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John U. Bacon: NCAA looks "increasingly silly"

Jim Harbaugh looks up to the scoreboard from the sideline at a game against Penn State.
Rick Scuteri/AP
FR157181 AP
Harbaugh is entering his ninth season as Michigan's Head Coach.

University of Michigan Football coach Jim Harbaugh is in a sort of disciplinary purgatory with college football’s administrators. He’s been under investigation for alleged recruiting violations. There was reportedly a deal he’d serve a four game suspension. But Saturday, part of the NCAA bureaucracy did not approve the deal.

It is unclear if a four-game suspension Michigan proposed to settle the disciplinary case will be accepted by the NCAA Committee on Infractions. A spokesperson from Michigan's Athletic Department said it couldn't discuss an ongoing investigation.

Michigan Radio Sports commentator John U. Bacon talked with Michigan Radio's Tyler Scott to explain the allegations against Harbaugh, and where things stand. 

TS: John, this one's getting kind of complicated all of a sudden.

JUB: It is. And there's really no need for it. But we'll talk about that.

TS: For those not keeping score at home, what is Harbaugh accused of doing wrong?

JUB: Four level two violations, which are essentially misdemeanors. These include holding practices with too many coaches. That is, having an analyst officially serve as a coach in the field for a couple practices. Contacting a recruit during the COVID-19 freeze, the blackout period, and holding unauthorized recordings of practices. And the last thing, of course, the most famous one is buying a cheeseburger for two recruits who have already signed with Michigan. But that's illegal. So those are for level two violations. Where the NCAA is trying to get Harbaugh is a level one violation — as being misleading initially about these four things.

TS: Yeah, if you're aware of this at all, you've heard about the cheeseburger thing. Those are part of the lesser alleged violations, that Harbaugh bought a recruit a cheeseburger he wasn't supposed to. Saturday, an NCAA official gave a statement to The Athletic that said this in part, quote, "The Michigan infractions case is related to impermissible on and off campus recruiting during the COVID dead period and impermissible coaching activities. Not a cheeseburger," end quote. John, how do you read a statement like that from the NCAA?

JUB: They're getting hammered in the court of public opinion, even by guys like Paul Finebaum, who runs the SEC show. I was on his show last week and he is no fan of Harbaugh's. He's no fan of Michigan's. But even he was appalled by this and took Michigan's side versus the NCAA. So they're getting hammered on this. And then the NCAA is disingenuous. They say it's not about the cheeseburgers, but it is. It's about four level two violations and the question is, did Harbaugh have a level one violation of being misleading about the misdemeanors or not? And even the media's saying, look, even if he was misleading about those four things, they've conceded it and they're still four very minor violations.... So the NCAA is looking increasingly silly in this process and they're trying to defend themselves. The catch to that is that they've given Harbaugh a gag order, which he has followed.... NCAA, meanwhile, is trying to do PR spin left and right to make themselves look not as silly.

TS: Michigan's football season starts in less than three weeks. As far as this disciplinary investigation, what are the possible outcomes now?

JUB: Almost anything. That's the stupid part. This has been going on almost two years, Tyler. These things are two years old. So anyway, they were going to give him a four game suspension this fall, which wouldn't have counted for a whole lot because the four games — you and I could have coached the team for those four games and won them all. It's East Carolina, it's UNLV, teams like this. But now it's been kicked down the road 'til January of 2024, and in which case anything could happen when a new group of NCAA people take a look at this. So who knows? I will say again, I'm not trying to defend violating the rules. The rules are the rules. And if Harbaugh was misleading about this, then he'll pay a price for that as well. But right now, the NCAA has so little power that they might not even be around — I'm not kidding you — in six months in a way to actually discipline anybody. So this feels like a last gasp.

TS: Why would the NCAA dissolve so quickly?

JUB: Not dissolve, but be feckless. When they came after Tennessee, the attorney general of the state of Tennessee said, if you dare give any of our coaches or players any game suspension, we will sue you and we will win. And the NCAA backed down. Bjork, the A.D. at Texas A&M said about the same thing from Texas A&M's point of view and the NCAA backed down. They have very little power these days.

TS: Is there any murmuring that the University of Michigan would consider legal action if this Harbaugh situation continues to get weird?

JUB: I would say almost zero chance. That's not how Michigan does it. It's not how the Big Ten does it in general. So that's very unlikely.

TS: And is there a presumption that Harbaugh then will be on the sidelines coaching full time?

JUB: Man, call me tomorrow. But as of right now, I think, I'd give it 90% he'll be on the sidelines this fall.

TS: And going down the road if there is a suspension, someday, Michigan markets itself as an institution of high standards. Leaders and the best, all that. If there was a suspension, would a black mark like that affect Harbaugh and the university in a meaningful way?

JUB: Good question. It probably depends on the beholder, I guess. Michigan's critics will certainly say get off your high horse. These are four level two violations, possibly a level one violation. Whenever you get a ticket of anything, you can't say you've never had any brushes with the law. So that affects that as well. But I think the vast majority of people are saying this is the NCAA trying to get you in a jaywalking call on its way out the door.

TS: You've mentioned before here on Michigan Radio that Harbaugh has been kind of frustrated by the NCAA's disciplinary tactics. Any chance he gets frustrated enough to call it quits on college football and try again to go back to the NFL?

JUB: Unlikely at this point. The frustration is over this case. It's been going on for two years. That was one of the catalysts, if not the catalyst, for him flirting with the NFL this last time around in January and February. So that is a factor there. And also, his contract has not been settled with the University of Michigan until this is settled. So that's a problem there as well.

TS: John U. Bacon is Michigan Radio's sports commentator and the author of several national bestsellers. His latest book is called The Greatest Comeback: How Team Canada Fought Back, took the Summit Series and Reinvented Hockey. John, thanks for talking once more.

JUB: Thank you, Tyler.

Editor's notes: Some quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.

The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's broadcast license.

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Public during the summer of 2023.
John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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