Jim Harbaugh promised a “gold standard” for NCAA compliance in Michigan football. Now what? | ET REALITY


ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Five weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh stood in front of reporters and talked about setting a “gold standard” for rule enforcement.

Harbaugh had just returned from a three-game suspension Michigan self-imposed tied to alleged NCAA violations that occurred during his tenure. Although he called Michigan’s compliance exemplary, he spoke of implementing new policies to “make sure I’m never marginalized again.”

“We’ve done an incredible job,” Harbaugh said then. “We have gone to the nth degree to follow all the rules.”

That rings hollow now, doesn’t it? A little more than a month later, Michigan faces another NCAA investigation, this time for alleged violations of the in-person scouting rule. Michigan suspended staff member Connor Stalions with pay after he was identified as a central figure in the NCAA investigation. Monday, The Athletic reported that the Stalions purchased tickets under their own name to games involving at least five of Michigan’s opponents over the past three seasons.

A staff member purchasing tickets to Big Ten football games is not a violation of NCAA rules. Forwarding those tickets to other people is neither. It’s possible that Stalions, a former student volunteer who joined Michigan’s recruiting department in 2022, is just a college football superfan who’s used to digging into his own pockets to buy and sell tickets on the secondary market.

But use those tickets to explore other teams would do be a rape.

Watching the Stalions buyouts, people around the Big Ten noticed a troubling pattern: seats near midfield, clear view of the sideline, sometimes on both sides of the stadium. The Athletic and other outlets reported that a school has security footage of an individual sitting in a seat purchased by Stalions filming the team’s bench with a smartphone.

Whatever it is, it’s not a gold standard for rule compliance. The NCAA prohibits “in-person, off-campus scouting of future opponents” and NCAA football playing rules prohibit recording signs. Technical arguments can be made about what constitutes exploration and who, exactly, falls under the jurisdiction of these rules. But the spirit is clear: Schools aren’t supposed to send people to other stadiums and record other teams’ signals.

If that’s what was happening here, Michigan has a problem on its hands. How big or small depends on many factors, chief among them: Did Harbaugh or any member of his coaching staff know this was happening?

Harbaugh issued a statement last week saying that he did not direct anyone to participate in an off-campus scouting task and that he was “not aware of anyone on our staff doing that or directing that action.” No evidence has emerged to contradict that claim. But the investigation is just beginning and the NCAA will be interested in determining whether the Stalions paid for the tickets out of their own pocket or had help from other sources.

Jim Harbaugh began the season with a self-imposed three-game suspension. (Dylan Widger/USA Today)

The evidence presented so far is not conclusive, but it is suspicious. Other Big Ten schools saw what the Stalions were doing and realized it could be a problem for Michigan. Why didn’t Michigan see that?

The less charitable interpretation is that Harbaugh knew about and sanctioned the Stalions’ alleged actions. In the most charitable interpretation, Harbaugh had more important things to worry about. A Big Ten football program is a sprawling operation, and the head coach cannot control the actions of 100 players, 10 assistant coaches and every low-level staff member in the building.

But that’s one more reason to have people on the lookout for potential problems. Michigan, of all programs, should know that. If Michigan had done what Harbaugh said it would do, the Wolverines might not be in this position.

Michigan had every reason to examine its policies and procedures after finding itself in hot water with the NCAA for alleged violations that occurred during the COVID-19 dead period, including impermissible contact with recruits and analysts performing coaching roles in practice. Everyone should have been on their best behavior after Harbaugh’s three-game suspension, knowing what it would look like if the program failed again.

Even if the facts are less damning than they seem, someone — Harbaugh, his coordinators, Michigan’s compliance department, or the Stalions supervisor — should have been on the lookout for the red flags. It’s unclear when these tickets were purchased, but they refer to games played this season, including Saturday’s clash between Penn State and Ohio State. according to ESPN. That’s kind of cheeky for a show that’s already under the microscope.

The Stalions did not play college football, but earned a reputation in the Michigan program for his ability to decode other teams’ signs. As a former graduate of the US Naval Academy and Marine Corps, he seemed eager to apply his military experience by “identifying and exploiting critical vulnerabilities,” as he wrote in a now-deleted LinkedIn bio.

The shame of all this is that Michigan is good enough to win without any of this. Of Michigan’s 20 consecutive Big Ten victories, only three have been decided by single digits. The Wolverines owe their success to Aidan Hutchinson, Blake Corum, JJ McCarthy and a group of other talented players, not a staff member who may have been good at decoding signs.

This isn’t the first time Harbaugh’s show has sparked controversy. In addition to the NCAA’s earlier investigation, Michigan fired co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss in January amid a police investigation into suspicious computer activity at Schembechler Hall. That investigation remains open and university police have refused to discuss it.

A program that cares about following the rules to the nth degree would want to ensure that a sign decryption operation is completely legal, especially in light of past mistakes. Even if Harbaugh had no idea what was going on, NCAA rules hold head coaches responsible for what happens in their programs. Harbaugh seemed to acknowledge this when he talked about implementing policies to protect himself and his staff after returning from his suspension.

When asked for details of those policies, Harbaugh offered very few. It seemed more like a spontaneous proclamation than a coordinated directive. Harbaugh or someone close to him should have taken those words to heart and made sure Michigan got its house in order, knowing that the NCAA would be looking for any excuse to add to the three-game suspension imposed by the school on Harbaugh.

The investigation has yet to continue, but on the surface, this is exactly the kind of thing that could compound Michigan’s NCAA problems and sideline Harbaugh again. Anyone who looked closely at what the Stalions were doing might have seen the potential for scandal and controversy, the last thing Michigan needs as it chases a national championship.

By trying so hard to spot an opponent’s vulnerabilities, Michigan overlooked an important one.

(Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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