Is Michigan’s Standing by Its Man the Right Play?

Thom Weidlich 11.16.23


The University of Michigan Wolverines football team is embroiled in a sign-stealing scandal that’s brought about strong emotions and strong responses from the school. Michigan is boldly defending its coach, Jim Harbaugh. Is that the right move? Probably only time will tell.

The scandal broke last month when it was reported that college-sports governing body NCAA was investigating whether Michigan had sent scouts to its future opponents’ games to learn their sign systems — a no-no. On Nov. 3, Connor Stalions, the team employee at the center of the scandal, was at first suspended with pay and then resigned. The probe is ongoing.

A major question is what, if anything, Coach Harbaugh knew about Stalions’ alleged operation; he’s denied being aware. On Nov. 10, even with the probe pending, Tony Petitti, commissioner of the Big Ten conference Michigan belongs to, suspended Harbaugh for the final three games of the regular season. The first of those three games was played this past weekend.

Siege Mentality

Michigan has dug in and defended Harbaugh. It’s almost a siege mentality. It seems the Wolverines feel they’re accused of doing what other college gridiron squads do; they just got caught (allegedly). Part of the defensiveness stems from the team being undefeated and a possible contender for the national championship. The school doesn’t want to jeopardize that.

Things came to a head this weekend. Michigan issued a forceful statement in response to Harbaugh’s suspension. “We are dismayed at the commissioner’s rush to judgment when there is an ongoing NCAA investigation — one in which we are fully cooperating,” it wrote.

Even more boldly, it filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order to allow Harbaugh to coach. It was hoping for a decision before last Saturday’s game, but that didn’t happen. In fact, the first hearing in the case is scheduled for tomorrow.

‘America’s Team’

A high-profile aspect of this came after last weekend’s game against Penn State, which Michigan won 24-15 even without Harbaugh. In a post-game interview, Michigan’s fill-in coach, offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore, broke down in tears. “I want to thank the Lord, and I want to thank Coach Harbaugh,” he said. As we say, it’s getting emotional. Harbaugh himself has been criticized for opining that the Wolverines should be considered “America’s team.”

On Sunday, University of Michigan President Santa Ono posted on X, “As our team showed so clearly yesterday, we will respond to any challenge head on with a conviction to do better and to emerge even stronger.”

It’s tough to say whether Michigan’s tough stance is the right move. Too many facts are unknown. That’s part of its argument: Harbaugh is being denied due process by being punished without having been found to have engaged in wrongdoing. But it’s an interesting example of needing to decide what tone — strident or apologetic — to take in responding to a crisis.

Photo Credit: Michigan Wolverines

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