After Michigan’s impressive 24–15 win over Penn State last weekend, the offensive coordinator, Sherrone Moore, broke down in tears as he professed his loyalty to the head coach, Jim Harbaugh, who could not be present at the game. “I fucking love you, man,” he said in a live TV interview, choking back emotion. “I love the shit out of you, man. We did this for you.”
Moore laid it on so thick, you would have thought Harbaugh was absent because of a life-threatening illness. In fact, he was serving a suspension for letting a significant alleged cheating scandal unfold right under his nose—or worse. The NCAA is investigating claims that the former Michigan staffer Connor Stalions concocted a scheme to surveil and sometimes film opposing coaches’ signals, in violation of NCAA rules. Last week, while the NCAA investigation was ongoing, the Big Ten, Michigan’s athletic conference, imposed a punishment of its own, suspending Harbaugh for three games.
Yesterday, the school announced that Harbaugh would stop fighting the suspension. This was surprising, because the coach and the school had until then struck a defiant tone. Michigan responded to the Big Ten punishment by filing a temporary restraining order. Harbaugh seemed eager to appear in court. “I’m just looking forward to that opportunity—due process,” Harbaugh told reporters. “I’m not looking for special treatment, not looking for a popularity contest, just looking for the merit of what the case is.”
But a popularity contest is precisely what Harbaugh and the Wolverines seem to have been trying to win since the cheating allegations emerged. They have worked hard to create the public perception that their program is being unfairly targeted, making it seem as if there is a grand conspiracy to derail the Wolverines’ undefeated season and their realistic bid for a national championship. It’s a response that seems pulled from the world of politics: Never admit fault. No accusation has merit. Everything is a witch hunt.
Of course, Harbaugh has the right to defend himself. He has denied having any knowledge that his staffer did anything unethical, and so far no evidence has suggested otherwise. The program suspended Stalions as soon as the allegations emerged. One of the major differences between professional and college football, however, is that in the college game, the coach has control over—and is ultimately culpable for—whatever happens inside the program.
And it’s hard to extend the benefit of the doubt indefinitely when this isn’t even Harbaugh’s first suspension of the season. Michigan imposed a different three-game penalty on Harbaugh at the beginning of the season, which was apparently the university’s way of getting ahead of a looming NCAA punishment that could be even worse. The NCAA has accused Harbaugh of impermissible recruiting during the COVID-19 dead period and, more significantly, of lying about it to investigators, a charge Harbaugh has denied.
None of these allegations has been proven, but in each case the wounds appear to be primarily self-inflicted. That hasn’t stopped Harbaugh and the Wolverines from behaving as if they’re being unjustly put in front of a firing squad. According to Sports Illustrated, Michigan’s Board of Regents discussed leaving the Big Ten if the conference punished Harbaugh without due process—as if the conference has any earthly reason not to want a powerhouse such as Michigan to be successful. Sure, there’s an argument that the Big Ten should have waited until the NCAA completed its sign-stealing investigation before suspending Harbaugh, but this isn’t a court of law. The Big Ten is within its rights to protect the integrity of its conference based on its reading of the evidence.
Harbaugh is far from the first coach to use an “us versus them” narrative to get the most from their players. But in light of the allegations, it’s embarrassing to see his team wearing Michigan vs. Everybody T-shirts and to hear Harbaugh theorize that America should be rooting for the Wolverines because “America loves a team that beats the odds and adversity and overcomes what the naysayers, critics, and so-called experts think.” Are those new code words for a coach breaking the rules, possibly misleading the NCAA, and having someone on his staff who decided to do a remix of the New England Patriots’ Spygate scandal? America may love an underdog, but, at least when it comes to sports, it doesn’t exactly embrace people who violate the spirit of competition. Ask Lance Armstrong or the Houston Astros. Although teams often cast themselves as the victim amid these kinds of controversies, that doesn’t make them look any less foolish.
I’m sure some Michigan fans will accuse me of bias, and bitterness, because my alma mater, Michigan State, is currently in the midst of a terrible season that included being blown out by Michigan, 29–7. In fact, I think our lousy on-field performance may have saved us from more serious failings. Our former coach Mel Tucker was fired early in the season for alleged sexual misconduct. (His attorneys have called the firing “unjustified,” and Tucker is appealing the university’s decision.) If the Spartans had been championship contenders this year, like Michigan, I don’t doubt that some fans and administrators would have rallied to Tucker’s defense.
Michigan and the Big Ten were scheduled to appear in court today to determine the fate of the requested restraining order. Instead, we got the surprise news that the legal challenge was dropped. Does this mean the Wolverines will cease trying to convince people they’re the real underdogs? We should find out soon. When Michigan takes the field against Maryland tomorrow, Harbaugh will once again be watching from afar, and his assistant, Moore, will once again be filling in. Let’s hope he spares us the waterworks this time. Because if the team continues to insist that it’s “us against the world,” it will discover that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.