Jim Harbaugh, Michigan accept Big Ten punishment for sign-stealing scandal

The Big Ten, Michigan and Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh have ended their pending legal dispute over Harbaugh’s three-game “sportsmanship” suspension. A hearing on the matter had been scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday at Washtenaw County (Michigan) Court on the matter.

Harbaugh and Michigan will accept the Big Ten’s suspension of Harbaugh for alleged in-person scouting by staffer Connor Stalions. That means the coach will miss both Saturday’s game at Maryland as well as the Nov. 25 clash against rival No. 2 Ohio State.

In exchange, the Big Ten will end its investigation into Michigan on the in-person scouting matter. That seemingly ends any possibility of future penalties or suspensions, which the Big Ten had reserved the right to levy, at least during the 2023 season if additional information from the current NCAA investigation emerges.

That would allow Michigan and Harbaugh to operate without any fear of interruption should the 10-0 Wolverines advance to the Big Ten championship game and College Football Playoff.

Additionally, the Big Ten publicly noted that “it is not aware of any information suggesting Coach Harbaugh’s involvement in the allegations.”

The agreement ends nearly a week of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the conference, the school and the coach that ranged from proceeding with a legal challenge for a temporary restraining order to knocking the suspension down to two games, according to industry sources.

Nothing concrete could be hammered out until Thursday.

“The Conference agreed to close its investigation, and the University and Coach Harbaugh agreed to accept the three-game suspension,” Michigan said in a statement. “Coach Harbaugh, with the University’s support, decided to accept the sanction to return the focus to our student-athletes and their performance on the field.”

Jim Harbaugh and Michigan accepted the Big Ten's three-game suspension in a statement on Thursday. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Jim Harbaugh and Michigan accepted the Big Ten’s three-game suspension in a statement on Thursday. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images) (Michael Hickey via Getty Images)

Stalions is alleged by the NCAA to send friends to the games of future Michigan opponents in an effort to film the sideline play signals. While stealing signs is not prohibited by the NCAA, and is a common practice via game film, television footage or during a game, advanced scouting is prohibited.

Harbaugh has staunchly maintained that he has no knowledge of how Stalions was able to break down opponent’s signals — he almost certainly knew Stalions was stealing signs, but presumably assumed it was via standard practices.

Last Friday, Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti suspended Harbaugh for the rest of the regular season (or three games) under the league’s “sportsmanship policy” rather than let a lengthy NCAA infractions process play out.

The NCAA has been investigating Michigan since Oct. 18. Stalions resigned from the program after refusing to meet with investigators.

According to sources, the NCAA has yet to find any evidence tying Harbaugh to the scheme. However, the investigation is ongoing and remains in its early phases. It is possible the NCAA could uncover new information, including the knowledge of other staffers or assistant coaches on the Michigan staff.

Harbaugh sat out Michigan’s 24-15 victory over Penn State last week. Michigan is scheduled to play Maryland at noon on Saturday.

No. 2 Ohio State visits No. 3 Michigan on Nov. 25 with the Big Ten East and a potential College Football Playoff bid on the line. Both teams are 10-0 and the game will almost certainly produce the highest television rating of the regular season.

Michigan’s dream season was rocked with the allegations of Stalions’ actions.

Petitti declared it “an organized, extensive, years-long in-person advance scouting scheme that was impermissible,” he wrote in a letter announcing the original suspension. He explained he felt the need to immediately punish the program — by suspending Harbaugh — because “such misconduct inherently compromises the integrity of competition.”

Michigan responded by both legally challenging the ruling, noting other schools acquire stolen signs from coaching staffs that already played opponents, and publicly decrying the lack of due process in the decision.

“All of the Head Coaches in the Big Ten (some who have been accused of actively participating in the trading of signals of opponents) and my Big Ten AD colleagues can rejoice today that someone was ‘held accountable,’ but they should be worried about the new standard of judgment (without complete investigation) that has been unleashed in this conference,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manual said in a statement.

Days later though, the school and the league were able to find some common ground. If Michigan can win its two remaining games — including the big one against the Buckeyes — then it can proceed with some certainty into the postseason.

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