Jim Harbaugh’s controversies and suspensions, explained

A Michigan man was coming home.

That was the pitch when the University of Michigan named Jim Harbaugh their next football coach back in 2015. He was a former quarterback who wore the maize and blue under legendary head coach Bo Schembechler, and following his own NFL career he forged a path as a coach, creating winners at Stanford and then with the San Francisco 49ers.

And his Michigan coaching journey has been a success, at least on the field. The Wolverines finished with a 5-7 record in 2014 under Brady Hoke, the year before Harbaugh arrived on campus. The turnaround was almost immediate, as Michigan finished with a 10-3 record in Harbaugh’s first season and won the Citrus Bowl.

The Wolverines have endured just one losing season under Harbaugh — the shortened COVID-19 year — and have now made the College Football Playoff in three-straight seasons.

Still, there is more to the Harbaugh story in Ann Arbor than the wins and losses.

A lot more.

An early satellite camp controversy

It did not take long for the spotlight to find its way to Harbaugh’s desk.

During his early days at Michigan, Harbaugh became the poster child for “satellite camps.” These were were camps hosted by high schools, along with some small colleges, where higher-level college coaches were invited in as guest coaches. These were also tremendous sources for recruiting, as higher-level coaches could interact with the numerous top-level recruits who attended these camps.

While some conferences, such as the ACC and the SEC, had restrictions on their coaches attending these camps — limiting them to a 50-mile radius around their school — the Big Ten did not. So Harbaugh leaned into the practice. Hard. During 2015 Michigan was slated to visit nine such camps in June. The following year? Harbaugh had 34 such visits on his calendar for the month of June, as part of the school’s “Summer Swarm Tour.

Of course, a war of words followed, interestingly enough featuring Nick Saban, the coach Harbaugh will face on New Year’s Day. Saban blasted the practice, comparing it to the “wild, wild West,” and Harbaugh did not remain silent:

Eventually, the NCAA issued a blanket ban on the practice in 2016. Harbaugh did not take that decision quietly, blasting the NCAA and dropping his “I suggest we drop the term ‘student-athlete’ for consistency,” line. While that was eventually rescinded, coaches are now restricted in how many camps they can attend, and when they can attend them.

The Matt Weiss investigation

Then there is the matter of former co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss. Weiss was fired by Michigan in January of 2023 following a “report of computer access crimes” that occurred in Schembechler Hall from Dec. 21-23, 2022. According to reporting from the school’s Daily Crime & Fire Log, it is alleged that someone — Weiss in particular — participated in “fraudulent activity involving someone accessing university emails accounts without authorization.”

The school has been cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the matter, and reporting this fall indicated that the incident was not linked in any way to the alleged sign-stealing operation (which we will address in a moment). Further, there is not reporting at all that Harbaugh was involved into the alleged computer access crimes in any way.

However, given everything else that has happened with the Wolverines this year, it bears mentioning.

Beef in recruiting

Harbaugh began the 2023 year suspended.

For beef in recruiting. Literal beef that is.

The NCAA began an investigation into Michigan’s recruiting practices, ultimately sending a Notice of Allegations to the school which cited four Level II violations. Among the alleged violations? Meeting with recruits during a COVID-19 dead period, texting recruits outside of allowable timeframes, having analysts perform coaching duties on the field during practices, and observing players working out over Zoom.

Where did the meetings take place? At the famous “The Brown Jug,” a lovely Michigan institution. Harbaugh allegedly met the recruits there and bought them burgers.

Burgers which the undersigned author can attest to as being tasty. It truly is a lovely spot.

The matter was heading towards a resolution between the NCAA and the school, but then talks broke down. According to the NCAA, Harbaugh refused to admit that he initially lied to NCAA investigators at the start of the investigation. The coach held that the did not recall the meetings with recruits when speaking to investigators, and that he was never knowingly and purposefully dishonest.

Other members of his staff received punishment from the NCAA. Mike Macdonald, who was once the Wolverines defensive coordinator and now holds that same job with the Baltimore Ravens, was hit with a one-year show-cause penalty.

As a result of the alleged dishonesty with investigators — a move viewed by the NCAA as a Level I violation, and thus more severe conduct than the underlying allegations — Harbaugh was facing a suspension of anywhere from three to six games. In an effort to get out ahead of that, the school self-imposed a three-game suspension on Harbaugh, which he served ahead of the season.

That was one less than the four-game suspension that was rumored at the start of the year.

Harbaugh was not alone, as offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore and tight ends coach Grant Newsome served self-imposed one-game suspensions.

We meet Connor Stalions, and Harbaugh gets another suspension

And now we meet Connor Stalions.

Back in October, allegations surfaced regarding former Michigan analyst Connor Stalions, who was hired by the team as a football analyst following seven years as a volunteer. According to multiple reports, Stalions was at the head of an operation aimed at deciphering various play-call signals for upcoming Michigan opponents. The investigation also includes allegations that Stalions was on the Central Michigan sidelines, dressed in CMU gear, while Central Michigan opened their season against Michigan State.

Sign-stealing is a rather grey area in the rules, as the NCAA does permit sign-stealing during games. However, there are two acts that are not allowed: In-person advance scouting to decipher signals, as well as using electronic devices to decipher signals.

Stalions was alleged to be at the head of a massive operation that did both of those things.

Both the NCAA and the Big Ten launched investigations into the matter. Ultimately, the conference handed down a three-game suspension for Harbaugh, on the day before the Wolverines were scheduled to play Penn State on the road.

That Friday was the day on which Veterans Day was observed, meaning courts were closed, and as such the school — and coach Harbaugh — were put in a difficult spot in trying to have the suspension set aside on a temporary basis. Attorneys for the school and the coach filed a motion seeking a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) that would allow Harbaugh to coach the team against Penn State, but the court instead set in a hearing for the following Friday.

Ahead of the scheduled hearing, Michigan announced that the school had reached an agreement with the Big Ten. “This morning, the University, Coach Harbaugh, and the Big Ten resolved their pending litigation. The Conference agreed to close its investigation, and the University and Coach Harbaugh agreed to accept the three-game suspension,” began a statement from Associate Athletic Director Kurt Svoboda. “Coach Harbaugh, with the University’s support, decided to accept this sanction to return the focus to our student-athletes and their performance on the field.”

The statement indicated that there was no evidence of any involvement on Harbaugh’s part in the sign-stealing operation.

“The Conference has confirmed that it is not aware of any information suggesting Coach Harbaugh’s involvement in the allegations. The University continues to cooperate fully with the NCAA’s investigation,” said the statement from the school.

Now, the NCAA’s own investigation remains ongoing, and as noted in the initial suspension handed down by the Big Ten, additional penalties could be forthcoming for both Michigan and coach Harbaugh, at the conclusion of that investigation.

So the matter is not yet settled.

The NFL always looms

Something else that always seems unsettled when it comes to Harbaugh?

His coaching future.

Given his recent success at Michigan, the prospects of him returning to the NFL are always simmering in the background. He has flirted with the NFL in the past, and last January he met with Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, and interviewed with the Denver Broncos.

However, he eventually put out a statement that he would be staying at Michigan.

“I love the relationships that I have at Michigan — coaches, staff, families, administration, president Santa Ono and especially the players and their families,” Harbaugh said in a statement. “My heart is at the University of Michigan. I once heard a wise man say, ‘Don’t try to out-happy, happy.’ Go Blue!”

Still, if you look around the current NFL landscape, there are certainly some options for him should he entertain a return to the league. The Panthers are again looking for a head coach, and Tepper could take another run at Harbaugh. The Los Angeles Chargers are another landing spot, and Harbaugh could be enticed by the chance to coach Justin Herbert. Then there are some potential landing spots that could open up in the next few weeks, including the Chicago Bears, where Harbaugh was once a player.

The coach was asked about a potential NFL return ahead of the Rose Bowl, and deftly avoided the topic:

However, the school might not be as amused. According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Michigan is looking to ink Harbaugh to a ten-year contract extension.

Yet, that includes a clause that he not entertain the NFL for the 2024 season:

Sources say Harbaugh, whose current deal runs through 2026, received an offer from Michigan for a 10-year, $125-million contract extension that would make him one of the highest-paid coaches in college football. Yet there is a caveat, and it’s NFL-related.

If he signed the deal — which he has not yet done — Harbaugh would agree not to entertain or accept an NFL job for the 2024 season. The NFL clause would be one season only, but that’s apparently been enough to drag out the process.

Harbaugh has not yet signed that deal, which only opens the door to more questions. And wouldn’t you know it, news broke on Sunday that Harbaugh had retained agent Don Yee to represent him going forward. Yee’s client list includes Tom Brady, Sean Payton, and other NFL figures.

Perhaps the NFL truly is in his future. Is a national championship in his future as well?

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