Will Big Ten punish Jim Harbaugh, Michigan football? Inside Tony Petitti’s dilemma

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Before leaving Michigan’s postgame news conference, Jim Harbaugh lingered a moment to savor Saturday’s victory against Purdue and the performance of quarterback J.J. McCarthy.

“Man, it’s special to watch,” Harbaugh said, pounding a fist over his heart. Then he collected his things, walked out to greet his family and followed athletic director Warde Manuel down a narrow hallway.

As Harbaugh left the stadium Saturday night, it was unclear how many more opportunities he will have to coach this particular Michigan team.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti was in Ann Arbor on Friday to meet with school officials about the scouting and sign-stealing scandal that has infuriated rival schools and put Michigan at the center of a firestorm. The Big Ten initially deferred to the NCAA’s investigation of potential rule violations involving Michigan staffer Connor Stalions, who resigned Friday. But because the NCAA investigation is unlikely to conclude before the season ends, pressure has mounted on Petitti to use his authority as commissioner to levy in-season punishments against the Wolverines.

Harbaugh has denied any knowledge of the alleged scouting scheme, but that doesn’t necessarily shield him from punishment. The NCAA can penalize a head coach for rule-breaking that happens in his program, whether he knew or not, and it’s fair to wonder if that philosophy will extend to other governing bodies. Big Ten coaches and athletic directors voiced their frustration with Michigan’s alleged behavior in calls with Petitti last week and urged him to take action against the Wolverines, with a number of officials believing a suspension of Harbaugh was the most appropriate potential punishment.

“Everybody’s upset,” one coach told The Athletic. “Why is nothing being done?”

If Petitti were to act against Michigan, the likeliest penalty is a head coach suspension, multiple sources within the conference said. The NCAA has moved away from penalties that punish players who were not involved in rule-breaking, and it’s hard to imagine the Big Ten would impose a postseason ban for the same reason. It is not clear what the length of a potential suspension for Harbaugh would be. School officials in Ann Arbor and elsewhere in the conference expect clarity in the coming days.

Petitti, a first-year commissioner facing his biggest challenge yet, will need to make a decision that is not easy and will not be universally lauded.

First-year Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti visited Michigan on Friday. (Robert Goddin / USA Today)

Multiple athletic directors in the conference told The Athletic that they sympathized with the position Petitti is in, as it’s essentially a no-win situation. He’s being asked to either penalize a leading national championship contender before the conclusion of an NCAA investigation or risk alienating the other 13 Big Ten schools by not doing anything despite mounting evidence.

Petitti has the ability to act under the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy, but the conference does not have its own investigatory arm. Athletic directors and coaches feel that the schools have submitted sufficient information to empower Petitti to act; schools have sent the conference evidence of tickets purchased by Stalions and surveillance video showing people sitting in those seats filming the sidelines to record their signals.

Is the Big Ten certain that the advanced scouting scheme occurred? Can the conference be certain anyone else was involved beyond Stalions?

If the league can answer yes to the first question right now, Petitti may choose to act — because that would, theoretically, be clear proof of an NCAA violation. The second question will likely take significantly more time to answer, and Michigan would need a chance to respond to whatever findings may come.

The Big Ten is working with the NCAA to get information, a league source said, but Petitti is under pressure to act before the conclusion of that investigation. Any action he takes would set a precedent for the conference office and likely anger the Michigan athletic department.

Michigan president Santa Ono outlined the school’s position in an email to Petitti before Friday’s meeting with the commissioner. Ono urged Petitti to defer to the NCAA investigation and asserted Michigan’s right to respond before any discipline is imposed by the conference.

“The best course of action, the one far more likely to ascertain facts, is to await the results of the NCAA investigation,” Ono wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Athletic. “But if you refuse to let the NCAA investigative process play out, the Big Ten may not take any action against the University or its players or coaches without commencing its own investigation and offering us the opportunity to provide our position.”

Harbaugh said Saturday night that he was unable to comment on the investigation but he was “deeply appreciative” of Ono’s support. Manuel declined to comment when approached by reporters at Michigan’s postgame news conference.

“Y’all can keep asking me all the questions you want,” Manuel said. “I have no comment.”

The Wolverines are No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings and improved to 9-0 with Saturday’s 41-13 win against Purdue. The two biggest games on their schedule fall in the next three weeks, starting Saturday at Penn State and concluding against Ohio State on Nov. 25 in Ann Arbor.

Three more victories would put Michigan in position to win the Big Ten championship and return to the CFP for a third year in a row. Those accomplishments have been called into question amid evidence that Michigan obtained other team’s signals by breaking rules that prohibit in-person scouting. Harbaugh said his team would be galvanized by such criticism.

“The guys are such stalwarts,” Harbaugh said. “The comments keep coming about why they’re good, how they’re good. They’re just good.”

(Top photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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