In a matter of hours, the Michigan football team went from possibly the best version of itself in the program’s proud history to the nationally derided “Cheaters and Best.”
I did it in detail Network of sign-stealing agents — or just a lower-level employee, a former Marine Corps officer with a goal of dominating the college football world — to really turn things around Jim Harbaugh’s disappointing product of 2020 Will he be a back-to-back Big Ten champion and Buckeye slugger in 2021-22 and the No. 2 team in the country in 2023?
That’s the question that matters most to me, a Michigan graduate who has passionately followed the ups and downs of this team for nearly 25 years.
But the question that may be most important to the NCAA investigators who have Harbaugh firmly in their sights is not whether the Wolverines profited from stolen signs. Of course they have. This also applies to most other teams, and it’s not against the rules.
What the NCAA needs to do now is find evidence that Michigan went beyond the accepted methods of deciphering signs, such as sending a staff member or person even loosely associated with the program to the game of a future opponent and the personal acquisition of information.
Apparently – even the most avid college football watchers knew this until Thursday – the NCAA banned in-person scouting in 1994 because schools no longer wanted to pay the spies’ freight.
If the NCAA Keystone Kops manage to gather evidence that Michigan violated this rule, then it will look bad for the Wolverines and they will pay for this mistake. If Harbaugh is charged as a knower, the punishment will be dramatically increased and he will be sent to the social media gallows as a self-righteous fraud. Some of his many critics are already here, but I would encourage them to wait for the facts before hanging the man.
Harbaugh released a statement Thursday saying he had no knowledge of any sign-stealing techniques that violated NCAA rules (oddly enough, such a direct response to the allegation could mean another violation on his growing record).
We don’t really know much right now other than the fact that the NCAA has opened an investigation — and anonymous coaches from across the Big Ten are upset about it, as are national media outlets that despise Michigan or Harbaugh or both.
We also know that the aforementioned former naval officer, Connor Stalions, whose name was leaked ESPN’s Pete Thamel on Thursday evening as key to the investigation was suspended with pay by Michigan on Friday. By the way, a suspension with pay is not an admission of guilt.
But one thing I know with utmost certainty: The events of the final day are straight from the NCAA playbook, and I don’t have to steal signs to know what tried-and-tested play is unfolding before us.
Step 1: Set a goal.
So why should Jim Harbaugh, the healthy, football-loving, church-going, steak-eating, whole-milk-drinking guy, be the target of the people who run the American sports college cartel?
Because since he returned to college sports in 2015 to coach his alma mater, he has been a royal nuisance to the NCAA. He began living in the gray area of the rule book to host field camps all over the country, even in the Southeast, ostensibly to spread his gospel of the importance of football to young men, but his critics saw it as a strategy to see through Michigan’s brand to strengthen recruits. At the time, he was one of the most vocal supporters of greater freedom of transfer for players.
Most recently, Harbaugh gave an impassioned, unprompted speech in August about why football players should get a cut of the TV revenue they generate.
“I don’t think this current system will survive,” Harbaugh said. “The status quo is unacceptable. This is my opinion.
“When student-athletes call it a game, corporate types call it a business.” While student-athletes call it a business, corporate types call it a game. … We are where we are. We have to try to make it work. We have to try to do better.
“What I don’t understand is how the NCAA, the television networks, the conferences, the universities and coaches can continue to rake in millions and in some cases billions of dollars in revenue from the efforts of college athletes across the country without doing this . “Providing sufficient opportunities to participate in the ever-increasing income.”
This came after Michigan announced Harbaugh’s three-game suspension earlier in the season. This was the school’s response to an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations during the COVID dead period. As part of that trial, the NCAA accused Harbaugh of lying to investigators about his knowledge.
So after the school scrambled to calm that storm, Harbaugh set his sights on the golden goose – control of all the television money, the key remnant of the dying age of “amateurism.”
The NCAA probably wasn’t done with Harbaugh before this statement. Afterwards, when someone made the accusation that Michigan had been elite at stealing signs in recent years, the NCAA had fresh ammunition to use.
Step 2: Start an investigation.
Step 3: Make sure the investigation is shared with reputable national reporters like Ross Dellenger and Dan Wetzel at Yahoo Sports.
Step 4: Sit back and watch the public abuse of your target and establish your narrative over millions of clicks while your target is not allowed to respond due to the ongoing investigation.
Step 5: Look for evidence that sufficiently supports your desired outcome to report allegations. During this time, please also remain confident that the publication of the investigation will result in further allegations.
Step 6: Extend the examination as long as you want. Even if you haven’t found enough convincing evidence of a rule violation, the dark cloud will forever hang over the target.
USC understands this very well what I am describing here. That’s what the NCAA leaders once decided USC football under Pete Carroll was a target, it would find whatever evidence it needed to retain someone on Carroll’s staff, the assistant coach Todd McNairto the unreasonable advantages received by Reggie Bush from potential brokers. With the Trojans, the NCAA wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Have Harbaugh and Michigan reached that level? We’ll find out in the next, oh what, three to five years?
One of the most intriguing subplots here is whether Harbaugh will wait to figure it out at Michigan or whether he will unravel this situation as a final sign that he needs to make another run at a Super Bowl ring. I could also see him being tenacious and sticking with it, continuing to poke the bear and maintaining the culture he built at Michigan through whatever the NCAA throws at him. Will the university, which is usually quick to follow the whims of the cartel and impose sanctions itself, stand by his side in the long term? We’re still waiting for the long-rumored contract extension.
If you listen to the affiliated USC people discussing the NCAA penalties have destroyed their program Like me, Michigan should move on and prepare for the worst – regardless of what comes to light about its sign-stealing spree.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.