Big Ten suspends Jim Harbaugh three games amid sign-stealing investigation

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh will not be allowed on the sideline for the Wolverines’ final three regular season games, the Big Ten announced Friday afternoon, after the conference found the program to be in violation of its sportsmanship policy for conducting “an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years.”

Harbaugh will still be allowed to coach the team during practices and other team activities. Harbaugh and Michigan are expected to mount legal challenges against the conference, according to multiple reports. As it stands, Harbaugh would rejoin the Wolverines should they qualify for the Big Ten championship game or the College Football Playoff.

The punishment stems from a signal-stealing operation run by former Michigan analyst Connor Stalions, who resigned from his position this month. The No. 3 Wolverines are scheduled to face No. 10 Penn State on the road Saturday.

The Big Ten’s announcement comes after a week that was filled with meetings, letters and responses to those letters, all attempting to influence Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti, who was hired in April.

Last Friday, Michigan President Santa Ono sent a letter to Petitti before the two met in Ann Arbor to discuss this situation. In the letter, which was obtained by multiple outlets, Ono urged the Big Ten to wait for the results of the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing instead of levying punishments in the near future. This followed reports that Big Ten leaders were pushing the conference — and more specifically, Pettiti — to take action against Harbaugh and Michigan.

“If you refuse to let the NCAA investigative process play out, the Big 10 may not take any action against the University or its players or coaches without commencing its own investigation and offering us the opportunity to provide our position,” Ono wrote, according to On3′s reprinting of the letter. “That is not just required by our conference rules; it is a matter of basic fairness.”

Ono has reportedly backed Harbaugh at every turn of this saga. This past Saturday, after Michigan beat Purdue, Harbaugh said Ono’s support is “deeply appreciated.”

On Monday, ESPN first reported that the Big Ten had formally notified Michigan about potential discipline, as is required by the conference’s sportsmanship policy. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, as the Big Ten’s decision loomed, a group of Michigan lawmakers sent another letter to Petitti, also urging the conference to wait for the results of the NCAA’s investigation and “refrain from taking any premature measures.”

Wednesday night, Michigan officially responded to the Big Ten with a 10-page letter, according to Yahoo Sports — which also reported Harbaugh’s lawyer, Tom Mars, sent an eight-page letter that doubled down on Michigan’s key points. Among them, according to Yahoo, were that the Big Ten lacked substantial evidence showing wrongdoing by Stalions, let alone Harbaugh; and that Petitti didn’t have the authority to punish Harbaugh under the conference’s sportsmanship policy.

These arguments show how Michigan and Mars will defend Harbaugh and attempt to clear his name in the coming days. The school has also hired the law firm Williams & Connelly, which helped with Michigan’s 10-page response, according to an ESPN report.

Before the Big Ten made its ruling on Harbaugh, Stalions was the only Michigan staffer who had been punished. He was suspended with pay on Oct. 20, three days after an outside investigative firm shared its findings on Michigan and Stalions with the NCAA. The 28-year-old then resigned from his position as a recruiting analyst Nov. 3.

Since Michigan suspended Stalions, story after story has named him as the leader of an elaborate sign-stealing operation, which led TCU to change its signals during last winter’s College Football Playoff matchup with Michigan, according to a Yahoo Sports report.

Along the way, Stalions potentially stood on Central Michigan’s sideline, posing as a Central Michigan staffer, during the Chippewas’ season-opening matchup with Michigan State in September. He also purchased tickets to games at at least a dozen Big Ten schools, often using his name to buy them or transferring to accounts that allegedly belonged to family members. What Stalions allegedly did that’s against NCAA rules: scouting opponents in person and digitally recording their signs.

Thickening the plot Tuesday, Sports Illustrated published evidence — piggybacking on an Associated Press report — that rival programs decoded Michigan’s signals then shared them with another Big Ten team. Reports later revealed the teams as Ohio State, Rutgers and Purdue, with Ohio State and Rutgers sending information to Purdue before the Boilermakers faced Michigan in the Big Ten championship game in 2022.

None of those reports alleged Ohio State or Rutgers used improper measures to track Michigan’s signs. On Wednesday, Ohio State coach Ryan Day told reporters that “nobody here did any of that,” responding to the stories about his program aiding Purdue.

Yahoo reported that, in its response to the Big Ten on Wednesday, Michigan included documentation of opponents discerning their offensive and defensive signs. Such findings will certainly be a key part of the school’s legal efforts against the Big Ten. This whole thing is very far from over.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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