Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti said in the conference’s letter to Michigan that its three-game suspension of Jim Harbaugh was not a sanction against him, but a “sanction against the university” itself.
The conference announced Friday afternoon that Harbaugh would be suspended for the remainder of the regular season because of the program’s alleged in-person sign-stealing scheme. Shortly after the Big Ten's announcement, Michigan said that it was seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the suspension from immediately taking effect.
In a 13-page letter to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel detailing the reasons for the action against Harbaugh and Michigan, the conference outlined the evidence it had regarding the scheme that former analyst Connor Stalions allegedly led.
“We impose this disciplinary action even though the Conference has not yet received any information indicating that Head Football Coach Harbaugh was aware of the impermissible nature of the sign-stealing scheme,” Pettiti and the Big Ten wrote. “This is not a sanction of Coach Harbaugh. It is a sanction against the University that, under the extraordinary circumstances presented by this offensive conduct, best fits the violation because: (1) it preserves the ability of the University’s football student-athletes to continue competing; and (2) it recognizes that the Head Coach embodies the University for purposes of its football program.”
‘The existence of the impermissible scheme is proven’
The Big Ten made it clear to Michigan that there was no doubt that a scheme was in place to gather signs from opposing teams via in-person scouting.
“As described below, the existence of the impermissible scheme is proven,” the Big Ten said. “While other investigatory bodies continue to develop additional evidence of the scope, extent and individual knowledge of the scheme that may advise additional or enhanced penalties in the future, taking immediate action is appropriate and necessary under the Conference’s Sportsmanship Policy.”
The Big Ten also said that it had no information yet that Harbaugh “was aware of the impermissible nature of the sign-stealing scheme." Remember, it’s not against NCAA rules to steal signs. In-person scouting — whether to steal signs or find out something else — is against NCAA rules.
NCAA president personally called Big Ten and Michigan
The conference said that NCAA president Charlie Baker “disclosed to both the conference and the university that it had received highly credible evidence of a wide-ranging, multi-year in-person off campus scouting scheme orchestrated by a noncoaching staff member of the University’s football program.”
The Big Ten said there were ‘several extraordinary aspects” of the call, which came a day before Yahoo Sports revealed there was an NCAA investigation into alleged in-person sign stealing in the Michigan football program.
“It is rare and outside the NCAA’s typical protocols for the NCAA to disclose information about an active investigation to institutions other than the institution under investigation. However, the NCAA stated and believed that the disclosure was necessary due to the unprecedented scope of the then-alleged scheme, and because of the significant impact the impermissible scheme could have on competition during the current football season. It was also extraordinary that the NCAA president arranged for and participated in the call, underscoring not only the severity of the allegations but the immediate impacts. All of these circumstances were a clear statement from the NCAA that the nature and reliability of the evidence they had received indicated that the improper scheme relating to the University’s football team was ongoing and created a substantial risk of compromising the integrity of football competitions this season. At that point, the University’s football team had played seven games this season and had five more regular-season games remaining.”
“The University football team staff member engaged in an organized and extensive in-person, off campus advance scouting scheme, and that the staff member was in close communications with at least some of the coaches on the University’s football team.”
NCAA gave Big Ten a ‘master spreadsheet’ of sign-stealing activities
The day after the call with the NCAA, the Big Ten said the NCAA provided it a “master spreadsheet” relating to the sign-stealing operation. Per the conference, the spreadsheet contained “a large and detailed chart listing the names of various individuals assigned to attend” football games, “notations showing whether in-person attendance at non-conference games would be necessary depending on different win/loss scenarios,” “the names of individuals assigned to certain cities and locations” and “monetary amounts associated with certain assigned games.”
The conference also said that “the name of the university staff member alleged to have orchestrated the scheme was prevalent in the master spreadsheet.”
Stalions purchased tickets over three seasons
The Big Ten said other teams in the conference had evidence that Stalions had purchased tickets to games dating back to 2021 and that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told the Big Ten that Stalions had purchased tickets to last season’s SEC title game in Atlanta.
On Nov. 2, the Big Ten said it had another call with the NCAA and Michigan where Baker said “the NCAA ‘knew and could prove’” that Stalions coordinated a “vast off campus, in-person advance scouting scheme involving a network of individuals” and had evidence of how others attended games on his behalf and recorded teams’ signs.
“In light of this information, the NCAA informed the University and me that the existence of the impermissible scheme by this University football staff member was ‘uncontroverted,’" the letter said. “The NCAA indicated that it was continuing its investigation to determine, among other things, who else knew about and/or was involved in the scheme.”
How Michigan pushed back
Pettiti said he met with Michigan president Santa Ono after the Nov. 2 call and Ono said via email that “oral updates from NCAA enforcement staff do not and cannot constitute evidence” while requesting that the Big Ten not discipline Harbaugh or Michigan until the NCAA took action.
On Nov. 3, Pettiti said he told Michigan that the evidence he had “caused me to believe that the University had violated the Conference’s Sportsmanship Policy but that I had not yet made any final determinations or disciplinary decisions.”
The following day, the Big Ten formally notified Michigan that it had violated the Big Ten’s Sportsmanship Policy, and the school responded on Nov. 8.
In its statement Friday announcing Harbaugh's suspension, the Big Ten countered:
“For instance, the University argued that a rule authorizing the Conference to impose additional penalties after an NCAA investigation based on the final results of that investigation actually prohibited the Conference from enforcing an entirely different rule (the Sportsmanship Policy) anytime the NCAA was conducting an investigation — even though the rule in question does not say anything of the sort. Finally, the University argued that it believed it had evidence of other Conference members engaging in impermissible in-person sign-stealing, and therefore urged the Conference to ‘act cautiously’ — essentially an argument that violations of the Sportsmanship Rule should be overlooked if ‘everyone is doing it.’”
Pettiti and the Big Ten push back against multiple defenses from Michigan in the letter and justifies over multiple pages why the conference is allowed to rule against Michigan via the Sportsmanship Policy.
“I have concluded that the University engaged in the impermissible scheme resulting in unfair games on unequal terms and compromised player safety,” the letter states. “Nothing offends the integrity of competition more than attempting to gain an unfair advantage through impermissible means. It does not matter whether the NCAA ultimately finds that violations of its rules occurred, though it has already communicated to the Conference that the fact of the impermissible scheme is uncontroverted. The Sportsmanship Policy applies to any conduct that affects the 'integrity of competition.' Such conduct undoubtedly occurred here.”
The letter also makes clear why Michigan’s stance that other teams had stolen its signs doesn’t absolve the school from punishment.
“As the University readily admits in its response, it does not know the exact methods that it alleges other teams used to decode its own signs,” the Big Ten wrote. “The Conference has not received any information that any other member schools engaged in impermissible advance in-person scouting, let alone a scheme of the size and scale like the one at issue here. The Conference is unaware of any active NCAA investigations into impermissible advance scouting involving other members of the Conference. Should the Conference become aware of such impermissible conduct, it will take appropriate action. However, the Conference vehemently rejects any defense by the University or any other Conference member that cheating is acceptable because other teams do it too.”