just in: the real truth about Jim Harbaugh suspension…..

How Michigan Became the University of Jim Harbaugh

Jim Harbaugh will miss Saturday’s game against Ohio State due to a Big Ten–issued suspension. Yet his impact—on the sign-stealing scandal that’s defined the season, on the College Football Playoff race, and on how Michigan views itself—will be at the center of everything.

The first Saturday of the fall in Ann Arbor was emotional not because of who was there, but because of who wasn’t. On September 2, Michigan broke the huddle for its first offensive play against East Carolina in a straight line, a tactic the team had sometimes deployed in years prior as a formational diversion. All 11 players held four fingers toward the sky in tribute to someone unseen, someone revered, someone who had worn the no. 4 during his playing days. The crowd roared, and the teams got on with their game.

Just over two months later, Michigan again paid tribute to the same unseen figure. After a marquee 24-15 win against Penn State, the man who coached the Wolverines that day broke into tears, looked into Fox’s camera lens, and spoke to the person on everybody’s mind. “I fucking love you, man. I love the shit out of you, man,” Sherrone Moore said. “This is for you.” Later, Michigan president Santa Ono acknowledged how hard times had been. “Countless members of the University of Michigan family have reached out to me over the weekend and I wanted to express my appreciation,” Ono tweeted. “Like any community, we face our share of challenges and adversity. There have been many such moments in our history.”

If you observed just these scenes, you could be forgiven for thinking that Michigan was honoring a fallen hero. But in fact, the Wolverines were honoring Jim Harbaugh, the head coach who has missed half of this season due to a pair of unrelated suspensions. The first one, in September, saw Harbaugh sit out three games—a self-imposed punishment Michigan levied in hopes of depressurizing an NCAA investigation into prospect visits that the association believes were held in violation of pandemic restrictions. Ultimately, that absence was small potatoes: Harbaugh missed matchups against ECU, UNLV, and Bowling Green, and the Wolverines won each game by between 25 and 28 points.

The second suspension is the one that has rocked Michigan—and the entire sports media–industrial complex—to its core. A Wolverines support staffer named Connor Stalions appears to have built a detailed operation to scout opponents in person, in violation of NCAA rules, and steal their play signals with the help of gofers videotaping from the stands. It’s the college version of Spygate or the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, only funnier, because it involves sideline disguises, suspicious Venmo payments, and a nearly 600-page manifesto. The extent to which Stalions collaborated with members of Michigan’s staff is uncertain and the subject of active Big Ten and NCAA investigations. While these are not yet complete, the NCAA reportedly presented Michigan with evidence last week that a booster nicknamed “Uncle T” partially funded Stalions’s operation, and that linebackers coach Chris Partridge aided in the destruction of evidence afterward. The school fired Partridge that Friday.

But even still: Neither the NCAA nor Big Ten seem to have proof—and the Big Ten explicitly said it does not—that Harbaugh specifically knew what Stalions was doing. That ordinarily wouldn’t get Harbaugh off the hook, as the NCAA can and does punish head coaches for poor oversight even when they haven’t run afoul of the rules themselves. But NCAA investigations are notoriously slow: Consider the probe into North Carolina’s sham classes for athletes, which took seven years and resulted in no punishments. And that’s where the particulars of Harbaugh’s latest suspension get messy.

Michigan v MinnesotaDavid Berding/Getty Images

The Big Ten has no coaching oversight policy like the NCAA’s, nor does it have an investigatory arm, nor does it have any specific rule that Harbaugh or Michigan have violated. While investigations like this are typically left to the NCAA, in this case the 13 other Big Ten schools have forced the issue. Michigan has gone 36-3 in the 2021-23 seasons, when Stalions’s scheme was reportedly in effect; it went 29-16 in the four years under Harbaugh before that. The rest of the conference believes the Wolverines violated the sanctity of competition by cheating, so they put the screws to first-year commissioner Tony Petitti to do something about it.

As a result, the Big Ten made up a new judicial process on the fly and suspended Harbaugh for the final three games—but not the practices or coaching sessions in between those games—of the 2023 regular season. Petitti cited the Big Ten’s “sportsmanship policy,” which the conference had never leveraged in this fashion before, as a catchall explanation. Taking a page out of the NCAA’s book, Petitti said he suspended Harbaugh not for personal rules violations (in part because the Big Ten doesn’t have those rules), but rather because he is the embodiment of the whole program.

Harbaugh sat out Michigan’s biggest game of the season to date, the win over Penn State. He missed last Saturday’s game at Maryland, a 31-24 win. This weekend, he’ll be absent from college football’s undisputed clash of the year: undefeated Michigan hosting undefeated Ohio State, a historic rivalry game with colossal playoff implications.

Harbaugh will not be in the building. But he will still loom over everything.

This Michigan saga ticks all the boxes to qualify as a class-A college sports shit show. Someone cheated, and people are incredibly mad about it. Administrators are administrating; politicians are politicking. A blue-blood program is in the crosshairs. The Big Ten has issued discipline at the most pivotal juncture of the season, as Michigan aims to win its first national title since 1997-98. A staffer at any prestigious program could have stolen signs using illicit means, and their conference mates would’ve likely united in fury just as the Big Ten’s member schools have.

But that doesn’t explain why this college sports scandal has become the college sports scandal, one that’s consumed the nation’s attention for weeks and is poised to forever impact the legacies of those involved. The biggest reasons this affair has ballooned into a once-in-a-generation bureaucratic spectacle are much more specific: who Michigan is, what it stands for, and how Harbaugh fits into the school’s vision for itself.

Michigan is a trailblazer in the sport: champion of the inaugural Rose Bowl in 1902, introducer of the two-platoon system with separate offensive and defensive players in 1945, and winner of more games than anyone else in college football history. Last Saturday, Michigan became the first program to win 1,000 games, a milestone that must have been excruciating for Harbaugh—a Michigan Man if there ever was one—to miss. This is the program of 11 claimed national titles, of Desmond Howard striking the Heisman pose, of Charles Woodson becoming the lone defensive player to win that award, of Fielding Yost and the “point-a-minute” teams, and even of Tom Brady getting his innocuous start.

In the 2000s, though, Michigan fell from its lofty perch atop the sport. Former coach Lloyd Carr kept the team competitive, but he lost three Rose Bowls in the early and mid-aughts. His successor, Rich Rodriguez, failed miserably, and RichRod’s successor, Brady Hoke, fared just slightly better; Rodriguez and Hoke posted the Wolverines’ first losing seasons since the 1960s. Ohio State came to dominate the Buckeyes-Wolverines rivalry, and Michigan fans lusted after the status they used to have. When Michigan fired Hoke in December 2014, the program was desperate to recapture its old identity.

That identity isn’t just about winning. It’s about winning coupled with Michigan’s sterling academic reputation and its otherwise upright way of conducting business. The university really is, by conventional measures, more prestigious than just about any other school with a regularly elite football team. (Michigan and Notre Dame are the two Division I schools with annual national title hopes that are closest to the top of the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings; Michigan produces Ivy League–like quantities of Fortune 500 CEOs.) At times, Michigan fans and media members tend toward hagiography in explaining this confluence of classroom and athletic excellence. Legendary coach Bo Schembechler and Michigan alum and author John U. Bacon once collaborated on a book called Bo’s Lasting Lessons: The Legendary Coach Teaches the Timeless Fundamentals of Leadership. The book is replete with missives on how to lead young men, develop good people, and win honorably. “It all boils down to basic honesty. Without that, you won’t accomplish a single thing that’s worthwhile,” Schembechler writes at one point. At another: “Almost any mistake you make, if you accept responsibility and come clean and take your punishment like a man, you can overcome it—EXCEPT DISHONESTY.”

Generations of Michigan fans, alumni, and former players came of age worshipping Schembechler. Bacon, the journalist who helped him pen the book, writes in the foreword: “They say your character is what you do when you think no one is watching. I’ve seen Bo pass that test a thousand times.” Schembechler helped the program construct a brand that mixed on-field greatness with superlative character. Many Michigan fans see that brand as a calling—indeed, as the thing that makes the Wolverines who they are.

It is a hard mythos to puncture. Yet it had clearly been punctured by the time Harbaugh took over from Hoke. You can’t win honorably if you’re hardly winning at all. And Harbaugh was intent on all of the above.

Harbaugh stabilized things on the field in his first season, doubling the team’s win total from five in 2014 to 10 in 2015. He won 10 more games in 2016 and would’ve taken Michigan to a spot in the Big Ten championship game, and perhaps more, if a fourth-down spot in overtime at Ohio State had been an inch more favorable for the Wolverines. His tenure took a negative turn after that, marred by a blowout loss to the Buckeyes in 2018 and a 2-4 record in 2020’s pandemic-disrupted season. It was only in 2021, when Michigan turned the series against Ohio State with a 42-27 triumph, that things shifted. Success against the Buckeyes and dominant play against everyone else have led Michigan to a two-year streak of Big Ten titles and appearances in the playoff, where the team is 0-2. While Harbaugh hasn’t donned the sport’s most coveted crown, he’s come close—and never closer than during this season, with this team.

And it’s not just that he wins a lot: It’s that he does so while speaking Michigan’s love language. When Harbaugh took the job, he said he had wanted it since he was 10 years old. In some ways, he is almost a carbon copy of Schembechler, who coached Harbaugh when he played quarterback for the Wolverines in the 1980s. Harbaugh has often worn Schembechler’s specific style of Michigan ball cap on the sideline. He talks like him, too, especially on one topic in particular: truth. “When you step on a football field, never is it more evident that the truth is going to get told,” he said in 2015, at his first appearance at the Big Ten media days. “I don’t accept it as a given that you can’t speak your mind or tell the truth,” he said in 2016. “Telling the truth matters. Especially at a college,” he said in 2019.

But Harbaugh’s telling of the truth seems to be subjective, or at least willing to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit into his preferred version of reality. That 2019 quote came when Harbaugh questioned the validity of a player citing mental health concerns as his reason to transfer away from Michigan. In 2021, Harbaugh responded with a mixture of denial and personalization when Schembechler’s son, Matt, said his father had ignored multiple complaints of sexual abuse against a disgraced sports doctor who had worked in Bo’s program and elsewhere on Michigan’s campus for decades. “There’s nothing that ever was swept under the rug or ignored,” Harbaugh said at the time. “He addressed everything in a timely fashion. That’s the Bo Schembechler that I knew.” Harbaugh took things further by hiring one of Bo’s other sons, Glenn “Shemy” Schembechler, to a recruiting position on his staff last offseason; the revelation of racist social media activity led to Shemy’s resignation just three days later. Shemy had also denied Matt’s claims about Bo, who died in 2006.

It would stand to reason that developments such as these would cast doubt on Harbaugh’s reliability as a narrator, particularly at a moment when his program is caught up in a cheating scandal. But Harbaugh has suffered no such credibility crisis. Conversely, Michigan and its fan base have clung even more tightly to the notion that Harbaugh is the university’s truth teller and shield against the unsophisticated rubes who want to bring the place down. He’s attained a status somewhere between martyr and deity, and the absurdity of recent weeks has only gained him more allegiance.

Somehow, every single person who attended the University of Michigan is a lawyer. (You can take my word; no fact-checking of this point is necessary.) Many of them have found a new raison d’être: rallying to Harbaugh’s side in public discourse over this saga. MGoBlog, the iconic Michigan fan site and message board, is teeming with attorneys offering insights on the Big Ten’s case against Harbaugh. So much so, in fact, that it appears Harbaugh’s actual attorney lifted directly from a blog post that argued the Big Ten lacked a rules-based reason to punish Harbaugh in the manner it did.

Michigan’s lawyer fans, much like Michigan’s paid lawyers, have obfuscated a great deal to make Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme seem like it’s not a big deal. They have also made compelling points and been dizzyingly effective in shaping the online discussion about what Harbaugh deserves. As one Michigan diehard, New York Times writer Jane Coaston, told me: “The second I realized this was going to involve both lawyers and pedantry I breathed a sigh of relief.” The attorneys working the case for the school have shown a certain linguistic flair. When Michigan’s and Harbaugh’s lawyers filed for a temporary restraining order earlier this month to stop Harbaugh’s suspension from taking effect before the Penn State game, the filing described him almost like a wounded soldier: “No more dramatic blow could be given to his character and reputation than the permanent lifetime label of ‘missing in action’ because of a purported—but still unsubstantiated—cheating scandal.” (In addition to being a lawyer, every single person who attended Michigan is also a World War II scholar.)

Naturally, the judge who had been assigned the case for Harbaugh’s restraining order is a Michigan law school lecturer. University of Michigan legal minds are everywhere.

And yet they didn’t prevent Harbaugh’s suspension. Sports Illustrated reported that the Big Ten was preparing to reduce Harbaugh’s discipline by a game and settle the parties’ differences before the additional information about the booster and assistant coach involvement came to light. The school promptly dropped its filing against the Big Ten and said that Harbaugh “decided to accept this sanction” for a noble cause: so he could “return the focus to our student-athletes and their performance on the field.” Lawyers are only as good as their clients, and the latest intel may have prompted Michigan to draw from another line in Schembechler’s book: “When someone uncovers a scandal in their company, I don’t think they can say, ‘I didn’t know that was going on.’”

Ordinarily, all of this fuss would weaken a coach’s standing, and perhaps even open him to firing for cause. Harbaugh has been banished from the sideline for six of Michigan’s 12 regular-season games, including the two biggest ones against Penn State and Ohio State. Plus, he’s tested his bosses’ patience in myriad other ways. Most notably, Harbaugh flirted with leaving for the NFL in each of the past two offseasons, despite saying after the first go-around that he wouldn’t again consider going to the pros.

Yet Harbaugh has only gained support during a prolonged and prominent scandal that would’ve sunk so many others. Maybe that’s because Petitti, the Big Ten commissioner, was on to something when he said Harbaugh embodies Michigan as a whole. If Harbaugh acted unethically—if his truth wasn’t the truth—then what would that say about the school and all those who support it? For a program that’s shaped its self-image around the idea of winning honorably, the question itself causes cognitive dissonance.

Speaking with reporters after the Penn State game, Harbaugh framed the saga in a new way. He said the 2023 Wolverines ought to be “America’s team” because of their ability to overcome naysayers. Contriving adversity is as integral to football as blocking or tackling, but Michigan has lately elevated it to an art form. Athletes and fans alike have started wearing “Michigan vs. Everybody” apparel. The university’s quasi-official rallying cry has become “Bet”—and a lot of fans aged 30 and under have had to explain what that means to their parents.

To most, the idea of Michigan representing the entire country probably sounds absurdist. To those rooting for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, it probably sounds like destiny. Michigan will not have its head coach for the season’s most anticipated game, but its backers will have something more valuable: the unwavering belief that they are right and everyone else is not.

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