A possible negotiated settlement in the NCAA violation case involving Michigan’s soccer program collapsed this week after the NCAA demanded that head coach Jim Harbaugh lied to investigators, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports.
Sources say Harbaugh has admitted his program committed four Level II violations, as the NCAA originally claimed. He has further apologized to the university for performing. However, he has refused to sign any document or publicly state that he has ever been dishonest to prison staff.
The 59-year-old has claimed he didn’t remember the events when he first spoke to investigators but had never been intentionally dishonest.
The NCAA released a draft allegation notice earlier this month detailing the four Level II violations. These include meeting two recruits during a COVID-19 dead period, texting a recruit outside of an allowable time frame, analysts taking on coaching duties on the field during practice, and coaches watching players practice via Zoom, according to sources.
Jim Harbaugh said earlier this week that he will indeed return to Ann Arbor for his ninth season as Michigan head coach. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)
The NCAA defines Level II violations as resulting in “less than a substantial or substantial recruiting, competitive, or other advantage.” She also calls them “systemic violations that do not amount to a lack of institutional control”.
Penalties are usually small.
However, the NCAA alleges that during the investigation, Harbaugh lied to law enforcement officials about these violations, which is itself a Level I violation. That made the case a more serious case.
A Level I violation could result in a six-game suspension and significant recruitment restrictions under NCAA statutes. In the past, trainers have been hit with show-cause penalties that make their employment difficult.
At two meetings this week, the NCAA and Harbaugh stood firm and refused to resign from their positions. The NCAA said the coach lied. The coach said he only forgot otherwise insignificant actions. A dead end emerged.
The story goes on
All of this came at a busy time for the football program. The Wolverines lost to TCU in the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs on New Year’s Eve. It capped a 13-1 season in which Michigan made the playoffs, won the Big Ten, and defeated Ohio State in consecutive years.
Within days, Harbaugh’s name was popping up again for various NFL head coaching positions, including the Denver Broncos with whom he spoke. Then news of the NCAA violations case broke, and Harbaugh remained coy as he returned to his alma mater for a ninth season.
Earlier this week, Harbaugh and the university indicated he would be back for the 2023 season, but the looming NCAA case remained. Additionally, offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was suspended Tuesday as police investigate a claim that someone at Schembechler Hall accessed university email accounts without authorization.
As for the NCAA case, at this point the battle lines are drawn.
Harbaugh is not expected to back down, and he would likely vigorously defend himself against any allegation that he deliberately lied. Harbaugh is famous for being stubborn, both as a player and as a head coach in the NCAA and NFL.
Additionally, it is generally difficult to prove that someone knowingly lied without detailed contemporary evidence, which NCAA sources say is either absent or simply non-existent.
The NCAA could roll back its attempt to collect that admission and otherwise resolve the case, but has given no indication that it will. An NCAA punishment, even a brief suspension, for Level II violations without an admission of a lie could be acceptable to Harbaugh. Anything to do with admitting dishonesty would not, sources said.
Or the NCAA could proceed with a full case and issue an allegation notice. A prolonged case of infractions would last at least a year and possibly even longer, meaning Harbaugh could coach the entire 2023 season, which will see the Wolverines once again as a national title contender.
Michigan would also have a decision to make about whether to support its coach in a fight with the NCAA. In the past, collaboration for schools was often the path of least resistance, but the NCAA has lost significant credibility and power over the past decade.
Public opinion has turned to amateurism in general — and with it the resultant NCAA rules — as well as the infractions process, which has failed to punish high-profile cases with far more significant recruitment allegations. Initial public support was strong on Harbaugh’s side and whether or not this should be a consideration for prison staff, the reality is that this is no longer 2003 or even 2018.
So is the NCAA still going all in to try and prove Jim Harbaugh’s lie? Does Michigan stand by its coach and tell enforcement staff to stomp sand and prove it?
Or can this still be resolved before there is an epic battle between one of collegiate athletics’ most powerful, beloved and wealthy institutions and one of football’s most celebrated coaches, and a weakened governing body that may still hold power even with diminished relevance?