If Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh gambit works, it will be a horrible look for the NCAA

We’re not entirely sure what Jim Harbaugh did, but it was something.
Photo: AP

Michigan football won’t have Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines for its first three games of the season, and it’s only trio of nonconference contests of the year before a possible bowl game. Yawn. Like it’ll matter. It’s part of the school’s self-imposed penalty for Harbaugh’s alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period. And Harbaugh not being visible for games against East Carolina, UNLV, and Bowling Green won’t make one iota of a difference. A team picked sixth in the American, another led by Barry Odom in his return to the helm of an FBS program, and the last likely being shepherded by Odom’s former quarterback at Mizzou, Connor Bazelak, won’t faze the Wolverines, even a little bit.

The move to have Harbaugh only attend 75% of Michigan’s regular-season games is reportedly to try to soften the NCAA’s coming penalty against the head coach. The incoming NCAA ruling isn’t expected until 2024 with Harbaugh facing a Level I violation, the most severe breach of conduct, reportedly for misleading or being uncooperative with the NCAA about the alleged violations. This is a slap on the wrist and all parties involved know it, with Michigan following the lead of Tennessee, which essentially outlined its own outcome for a much larger scale of wrongdoing under the NCAA’s watch. And the slippery slope of creating your own punishment for coloring outside the lines is underway in college football.

The extent of what Harbaugh has been accused of isn’t publicly known. If this was just about paying for cheeseburgers, the scope of this investigation wouldn’t have had as many turns or been as large. Zoom etiquette was still in its beginning stages when the alleged violations took place, just months after lockdown began, and that can’t be an excuse for Harbaugh trying to bend the rules to the Wolverine’s favor. Pandemic or not, a coach of Harbaugh’s caliber knows right from wrong and got caught. How much it will burn him will show the NCAA’s standard for how its largest member schools can police themselves.

Tennessee’s recruiting violations under Jeremy Pruitt were a glaring example of a school not being hit hard enough. Missouri’s academic integrity issues that led to a 2019 postseason ban for three sports was a classic example of a school having the book thrown at it for little to nothing, alongside the Tigers’ complete cooperation with the entire investigation. The NCAA came out at that time with the message “don’t self-report, don’t turn yourself in.” You get caught with a bloody knife in your hand, say it’s used to spread ketchup on your cheeseburger (feel free to use that one Michigan).

How the NCAA eventually spares, or doesn’t come down hard on Harbaugh, will set the hiding-in-plain-sight policy for how colleges operate moving forward. With how the Tennessee and Michigan cases differ, both ending with the schools dictating their own lack of demise would make any NCAA force to not break the rules have no meaning. Why wouldn’t you try to bend the lines if all you had to do was suspend your head coach from being at three games, a trio that Big Blue Nation will easily win even if Nathaniel Hackett was coaching. Although we’re not likely to get a ruling from the NCAA until next year anyway, the way the organization sets the table now is important. What Michigan’s trying to do now is a horrible precedent to set. And the NCAA might just be dumb enough to allow it. 

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