STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — The Big Ten Conference banned Jim Harbaugh from coaching at Michigan’s three remaining regular-season games on Friday, escalating an extraordinary confrontation with college football’s winningest program over a sign-stealing scheme that has rocked the sport.
The school delivered on its promise to fight back in court a few hours later, asking a Michigan judge for a temporary restraining order that would allow Harbaugh to coach the Wolverines in their biggest game of the season so far.
The discipline was announced less than 24 hours before kickoff at No. 9 Penn State. The second-ranked Wolverines (9-0) have a shot to win a third straight Big Ten title and the school’s first national championship since 1997.
Michigan’s team plane landed in Pennsylvania shortly before the announcement. It issued a statement ridiculing the decision.
“Like all members of the Big Ten Conference, we are entitled to a fair, deliberate and thoughtful process to determine the full set of facts before a judgment is rendered,” Michigan President Santa Ono said in a statement. “Today’s action by Commissioner Tony Petitti disregards the conference’s own handbook, violates basic tenets of due process, and sets an untenable precedent of assessing penalties before an investigation has been completed.”
Harbaugh has denied any knowledge of an improper scouting scheme in his program. Michigan warned earlier this week that it was prepared to take possible legal action if the conference punished the program before a full investigation; the NCAA and the Big Ten are both looking into the claims
“To ensure fairness in the process, we intend to seek a court order, together with Coach Harbaugh, preventing this disciplinary action from taking effect,” Ono said.
The request for the restraining order was filed in Washtenaw County, home to the university, listing Petitti and the Big Ten as defendants and attorneys for Harbaugh and the school contending its students and players would “suffer significant and irreparable harm” if the punishment stands. Courts were closed Friday, the recognized federal holiday for Veteran’s Day, and it was unclear when a ruling might come. Judge Timothy P. Connors, a Michigan graduate, was listed as the judicial officer but it was not clear whether he was handling the case.
Such a fight between a conference and one of its most storied members is unheard of. The dispute began three weeks ago and the allegations leaked day by day, with it becoming clear the Wolverines do not want their undefeated season derailed by an unfinished investigation of activities it says Harbaugh knew nothing about and are not unheard of across college football.
The Big Ten, however, said the school had violated its sportsmanship policy by conducting “an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years” that resulted in “an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition.”
As a result, the Big Ten said Michigan must play without Harbaugh against the Nittany Lions (8-1) this weekend, next week at Maryland and in the annual showdown game against rival and No. 3 Ohio State two weeks from now. If Michigan wins out, he would be clear to return for the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
For now, while Harbaugh is allowed at practices and other activities, he cannot be “present at the game venue.”
The league also sent a 13-page letter to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel to back up its decision.
“(A) university football staff member engaged in an organized, extensive, years-long in-person advance scouting scheme that was impermissible. … Such misconduct inherently compromises the integrity of competition,” the letter said, before saying the school’s response did not deny the scheme occurred. “Instead, it offers only procedural and technical arguments designed to delay accountability.”
Michigan says it is cooperating with the NCAA, which does not outlaw sign-stealing, but has rules against in-person scouting of opponents and using electronic equipment to steal signs. The allegations against Michigan suggest a far more robust approach to gathering signs.
The low-level staffer at the center of the investigation, Connor Stalions, resigned last week. Through his attorney, Stalions said that, to his knowledge, none of the Michigan coaches told anyone to break rules or were aware of improper conduct when it came to advance scouting.
The NCAA probe is likely to stretch well past the season. Big Ten’s rules allowed for swifter action and coaches and athletic directors in the league had pushed Petitti to discipline Michigan under conference bylaws that cover sportsmanship and competitive integrity.
Multiple Big Ten schools found tickets purchased in Stalions’ name to their games over the last three seasons. Tickets to the last two Southeastern Conference championship games were also purchased in Stalions’ name. Big Ten schools have also provided the NCAA some video surveillance footage of people sitting in those seats, holding cellphones pointed toward the field.
Harbaugh served a school-imposed, three-game suspension earlier this season for an unrelated and unresolved NCAA infractions case tied to recruiting. The former star quarterback for the Wolverines has an 80-25 overall record and a 59-17 mark in Big Ten games over nine seasons with the Wolverines. He considered returning to the NFL coaching ranks after both the 2021 and ’22 seasons.
Michigan has contended that other schools steal signs. A former employee at a Big Ten football program, whose role was to steal signs, said he was given details from multiple conference schools before his team played Michigan to compile a spreadsheet of play-calling signals used by the Wolverines last year. He spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing the disclosures could impact his coaching career.
The person said he also passed along screenshots of text-message exchanges with staffers from a handful of Big Ten football teams with the Wolverines, giving them proof that other conference teams were colluding to steal signs from Harbaugh’s team.
The Big Ten dismissed Michigan’s argument that other schools were also stealing signs.
“The conference is unmoved by the university’s attempt to downplay its impermissible conduct by asserting that other conference members may have engaged in sign decoding,” its letter said. “The conference has not received any information that any other members schools engaged in impermissible advance in-person scouting, let alone a scheme of the size and scale like the one at issue here. … the conference vehemently rejects any defense by the university or any other conference member that cheating is acceptable because other teams do it too.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed.