STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — The Big Ten Conference banned Jim Harbaugh from coaching at Michigan’s three remaining regular-season games on Friday, defying a warning from the second-ranked Wolverines in an extraordinary confrontation over an alleged sign-stealing scheme that has rocked college football.
Harbaugh was disciplined by the conference less than 24 hours before the Wolverines play at No. 9 Penn State in their toughest matchup of the season so far. His team (9-0) has a shot to win a third straight Big Ten title and the school’s first national championship since 1997.
Michigan’s plane landed in Pennsylvania shortly before the announcement. It issued a statement ridiculing the decision.
“Like all members of the Big Ten Conference, we are entitled to a fair, deliberate, and thoughtful process to determine the full set of facts before a judgment is rendered,” the school said. “Today’s action by Commissioner Tony Petitti disregards the conference’s own handbook, violates basic tenets of due process, and sets an untenable precedent of assessing penalties before an investigation has been completed.”
Harbaugh has denied any knowledge of an improper scouting scheme in his program. Michigan warned earlier this week that it was prepared to take possible legal action if the conference punished the program before a full investigation; the NCAA and the Big Ten are both looking into the claims.
Getting a court order could prove difficult before Saturday’s game; Friday is the recognized federal holiday for Veteran’s Day and courts were closed and Michigan noted that in its response.
“To ensure fairness in the process, we intend to seek a court order, together with Coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect,” it said.
The Big Ten said the school had violated its sportsmanship policy by conducting “an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years” that resulted in “an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition.” As a result, the Big Ten said Michigan must play without Harbaugh against the Nittany Lions (8-1) this weekend, next week at Maryland and in the annual showdown game against rival and No. 3 Ohio State two weeks from now. While Harbaugh is allowed at practices and other activities, he cannot be “present at the game venue.”
Such a fight between a conference and one of its most storied members is unheard of. The dispute began three weeks ago and the allegations leaked day by day, with it becoming clear the Wolverines do not want their undefeated season derailed by an unfinished investigation of activities it says Harbaugh knew nothing about and are not unheard of across college football.
Michigan says it is cooperating with the NCAA, which does not outlaw sign-stealing, but has rules against in-person scouting of opponents and using electronic equipment to steal signs. The allegations against Michigan suggest a far more robust approach to gathering signs.
The low-level staffer at the center of the investigation, Connor Stalions, resigned last week. Through his attorney, Stalions said that, to his knowledge, none of the Michigan coaches told anyone to break rules or were aware of improper conduct when it came to advance scouting.
The NCAA probe is likely to stretch well past the season. Big Ten’s rules allowed for swifter action and coaches and athletic directors in the league had pushed Petitti to discipline Michigan under conference bylaws that cover sportsmanship and competitive integrity.
Multiple Big Ten schools found tickets purchased in Stalions’ name to their games over the last three seasons. Tickets to the last two Southeastern Conference championship games were also purchased in Stalions’ name. Big Ten schools have also provided the NCAA some video surveillance footage of people sitting in those seats, holding cellphones pointed toward the field.
Harbaugh served a school-imposed, three-game suspension earlier this season for an unrelated and unresolved NCAA infractions case tied to recruiting. The former star quarterback for the Wolverines has an 80-25 overall record and a 59-17 mark in Big Ten games over nine seasons with the Wolverines.
The Big Ten’s disciplinary action may push Harbaugh to seek another opportunity to coach in the NFL. He tried to go back to the league after the 2021 season.
Michigan has contended that other schools steal signs. A former employee at a Big Ten football program, whose role was to steal signs, said he was given details from multiple conference schools before his team played Michigan to compile a spreadsheet of play-calling signals used by the Wolverines last year. He spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing the disclosures could impact his coaching career.
The person said he also passed along screenshots of text-message exchanges with staffers from a handful of Big Ten football teams with the Wolverines, giving them proof that other conference teams were colluding to steal signs from Harbaugh’s team.
He said he gave the additional details to Michigan last week because he hoped it would help Harbaugh’s embattled program, adding he believes the head coach and his assistants are being unfairly blamed for the actions of a rogue staffer.
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed.
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