On Monday morning, the University of Michigan football program welcomed a visitor: former pro wrestler Ric Flair, an eccentric personality known for his colorful wardrobe and entertaining bouts in the ring.
It’s a fitting start to a week that could evolve, in both Ann Arbor and Chicago, into an unprecedented showdown between a school and its own conference.
The NCAA has revealed its latest findings in the Michigan sign-stealing investigation to the Big Ten, and the conference continues to consider a multi-game suspension of head coach Jim Harbaugh as the school gears up for legal action, sources tell Yahoo Sports.
The NCAA’s findings do not connect the in-person scouting and recording of opponents’ sidelines to Harbaugh, sources say, an absence of evidence essential to a potential lawsuit from the school and coach against the league.
Over the weekend, the school was given a period of several days in which to mount a response to the conference before penalties, if any, are levied, sources with knowledge of the discussions say. A resolution around the issue is expected by the end of this week and as soon as Wednesday.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti’s pursuit of potential penalties against Harbaugh is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that has gripped the college football world. Michigan, 9-0 and No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, travels to Penn State on Saturday for a top-10 meeting in what will be, by far, the Wolverines’ toughest test of the year so far.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel is skipping out on his duties with the College Football Playoff committee this week so he can focus on the school's response to the investigation.
Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme, reported first on Oct. 19 by Yahoo Sports, is believed to be an elaborate multi-year endeavor to scout and record opponents’ play-call signals. At the center of the scheme is a former low-level analyst, Connor Stalions, who failed to cooperate with NCAA investigators last week and was dismissed, according to sources. The school announced Friday that he resigned.
Stalions is believed to have used as many as 65 associates to scout games, sources tell Yahoo Sports. While sign-stealing is not against NCAA rules, scouting a future opponent’s game is, as well as using recording devices to document signals.
In just his eighth month as commissioner, Petitti has faced internal pressure from league coaches and administrators to take action against the Wolverines before the NCAA investigation has completed. The organization, only in the third week of its investigation, is treating this probe differently, accelerating matters as well as sharing information with the conference.
In meetings with Michigan officials in Ann Arbor on Friday, Petitti is believed to have proposed a multi-game suspension for Harbaugh, something that school officials, including president Santa Ono, pushed back against. In a letter to Petitti publicized over the weekend, Ono expressed his desire for the conference to wait until the NCAA completes its investigation before levying any penalties.
However, Petitti and Big Ten athletic directors and presidents have spent the past two weeks discussing potential penalties, with most of those talks held without the presence of Michigan’s representatives.
Any Big Ten penalty will be rooted in the conference’s sportsmanship policy, which allows for the commissioner to hand down disciplinary measures for violating the “integrity of competition” in the “competitive arena,” the policy says.
According to the policy, the commissioner can take disciplinary action that is considered “standard” or “major.” Standard action includes a fine not exceeding $10,000 and a suspension of no more than two contests. Major action is anything exceeding those penalties and is subject to approval from the Big Ten executive board of presidents.
Any school targeted for a violation of the sportsmanship policy is permitted a “reasonable timeframe” set by the commissioner to file a response with the league. The conference is believed to have given Michigan a deadline of mid-week to file a response before action is taken.
The controversy has drawn the attention of many across the country and has sparked calls for wireless communication devices in college football. Asked about the situation facing Petitti, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey noted his own schools’ problems in the past and also said, “I don’t wish that on anyone.”
Any suspension of Harbaugh is expected to be met with legal action from both the coach and school, multiple sources tell Yahoo Sports. School officials have held ongoing conversations around legal action tied to a significant fact in the case — that there is no documented evidence that Harbaugh was aware of Stalions’ NCAA rule-breaking.
While under NCAA bylaws head coaches are presumed responsible for a staff member’s actions, the Big Ten sportsmanship policy does not feature such a clause.
The policy holds “institutions,” not head coaches, as “responsible for, and therefore, may be held accountable for, the actions of its employees, coaches, student-athletes, band, spirit squads, mascot(s), general student body and any other individual or group of individuals over whom or which it maintains some level of authority.”
Can the Big Ten apply an NCAA bylaw to override its own bylaw to suspend Harbaugh? That’s the kind of question — and others that arise from two bureaucratic mazes — that will no doubt be asked of a judge.
The legal avenues available to the university and/or Harbaugh are clear, said Mit Winter, a sports attorney based in Kansas City who has handled NCAA-related cases in the past. They can seek a temporary restraining order to prevent any suspension from taking effect.
“The school or Harbaugh would have to present a cause of action,” Winter said. “That could be a lack of due-process claim or a failure to follow procedural rules.”
Temporary restraining orders, commonly referred to as TROs, are often filed for emergency purposes and are ruled upon quickly. In fact, TROs can be granted without the other party present or even making arguments, Winter said.
The granting of a TRO could reinstate Harbaugh until a more permanent decision is made from the courts through a preliminary injunction. A similar court battle is unfolding in the case of the Pac-12, where Washington State and Oregon State won a restraining order in September against the 10 outgoing members over control of the conference.
From the NCAA’s perspective, there is little to no precedent in this case. Years ago, a Baylor assistant attended the game of an upcoming opponent. Though he was not recording, the assistant was recognized and the school self-reported the violation. The coach was given a half-game suspension.
The scope of this in-person scouting is the largest in college sports history. Because of the NCAA’s labyrinth process to enact penalties, it is unlikely that any will be levied during this season unless the school and organization agree to a resolution — an unlikely occurrence given the circumstances.
NCAA cases normally span months if not years. An investigation leads to a notification process, where schools have 90 days to respond to a notice of allegation. That all unfolds before a potentially lengthy appeals process. The entire process lasts anywhere from six to 18 months, a former NCAA investigator told Yahoo Sports. Scheduling conflicts and other issues can lengthen the ordeal.
Michigan’s situation is especially cumbersome. It is in the midst of the football season.
“It’s not uncommon for attorneys to want to delay things a bit more, especially in this situation,” one of the former NCAA officials said. “A coach is in the middle of a season, and I’m sure they are going to want to interview multiple staff members. Trying to slip in an interview is difficult.
"It’s tough with a team in-season.
“Even if they were able to get all the information gathered, those conversations on what the violation is and the level is are going to be pretty robust internally.”
Meanwhile, the NCAA is investigating Harbaugh and the Wolverines for recruiting violations committed during the COVID-19 dead period. It’s likely the two cases will be joined and ruled upon, the former NCAA official said. That could complicate and expand any penalties.
“You’re looking at not just head-coach failure to monitor but institutional failure to monitor or lack of control,” said one former NCAA investigator. “None of that is going to happen this football season, other than the university's calculation about what to impose.”