Suspended Jim Harbaugh is tainted, too, but this Michigan season should not be

Big Ten first-year commissioner Tony Petitti satisfied the angry mob and did the wrong thing Friday, invoking his league’s sportsmanship policy and suspending Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh for the team’s three remaining regular-season games.

This was not the time, nor the way, to punish Harbaugh for a sign-stealing scandal that has been such a dominant story, some of the plot holes have gone unnoticed. A 10-page letter written by lawyers, signed by Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, and sent this week to the Big Ten and first revealed by Yahoo Sports included some laughable rationalizing of the situation but was dead on at its core — discipline at this point is “procedurally improper, premature and unwarranted.”

Harbaugh should be coaching his team, Saturday at Penn State and beyond, until a credible and thorough investigation is completed. “Credible” and “thorough” might not be the first two words that come to mind when you think of NCAA investigations, but it’s the best we’ve got. All due credit to the next video snippet of exiled Michigan analyst/purported super spy Connor Stalions that comes from a sleuth on an Ohio State or Michigan State message board.

Harbaugh has been ripped away from his team, the news coming down after the team’s takeoff Friday for State College, Pa. Which is ridiculous on its own. At least let the guy avoid the bumpy flight and get his lawn mower prepped for the weekend. It’s not a full suspension, like the one he served to start the season for alleged recruiting violations. He can still be with the team during the week. It’s a strange half measure. Which Harbaugh might defy anyway with a court order.

And when it’s all over, if Michigan wins the national championship, as the Wolverines appear equipped to do, that championship comes with no asterisk. Unless the footnote says: “The Wolverines achieved this under extraordinary duress.”

Harbaugh might be ultimately responsible for the duress. And it’s fair to wonder how much Stalions’ reported system for illegally scouting other teams helped his program’s recent surge after several years of underwhelming results. It’s hard to believe Harbaugh was totally in the dark, or that having the answers to the test doesn’t make a difference — watch C.J. Stroud play as a rookie for the Houston Texans, then go back and watch him against Michigan last season.

The Athletic has done excellent reporting on all of it, and the results are compelling. As for the occasional coach who says, “You can know what’s coming and still not be able to stop it,” he’s right, and he would never give his next opponent all of his signals. Harbaugh’s recent success and future in college football are questionable. He’ll be stained by 2023 — quick, name any other college football coach who was up for suspension in the same season for two totally separate transgressions.

But his 2023 team? It deserves everything it earns from here. Michigan football is in its post-scandal existence. Michigan football is an Italian restaurant my wife and I used to frequent. Let’s call it Il Segnale.

Several years ago, Il Segnale had health-code violations that made the news. It shut down for a couple of days. When it reopened, we were there that day. Were our past meals at Il Segnale tainted? Should they have been vacated? Maybe. But we enjoyed them. And if you want to be certain of a restaurant kitchen’s cleanliness, go to the one that just got health-code violations.

Likewise, I’m as confident in Michigan’s not cheating this weekend as I am in any team in college football. Will the Wolverines even be looking across the field at Penn State’s signals? Will they politely avert their eyes? As you might have heard a time or two in recent weeks, stealing signals isn’t illegal on its own. It’s the way Michigan went about it (and the way other teams have gone about it in sharing Michigan’s signals, a revelation this week that should have given Petitti pause).

So if Stalions’ alleged operation was so helpful, what does it mean to have it dismantled? And how much of a distraction has this been for Michigan’s players? Now remove Harbaugh from the sidelines, again (court order pending, of course). This must have had an adverse effect on the daily operations of this program.

The coaches might deserve whatever complications they encounter, but the players aren’t culpable for this. All players on all teams know their coaches are trying to decipher signals and hide their own, and all they can do is take the calls they’re given and try to make plays.

If Michigan’s calls were Stalion-ized earlier this season, against weak competition that had no chance against Michigan anyway, they sure aren’t now.

And now is when the season actually starts. My friend Gregg Doyel wrote in the Indianapolis Star this week that Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy would not be getting his Heisman Trophy vote because of the Stalions scandal. I find that to be absurd. Nothing McCarthy has done here would win him the Heisman anyway. But if he goes out and tears up a great Penn State defense Saturday, and does the same to Ohio State, and is sitting at 13-0 with a Big Ten championship — despite the raging storm hovering over Ann Arbor for weeks — then he will get consideration on this ballot.

And if Michigan wins it all, after all this, there’s no asterisk required unless it’s for extra credit. This will be a heck of a “30 for 30” someday. This will follow Harbaugh. But unless someone like Ohio State hangs a scarlet “L” on him, this should cost his 2023 team nothing more.

(Photo: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)

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