Michigan has issued a response to the Big Ten’s notification of potential disciplinary action amid the NCAA’s ongoing probe into allegations of illegal sign-stealing. The 10-page letter, obtained by Yahoo Sports, contends that discipline from the Big Ten would constitute a “breach” of the conference’s handbook and that any specific punishment directed at coach Jim Harbaugh “would exceed the commissioner’s authority under the Sportsmanship Policy.”
Michigan’s rebuttal also includes documents and provides pictures of team signs that were allegedly stolen and shared by other Big Ten schools. Any disciplinary action, the letter states, would be disproportionate given this evidence. It was reported on Nov. 7 that Michigan submitted evidence to the Big Ten accusing Ohio State, Rutgers and Purdue of sharing information about the Wolverines’ signs in advance of the 2022 Big Ten Championship Game, in which Michigan defeated Purdue.
“The conference should act cautiously when setting precedent given the reality thatt in-person scouting, collusion among opponents, and other questionable practices may well be far more prevalent than believed,” a portion of the rebuttal read, according to Yahoo Sports.
Michigan’s claims about Stalions
The NCAA’s probe into illegal sign-stealing by Michigan centers around Connor Stalions, a former low-level Wolverines staffer who allegedly spearheaded a scheme that involved purchasing tickets to more than 30 games involving Michigan’s Big Ten or potential postseason opponents in order to decode play-call signals. Such activity is considered advanced scouting, which NCAA rules prohibit. Sign-stealing itself, while frowned upon within the college football community, does not fall under that umbrella.
Stalions was suspended by the university on Oct. 20 and resigned from the Wolverines staff on Nov. 3. Findings from the NCAA’s investigation were shared with the Big Ten this week.
According to a portion of the rebuttal letter obtained by Yahoo, the university contends that no other coaches were involved in Stalions’ alleged sign stealing scheme. They also claim Stalions’ lower station on the staff prevented him from impacting on any on-field results.
“It is highly dubious that a junior analyst’s observations about the other side’s signals would have had a material effect on the integrity of competition – particularly when, according to present evidence, the other coaches did not know,” the letter read.
Letter from Harbaugh’s attorney
The Big Ten additionally received an eight-page letter from attorney Tom Mars, who represents Harbaugh, that argued in greater detail why the conference does not have the authority to punish the Michigan coach. The letter, obtained by Yahoo, alleges insufficient evidence and a lack of due process. Like the university, Harbaugh’s attorneys also challenged the conference’s ability to dole out punishment on the matter.
The university and Harbaugh are expected to take legal action against the Big Ten if a penalty is levied directly against Harbaugh, according to Dodd. Harbaugh already served a school-imposed suspension during the first three games of the 2023 season for alleged dishonesty with NCAA investigators during a separate probe into potential infractions committed by Michigan during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michigan has also received support from a handful of state legislators who penned a letter to Petitti on Wednesday, urging for due process to play out and cautioning against any premature disciplinary action from the conference against the Wolverines.
The NCAA would seemingly have more authority to issue a punishment against Harbaugh, regardless of his direct involvement in the alleged activity. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd notes that a recent change in the language of NCAA Bylaw 188.8.131.52 holds head coaches responsible for actions of all institutional staff members. Although Harbaugh has denied having any knowledge of illegal sign-stealing by Michigan, that would be a moot point based on that language.
Michigan, 9-0 and No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, travels to No. 11 Penn State in Week 11. The Wolverines, who are in their ninth season under Harbaugh, are seeking a third-consecutive Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff berth.