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IF AMERICA NEEDS A SPORTS TEAM, HARBAUGH’S EXODUS BURNS MICHIGAN
After bragging about due process, Judge Judy and the “iron wall that viruses bash against,” the coach agreed to the Big Ten’s ongoing suspension, making us wonder what the league and NCAA have on him
The biggest failure of a legal wretch is when he stops fighting. Just hours ago, Jim Harbaugh threatened the Big Ten and its remaining multi-game suspension by thirsting for a Friday courtroom argument. “It’s got to be America’s team,” he praised the Michigan Wolverines as his amenable sparring partners. “America loves a team that beats the odds, beats the adversity, overcomes what the naysayers and the critics, the so-called experts think.
“That’s my favorite kind of team.”
By Thursday, America’s team was scramming, as it was scamming, agreeing to a ban which means he won’t coach Saturday at Maryland and, more importantly, the following week at the Big House against Ohio State. Was this his cheap way of acknowledging that the conference commissioner, Tony Petitti, might have a few more goods on him in battle at Washtenaw County Court? Was it a matter of the NCAA accelerating its own sign-stealing case against Michigan? No longer was Harbaugh touting, “I’m just looking for that opportunity, due process. I’m not looking for a popularity contest. I’m just looking for the merits of what the case is.”
Now he won’t be heard from meaningfully until his team reaches the College Football Playoff, or doesn’t. How does one go from flames to ash so quickly? Was Petitti, previously an attorney and TV executive, ready to present more repulsive stories about the program and its dirty deeds? “As a senior in high school, I had a civics class,” Harbaugh said. “We talked about government, justice. What I took away from the class was that you’re innocent until proven guilty. That was 40 years ago. I’d like that opportunity.”
More likely, his attorneys dissuaded him from a legal dispute because Michigan is weary of the laborious process and knows Harbaugh isn’t long anyway for “The Victors” fight song. Imagine letting him talk and see it fail, for whatever violations the Big Ten or NCAA might have on him, as he prepares to leave in January for the National Football League. “I’m the iron wall that viruses bash against and shatter,” he’d said. “Something’s going on there, but I’ll get it worked out, work it out of my system. Do some more pushups, eat an apple.”
There will be plenty of fruits and hors d’oeuvres where he’s staying the next two weekends. It’s time he takes the matter seriously, as a 59-year-old moving on in years, when the Big Ten contends his program wrecked its sportsmanship policy “for conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years, resulting in an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition.” Know how oddballish this grew? Harbaugh talked about the flock of chickens in his Ann Arbor backyard.
“There was a time when I said chicken is a nervous bird. I was dead wrong,” he said. “I stand corrected. These chickens are low maintenance and high production. They lay an egg every 26, 27 hours. They need water, they need food. I play with them, too. I let them out in the yard to run around. They’re happy to see me.”
So was his brother, John, who was born without Jim’s tomfoolery and won the lone Super Bowl between them almost 11 years ago. This week, he praised Jim for avoiding trouble when the Big Ten and NCAA searched his personal electronic devices. “His phones, his computers and all that stuff has been looked at, and he’s come through this thing with flying colors,” John said in Baltimore. “I don’t know what they’re trying to get, but they don’t have anything of substance. I’m proud as heck. I’m really impressed with the way he’s handled himself through all of this. It’s been a long run.”
Yet why did the “iron wall” run from the viruses? You wonder about his players, who’ve fought for him throughout the ordeal and were preparing another side look Friday. And those Michigan-fashioned attorneys, who spoke to the Wall Street Journal about a legal way out for him. What about acting head coach Sherrone Moore, who will continue on the sideline while suggesting a Maryland victory — the school’s 1,000th — belongs to Harbaugh?
“I would say to me, and to everybody else, that would be his win," Moore said. “It wouldn't count as mine. He's the head coach of this football team and I'm just standing in there to make sure we don't mess it up.”
“For him not to be part of that,” said defensive line coach Mike Elston, “would be an absolute shame.”
The new likelihood has Harbaugh not coaching Michigan for almost two months between his last game, a Nov. 4 victory against Purdue, and the national semifinal on New Year’s Day. Unless the Wolverines lose to Ohio State, which could push him straight to the NFL. For now, the Big Ten says combatively, “Today's decision by the University of Michigan to withdraw its legal challenge against the conference's November 10th Notice of Disciplinary Action is indicative of the high standards and values that the conference and the university seek to uphold. The University of Michigan is a valued member of the Big Ten, and the conference will continue to work cooperatively with the university and the NCAA during this process.”
As for Michigan? “This morning, the University, Coach Harbaugh, and the Big Ten resolved their pending litigation,” a statement read. “The conference agreed to close its investigation, and the University and Coach Harbaugh agreed to accept the three-game suspension. Coach Harbaugh, with the University's support, decided to accept this sanction to return the focus to our student-athletes and their performance on the field. The conference has confirmed that it is not aware of any information suggesting Coach Harbaugh's involvement in the allegations. The University continues to cooperate fully with the NCAA's investigation.”
The Big Ten wins again. America’s team loses. The iron wall crashes. Earlier this week, Fox Sports promised to have Harbaugh on camera during the Maryland and Ohio State games. Said reporter Jenny Taft: “Harbaugh watching a game in his hotel room should have been just like a steady cam video we were going to on the side. But I know Fox will do whatever we can to make sure some sort of Harbaugh Cam, and I will do my best to get all that inside scoop. And he is going to talk to me if he is there. He can’t say no to me this time.”
He should say no. This is not a cartoon show. This is not a civics class. This is real drama. “I’ve watched a lot of shows. I’ve watched Judge Judy a lot,” Harbaugh said.
If Judge Judith Sheindlin is watching closely, she also would tell him to stop. What is left to adjudicate when the accused stops talking and goes home? When America looks for a sports team, a judicial withdrawal isn’t our holy grail.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.