Finding trouble with what remains of a toothless NCAA
Of all the wild situations, self-inflicted feuds, and outlandish, if not almost comical, scenarios that Jim Harbaugh has provided during his nearly 40-year football career as a player and coach, somehow catching an NCAA violation of Tier I when there is hardly an NCAA left, let alone any NCAA rules, may be his best work.
Harbaugh talks weird, acts weird, is known to dress weird (at least during the khaki pants phase) and yet surprisingly almost always finds a way to come out on top. The man they called “Captain Comeback” may still be here.
However, the reality is instead of basking in the excitement of delivering back-to-back Big Ten titles to Michigan, College Football Playoff appearances and, most importantly, wins over Ohio State, he’s falling in love with The NFL as a possible bailout and releasing open-ended ridiculousness. statement because he has found the last remaining cutter in the otherwise toothless NCAA.
Don’t lie to us.
On Thursday, Michigan received a draft of a notice of allegations citing four Level II violations within the football program and a single Level I against Harbaugh himself.
The Level II stuff includes using multiple coaches in practice sessions, meeting with the two recruits during a COVID-19 dead period and watching players practice through Zoom, sources told Yahoo Sports.
It’s nothing. There are four “levels” in what remains of the NCAA handbook, and Harbaugh’s contract itself allows for his dismissal without compensation for a single Level II penalty.
It’s not too much though, of course most fans consider a real offense such as dropping off a Lamborghini at a recruit’s house – even though that’s basically permissible now.
Pretty much all Harbaugh had to do was own up to the mistakes and take some minor penalties. Almost no one would care or even remember after a few days. Even FBI wiretapping is forgotten these days.
Instead, the NCAA claims he disagreed with investigators, essentially being dishonest. Details of exactly what this entails will emerge eventually.
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As such, he picked up a Level I misdemeanor for essentially a process felony, the latest proof that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Even the most sympathetic Harbaugh fan has to admit that this was a self-inflicted scandal.
This is similar to the one that brought down Jim Tressel at Ohio State over a decade ago, probably the last time a coach of this caliber was caught doing such a thing. Tressel, however, was ignoring the actions of his players – selling memorabilia, which is now essentially legal – perhaps in an attempt to protect them. With Harbaugh, that doesn’t seem to be the case. That was for him and others on his staff. Not much loyal nobility here.
What impact this has on his future remains to be seen.
Jim Harbaugh is 25-3 in his last two seasons at Michigan, and yet finds himself in the middle of an NCAA investigation of his own making. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
If proven true, Michigan would have grounds to fire him for cause, meaning it owes him no money. Such a determination by the slow-moving NCAA system, however, is unlikely anytime soon, perhaps several football seasons away.
Would anyone care in say, 2025? Does anyone care now?
Harbaugh may have to sit a few games or possibly be suspended from recruiting. The program isn’t exactly going to fall apart because of either, and then again, who knows what shape the NCAA is in by then?
Uncertainty about everything could push him to the NFL. Close friends believed he was happier and more content than ever at Michigan this season, that his unsuccessful attempts to get hired by the Minnesota Vikings last winter allowed him to walk away from his dream of winning a Super Bowl.
At 59, with plenty of momentum within the program and a burgeoning school name, image and likeness, what once felt like a short-term run in Ann Arbor was starting to look like a final destination.
However, as the situation grew more serious after several fall NCAA interviews, Harbaugh was suddenly offering up odd comments about how “nobody knows the future” and saying he “thinks” and “expects” to coach the Wolverines in 2023.
Maybe part of that is the question of whether Michigan will keep him. Maybe part of it is that if the Denver Broncos or Carolina Panthers offer a job, he’ll take it. Maybe it’s the generally unconventional way he answers almost everything. His press conferences are famously awkward.
The most likely option is for Harbaugh, Michigan and the NCAA to reach an agreement on the matter, which speeds up the timeline and mitigates any penalties. The school is unlikely to be interested in getting rid of a coach who is 25-3 over the past two years.
This is college athletics, after all, and unlike Tressel’s time, the concept of amateurism has, finally, been largely rejected.
The charges against Michigan do not involve payments to players, but changing national perception on the subject and the NCAA’s recent history of allowing skating recruiting violations with minimal punishment has brought the organization’s credibility to its knees. The emperor has no kaki.
Disregard also extends to reasonable restrictions that are Level II violations. Even the NFL limits contact with free agents, has rules on how practices can be conducted, and applies COVID protocols.
The next step, however, is whether Harbaugh wants to cooperate, admit wrongdoing or simply find the path of least resistance. Or maybe he wants to go with the idea that nothing happened.
He could be right and the NCAA could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. A prolonged skirmish may win him the fight in the long run, but the loss of all immediate battles must also be considered.
Harbaugh has never been afraid of a fight. As a player, he famously clashed with no less than Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka. As a head coach in college and in the NFL, he infuriated his bosses and colleagues along the way, often leaving them confused as to why the hard way is sometimes his way.
“What’s your deal?” Pete Carroll once famously asked him.
The answer is that he is Jim Harbaugh.
It may be the only explanation for how someone enjoying such massive success could find himself in an NCAA violation drama when almost nothing these days is an NCAA violation.