Jim Harbaugh suspended by Big Ten: Michigan coach banned from final three games of 2023 regular season

The Big Ten has suspended Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh from the field for the final three games of the 2023 season amid an ongoing NCAA investigation into an alleged sign-stealing operation orchestrated by former staffer Connor Stalions. The punitive measure from commissioner Tony Petitti falls under the conference’s sportsmanship policy, which is not restricted by the same lengthy protocols and red tape that will likely carry the NCAA’s investigation well into next year. 

While Harbaugh will be banned from on-site coaching of Michigan during its final three games against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State, he will be allowed to attend practices and other “football team activities.”

“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 wrote in a statement.

“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.'”

Michigan and Harbaugh proactively planned legal action should the Big Ten hand down a suspension. Now that the conference has done so, the university indicated such a move is forthcoming.

“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 school said in a statement. “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.”

The Big Ten stood firm in his decision stating that it reviewed substantial material prior to its punitive action.

“The Conference has received and reviewed extensive documentation and information during the course of its investigation. This includes the Master Spreadsheet and other documents and information that the NCAA made available to the University and which the Conference now has in its possession, notwithstanding the University’s initial refusal to consent to the Conference obtaining such materials from the NCAA. The Conference takes exception to the University’s suggestion in its response that any determination in this matter is based on ‘prejudgment and bias.’ The Conference does not play favorites among its members, nor does it take actions towards its members based on prejudgment or bias. Failing to act under the extraordinary circumstances here could lead other Conference members reasonably to conclude that the Conference has chosen to favor the University over all other members.”

Michigan president Santa Ono previously implored Petitti to wait for “due process” during the NCAA’s probe before acting.

“If you refuse to let the NCAA investigative process play out, the Big 10 may not take any action against the University or its players or coaches without commencing its own investigation and offering us the opportunity to provide our position,” Ono wrote in a letter to Petitti obtained by multiple outlets. “That is not just required by our conference rules; it is a matter of basic fairness.”  

Earlier this week, Michigan had issued a response to the Big Ten’s notice of potential disciplinary action in which the school challenged the league’s authority — specifically that of the commissioner — to hand down any sort of punishment. Michigan also reportedly included evidence of Ohio State and Rutgers sharing the Wolverines’ signals with Purdue ahead of the 2022 Big Ten Championship Game. Buckeyes coach Ryan Day and Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano have since denied those allegations

At the center of the NCAA’s probe is Stalions, who was initially suspended by the program but later resigned on Nov. 3 ahead of the Wolverines’ Week 10 game vs. Purdue. Stalions is alleged to have created and maintained a network of staffers and contractors to electronically record sidelines of future Michigan opponents to steal signals. Records show that Stalions purchased and distributed tickets at 12 Big Ten stadiums along with multiple potential College Football Playoff opponents.

While sign-stealing is not in violation of any NCAA rules, in-person advance scouting and use of electronic devices to record signs is against the rules. 

Of interest to the NCAA and Big Ten is Harbaugh’s role in the sign-stealing efforts. Harbaugh to this point has denied knowledge of Stalions’ operation or the alleged sign-stealing ring. NCAA bylaws state that Harbaugh can still be punished even if it is determined he did not have prior knowledge of the violations.

“I want to make it clear that I, and my staff, will fully cooperate with the investigation into this matter,” Harbaugh said. “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. I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.” 

Harbaugh’s suspension would be his second of the season. Michigan previously self-imposed a three-game ban for the coach related to misleading investigators during an NCAA investigation into illegal recruiting and coaching practices during the COVID-19 dead period. A negotiated settlement with the NCAA was rejected by the Committee on Infractions, meaning Harbaugh could still face further punishment in the case. 

Since the sign-stealing investigation became public, Michigan has defeated Michigan State and Purdue by a combined 90-13. In the wake of viral pictures surfacing allegedly showing Stalions on the Central Michigan sideline during Michigan State’s opener against the Chippewas, the Spartans avoided using sideline signals. The following week, Boilermakers coach Ryan Walters said on his coaches show that he knew “for a fact” that a Michigan sign stealer was at “a number” of past games. 

The NCAA’s investigation into Michigan for sign-stealing is a rapidly-developing story and CBS Sports is covering it in real time. Click here for live coverage.

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