The Big Ten felt like it had to make something up. So it made something up.
While Jim Harbaugh and the rest of his Michigan football team were on a plane to State College for the huge matchup with Penn State on Saturday, the conference took a half-measure. The Big Ten suspended Harbaugh from the sideline of the Wolverines’ three remaining regular-season games, which includes the season-finale against Ohio State. Michigan’s program is being punished amid the impermissible scouting and sign-stealing scandal involving former staffer Connor Stalions.
Harbaugh, hilariously, will still be permitted to coach and be around his team during the week — he just can’t be on the sideline. He can help formulate game plans and instruct his assistants but can’t stand on the sideline on Saturdays. Is he suspended or not?
This was all done under the Big Ten sportsmanship policy, which creates a precedent that could lead to anarchy down the road as it pertains to other programs’ future (or past) transgressions.
Aside from this all seemingly being put together with duct tape, who wins from this?
Do the Big Ten coaches and administrators, who have been livid about Michigan’s sign-stealing enterprise, win with this sloppy, abrupt and made-up punishment that happened after Harbaugh already boarded the team plane for Pennsylvania? Do Ohio State fans, who now will seek revenge against a coach-less rival? Do Penn State fans, who are desperate for a breakthrough win? Do casual college football fans, who just want to watch a national title contender play football on Saturday?
Does Ryan Day — the head coach whom Michigan fans have blamed for snitching — benefit? Now he has to play the most important game on his schedule without his nemesis on the other sideline. If he wins, Michigan fans will say it was because Harbaugh was not at the game. If he loses, he’s the coach who can’t beat Michigan even when its head coach is out. The Game, as a whole, is less compelling because the entire country has now been robbed of enjoying the sport’s best rivalry at full throttle.
Would Ohio State fans want Jim Harbaugh suspended for the OSU-UM game?
— Ari Wasserman (@AriWasserman) November 10, 2023
To what end? Is anyone — literally anyone — who was out for Harbaugh’s blood satiated by this manufactured penalty?
Nobody wins. Nothing makes sense.
Suspended Jim Harbaugh is tainted, too, but this Michigan season should not be
This isn’t to say that Harbaugh shouldn’t ultimately be punished for what has already proven to have occurred or what else has yet to be discovered. There is irrefutable evidence that Stalions was stealing signs outside of the scope of the rules and that Michigan was using them. That isn’t allowed, and there is a buck to pay for that infraction.
But why is the punishment coming now? Why is it rushed? Who is it for?
There are so many questions about the scandal left unanswered.
- Did Harbaugh design the plan and/or have knowledge of where Stalions was getting his information?
- How much of a competitive advantage did Michigan get from this? Did the Wolverines win games they would have lost as a result of that advantage?
- Did the Wolverines skirt gamesmanship rules or were they Cheating with a capital C?
- Which assistant coaches were complicit?
- Did, gulp, any players know?
That list could go on for another 1,000 words. The answers to those questions are currently being investigated by the NCAA. From where I’m sitting, I’d rather make any decisions about punishment with the full scope of the facts. If/when Harbaugh is actually punished, it would feel more just, more appropriate, more calculated than whatever happened here today.
Due process to its fullest extent. Justice. You know the deal. When we get those things, it could eventually lead to a punishment as serious as Harbaugh being fired. If the facts — emphasis on facts — come out and it shows that he had his hand on the nuclear button and is some sort of cheating mastermind, it would be appropriate for him to be fired. Ban him from the entire sport for all I care. At this point, he already deserves some kind of punishment for overseeing a program that was running an illegal sign-stealing enterprise whether he knew about it or not.
But punish him when it’s appropriate to punish him: once the NCAA investigation concludes. This seems like a knee-jerk reaction to satisfy (rightfully) outraged coaches and angry fans on social media platforms. People want some sort of punishment now, and first-year Big Ten commissioner Tony Pettiti obliged.
Could you imagine Greg Sankey having conference calls with the rest of the SEC to determine what to do with Alabama? It wouldn’t happen.
And the result of this is making the product we love to consume a little less compelling.
There are some of you who are cheering for this penalty because you’re interested in preserving the integrity of the game. Don’t take this column as me saying you’re wrong for wanting punishment. Cheaters are the worst, rules exist to be enforced and violators of those rules need to be punished. I’m right there with you. After due process.
Yes, we have enough information to know Michigan was working outside of the rules. And yes, the Big Ten has also stated that it reserves the right to levy further punishment on Harbaugh with the revelation of more facts and details. But that means the Big Ten doesn’t have all of the facts or details. A punishment was still given.
Either hammer Harbaugh and actually suspend him indefinitely, fine him a boatload of money or do nothing. Don’t do this half-assed punishment that only stands to make everyone angry. It does nothing for nobody.
The Big Ten isn’t restoring order in a sport that has been compromised. Stalions is no longer an employee at Michigan, and Harbaugh is still permitted to coach his team during the week. The coordinators — who were seen standing directly next to Stalions on the sideline as he spoon-fed information — are still coaching. The players who are receiving the calls and (maybe) always in the right place at the right time are still going to be playing in the games. Oh, and at the end of this, it’s possible Harbaugh will still get to coach his team in the Big Championship Game and/or Playoff if Michigan wins without him.
From the Big Ten release: “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. 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 Big Ten isn’t punishing Harbaugh. It is punishing Michigan. The Big Ten is also preserving Michigan’s ability to compete while taking out its head coach in its two biggest games of the year during an incomplete investigation. You following this? Does it feel like order has finally been restored to the sport that’s been compromised?
It doesn’t because it’s nonsense.
Harbaugh’s day was eventually going to come and it still may.
But when the hammer comes down, it should strike with all of its force after we know, inconclusively, what Michigan did.
We don’t know that yet.
Because of that, this just feels wrong.
(Photo: Steven King / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)