College Football
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh accepts suspension: What it means moving forward
College Football

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh accepts suspension: What it means moving forward

Updated Nov. 21, 2023 9:46 a.m. ET

On the eve of a court appearance that would have pitted Jim Harbaugh and Michigan against the Big Ten conference, for which the university is a flagship member, the parties called an end to their weeklong standoff by reaching a settlement on Thursday.

Per the terms of the agreement, which were announced by Michigan and confirmed by the Big Ten, the league will end its investigation into the Wolverines for alleged breaches of the Sportsmanship Policy in exchange for Harbaugh serving the remainder of what was initially a three-game suspension. Harbaugh was barred from coaching in last week’s win over Penn State, and now he’ll miss forthcoming regular season contests at Maryland on Saturday and at home against Ohio State on Nov. 25. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore will continue to serve as acting coach before Harbaugh's return in the postseason.

A separate NCAA investigation into the sign-stealing operation led by former Wolverines analyst Connor Stalions, who resigned earlier this month after the university initially suspended him with pay, remains open and is unlikely to be completed until 2024.

Both Michigan and the Big Ten issued statements on Thursday afternoon. 


From Michigan: "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. 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 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."

From the league: "The Big Ten Conference’s commitment to student-athletes, sportsmanship and the Commissioner’s duty to protect the integrity of competition will never waver. Today’s decision by the University of Michigan to withdraw its legal challenge against the Conference’s November 10th Notice of Disciplinary Action is indicative of the high standards and values that the Conference and the University seek to uphold. The University of Michigan is a valued member of the Big Ten Conference and the Conference will continue to work cooperatively with the University and the NCAA during this process."

Given the careful wording of each statement, it’s clear both sides walked away from the negotiations with elements of the resolution they feel comfortable with.

From a Michigan perspective, losing Harbaugh for the remainder of the regular season remains a significant blow for a team with aspirations of reaching the Big Ten Championship game and, potentially, the College Football Playoff for a third consecutive year. If there’s any week when Harbaugh’s presence and persona would be most beneficial to the Wolverines, who are 4-0 without him this season across multiple suspensions, it’s the finale against Ohio State, which might be a showdown between undefeated teams.

But getting the Big Ten to simultaneously close its investigation while also acknowledging an absence of information that links Harbaugh to Stalions should be viewed as two significant wins for Michigan. Last week, first-year commissioner Tony Petitti wrote in his 13-page letter to Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel that "this is not a sanction of Coach Harbaugh," but that Harbaugh was being punished because "the Head Coach embodies the University for purposes of its football program." So not only do the terms of Thursday’s resolution allow the Wolverines to continue painting Stalions, who is accused of egregiously violating the NCAA’s rule regarding in-person scouting, as a rogue employee who operated of his own volition, but it also insulates the program from any future punishments the Big Ten might have doled out before the end of the season pending additional evidence.

Now Harbaugh and his team can continue pushing toward the CFP with the peace of mind that the only remaining investigation into Stalions’ actions — which is being run by the NCAA — won’t conclude until after the national championship.

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From the Big Ten’s perspective, any loss of face that comes with disclosing it never had the goods to implicate Harbaugh in the sign-stealing operation was probably offset by noteworthy wins in the court of public opinion. Petitti, who was under fire from other Big Ten coaches and athletic directors alike to punish the Wolverines for what they believed were grievous assaults on the integrity of the game, is able to say:

— That his three-game ban of Harbaugh stuck.

— That he didn’t cave to one of the league’s most famous coaches employed by one of its tentpole institutions. 

— That he went above and beyond the two-game suspension he’s permitted to hand out unilaterally and won the approval of the league’s Joint Group Executive Committee to tack on an extra game due to the seriousness with which the Big Ten viewed the alleged offenses.

Perhaps most importantly, both sides avoided a prolonged confrontation that would have spilled into the open in a courthouse on Friday morning. Michigan had responded to the Big Ten’s suspension by seeking an injunction and a temporary restraining order from the state’s 22nd Circuit Court in Washtenaw County. Rather than offering a ruling last weekend, which might have afforded Harbaugh the chance to coach against Penn State, the court scheduled an in-person hearing for Nov. 17 in downtown Ann Arbor, just a few blocks from Michigan’s campus.

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That courtrooms are open to the general public meant Friday’s hearing could have devolved into a circus. Droves of reporters were expected to cover the hearing after Harbaugh, speaking in his weekly news conference, said he not only planned to attend the event, but that he also might offer remarks in front of the judge. There's also a strong possibility that fans would have flooded the courthouse to watch the show.

"I’m going to talk on Friday," Harbaugh said. "Just looking for that opportunity, you know? Due process. Not looking for special treatment. Not looking for a popularity contest. Just looking for the merit of what the case is. Senior year in high school I had a civics class, and [we] talked about government, justice. And what I took away from that class was that you’re innocent until proven guilty. That was 40 years ago, but I’d like that opportunity."

Instead, Harbaugh will miss Michigan's next two games. But his reward for watching from home was the Big Ten's admission that it couldn't tie him to Stalions. 

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.


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