan asked for an extra day for their response to a notice of potential discipline, which came Wednesday afternoon. The response of both the school and Harbaugh was lengthy, which required the Big Ten to take time to review and potentially respond.

According to sources, the Big Ten on Thursday asked for documents from the NCAA that required Michigan's approval, which then pushed the final decision back a bit.

The Wolverines have three regular-season games left against Penn State on Saturday in Happy Valley, then at Maryland and finally at home to face rival Ohio State.

The point spread on Saturday's Michigan-Penn State game was sitting at Wolverines -4.5 at most sportsbooks before Harbaugh's three-game punishment was announced Friday. The line ticked down to Michigan -4 (-115) at ESPN BET after the initial report, but was holding steady at -4.5 at most sportsbooks. (ESPN BET odds are provided by PENN Entertainment).

The Big Ten's discipline does not conclude the ongoing NCAA investigation regarding allegations of off-campus scouting and signal stealing by former Michigan staffer Connor Stalions.

In 1994, the NCAA banned off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents during the same season. There has been only one known violation of the policy in major college football, in November 2016, when then-Baylor assistant Jeff Lebby was suspended for the first half of a game against Oklahoma after being on the sideline the previous week when Oklahoma faced Tulsa.

Stalions, a Naval Academy graduate who became a Marine Corps captain before joining Michigan's staff in 2022, resigned from his position this past Friday after initially being suspended with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation. Sources told ESPN that Stalions refused to attend a meeting with Michigan officials or to comply with the NCAA investigation, possibly on the advice of counsel. In a statement released to The Athletic, Stalions' attorney Brad Beckworth said that Stalions had no knowledge of Harbaugh or other Michigan staff members telling anyone to violate rules regarding off-campus scouting, nor were they aware of any such activities.

"I do not want to be a distraction from what I hope to be a championship run for the team, and I will continue to cheer them on," Stalions said in a statement to The Athletic.

On Oct. 18, the NCAA notified Michigan and the Big Ten it was investigating allegations of off-campus signal stealing by the Wolverines. The Big Ten initially informed Michigan State and Michigan's other upcoming opponents from the league, and said in a statement it would "continue to monitor the (NCAA) investigation."

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said in a statement the athletic department would cooperate fully with the NCAA and remained "committed to the highest standards of ethics and integrity for all members of our community." Harbaugh, in a statement, said he and his staff also would cooperate, and 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."

After ESPN reported Stalions had bought tickets to games at 12 of the 13 other Big Ten stadiums and for games involving possible College Football Playoff opponents for Michigan, the Big Ten hinted its involvement would increase through the sportsmanship policy, which gives Petitti the "exclusive authority" to determine violations and propose discipline. A Big Ten source told ESPN on Oct. 24 that the league could step in before the NCAA's lengthy investigative and infractions process finished, but would want to have "as full of a picture of what the facts actually are, if we were to act."

The urgency for Petitti to act increased last week, after ESPN first reported Oct. 30 that Central Michigan was investigating a man it could not identify who resembled Stalions and appeared on the team's sideline dressed in CMU-issued gear for the Sept. 1 opening game at Michigan State. The unidentified man had one of the 50 bench credentials teams are allowed for non-roster personnel.

Petitti then held calls on consecutive days with Big Ten coaches and athletic directors, several of whom voiced their outrage with Michigan -- Harbaugh and Manuel were not on the calls at the time -- and urged the commissioner to impose punishment. On Friday, Petitti met with Ono, Michigan's president, on campus and outlined the evidence he had about the signal stealing. Ono had emailed Petitti the night before their meeting -- he shared the letter with other Big Ten presidents and chancellors -- and asked the commissioner to respect due process and the ongoing NCAA investigation, before penalizing Michigan.

The off-campus signal-stealing investigation is the second ongoing NCAA probe involving Michigan, which in January was notified of alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period. In August, Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension for Harbaugh to begin the 2023 season, as well as one-game suspensions for offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore and Grant Newsome. The first NCAA investigation of Michigan is expected to be resolved in 2024.

Harbaugh, who faces charges around failing to cooperate with NCAA investigators, could be charged as a repeat violator under head coach responsibility, a Level I charge.

Information from ESPN's Tom VanHaaren and David Purdum was used in this report.