The Michigan Wolverines were thousands of feet in the air Friday afternoon on their way to play the biggest game of their season when the Big Ten announced a three-game suspension of coach Jim Harbaugh.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, a Harvard-educated attorney with a TV background, received Michigan’s 10-page response to the conference’s evidence relating to now-former staffer Connor Stalions’ sign-stealing operation on Wednesday.
But Petitti waited until less than 24 hours before the third-ranked Wolverines — the best collection of Michigan football players since the 1997 national championship team and possibly ever — play a defining road game against 10th-ranked Penn State to levy a suspension he clearly has been mulling for weeks.
Michigan reportedly filed a request for injunctive relief, and perhaps Harbaugh will be on the sideline Saturday and again the next two weeks at Maryland and against Ohio State.
Either way, we are witnessing a completely unprecedented moment in college sports history. The Big Ten just jumped ahead of the NCAA, which has rules directing its lengthy investigative process, to punish one of its two bell-cow programs in the midst of an unbeaten season.
As a proud Michigan alum, I have a lot of feelings about all of this. But today, I am observing the moment from the perspective of USC and UCLA, who are about to join a conference that is not going to resemble the one they signed away their futures to in June 2022.
It appears the Trojans and Bruins left one mess of a conference for a wealthier mess of a conference. They left a Pac-12 that no longer could compete in the college sports arms race for a Big Ten that’s choosing to wage war on itself. The nation’s oldest and most pompous power conference never will be the same again.
Michigan and the Big Ten are going to battle in court, and the school has retained Williams & Connolly, LLP, one of the nation’s most ruthless and successful litigation firms. The lawyers will argue that the Big Ten did not have grounds to utilize a vague “sportsmanship” policy in its handbook to punish Michigan without due process. The discovery period would be delicious to those who crave college sports depravity — and damaging to all involved, including the 13 other universities that pushed Petitti into a corner.
The courts will just be one forum for battle. Expect calculated leaks from Michigan, attacking its rivals’ pristine glass houses. The reports that Ohio State and Rutgers fed Michigan’s signs to Purdue before last year’s Big Ten championship game could be just the beginning.
USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon are walking into a Midwestern mud fight. Hey, maybe they’ll bring a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Think about it: Can you imagine this happening in the Southeastern Conference? A commissioner bowing to the Mississippi States and Kentuckys to take down Georgia or Alabama in the middle of a championship chase? Or even acting based off pressure from Athens or Tuscaloosa directed toward the other school’s questionable operations in any capacity?
Recall how SEC commissioner Greg Sankey responded when Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher and Alabama coach Nick Saban were publicly feuding about Saban’s allegation that the Aggies were buying recruits using name, image and likeness? Sankey issued a public reprimand of both coaches and silenced them.
Petitti has evidence that Stalions sent people to dozens of games featuring future Michigan opponents and had them take video of the sidelines. That is very much against the spirit of the NCAA rule that outlaws staff members scouting opponents in-person. If the Wolverines broke the rules, they deserve to be punished, even if it was just one “manifesto”-writing madman gone rogue, as the Maize and Blue would like to think.
The Big Ten acknowledged Friday in its explanation for the suspension that it does not have evidence that Harbaugh knew Stalions’ methods. The conference said the suspension was not a punishment to Harbaugh but to the university, with Harbaugh taking on the suspension as the face of the program. Some real mental gymnastics went into that line of thinking.
Meanwhile, Petitti and the Big Ten presidents are apparently OK with staffers from member schools colluding to share another school’s signs — the one that happens to have a 21-game conference winning streak and two straight wins over league kingpin Ohio State.
Instead of issuing a blanket statement admonishing the sign-stealing culture across the conference and pushing for the use of headsets as soon as possible — and letting the NCAA investigate Michigan — Petitti made this an ugly spectacle that is sure to get worse.
For the four newcomers, this 18-team Big Ten is going to be quite a departure from the quirky Pac-12 culture (although something tells me the dynamic between USC and Oregon in particular may fit in just fine).
There is no Big Ten brotherhood to speak of anymore. Sure, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes once waged their “10-year war,” but there was at least a semblance of honor to the proceedings. You’d hear about Wolverines and Buckeyes actively rooting for one another in bowl games. Now, the rivalry has become so bitter and all-encompassing that even the conference office has to pick a side.
The good news for USC and UCLA competitively is that they will enter a weakened Big Ten. Michigan had built itself into a legitimate top-five program but now undoubtedly will face NCAA penalties plus whatever Petitti comes up with next. We’re also likely to find out at some point along this dark road what Michigan has compiled over the years on the way Ohio State does business.
The Wolverines and Buckeyes will be so distracted by their own feuding, a door could open rather quickly for a team from the Pac-12 to emerge at the top of the standings. But, if this were to occur, that university would be wise to remember the lesson of the last three weeks: In today’s Big Ten, you had better watch your back.