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What Jim Harbaugh leaving Michigan means for NCAA investigations as Sherrone Moore takes over as coach

Michigan has named Sherrone Moore as the successor to Jim Harbaugh, answering the biggest question lingering over the future of Wolverines football. Moore’s promotion from offensive coordinator comes after he went 4-0 as acting head coach in the 2023 regular season, first serving as one of a rotating cast of interim coaches and then getting the nod for the final three games as Harbaugh served a Big Ten-imposed suspension. He played a huge role in establishing Michigan’s identity for its championship run as offensive line coach, and now Moore takes the helm at a point where the Wolverines’ stock is as high as it’s been at any point in the 21st Century coming off its first national title win since 1997. 

Moore also takes the helm as the program is still in the midst of two NCAA investigations. According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, these ongoing probes are a big reason why Harbaugh’s contract negotiations with Michigan included immunity from being terminated in the event he faces major NCAA violations.  

Harbaugh’s gone now, however. Moore has already served a one-game suspension as part of Michigan’s self-imposed penalties for the first investigation, but there could be more penalties from that case that he will now have to deal with as head coach. There is also the potential for the NCAA’s second case, the sign-stealing scandal, to reach Moore’s doorstep as the enforcement department tries to determine how many — if any at all — Michigan coaches were aware of Connor Stalions’ prohibited in-person scouting scheme. 

Either way, Moore, now as head coach, will have to lead Michigan through whatever punishments or penalties come from the NCAA as a result of these two ongoing investigations. So what can we expect, and when will we see a resolution for the Wolverines? 

Two NCAA cases on different timelines

Michigan received a formal notice of allegations for the first case on Dec. 20, 2023. The program was charged with four Level II violations for illicit recruiting and coaching during the COVID-19 dead period, and Harbaugh faces a Level I violation for misleading investigators. The school self-imposed a three-game suspension for Harbaugh at the beginning of the season as well as a one-game suspension for Moore to try and mitigate the fallout from any potential penalties, but the NCAA Committee on Infractions rejected a negotiated resolution proposal. That means the case will go through the NCAA’s judicial process.

Then there’s a second — and much more controversial — investigation tied to prohibited off-campus scouting and sign-stealing. The NCAA has yet to issue an official notice of allegations, though reports surrounding the scandal suggests that that more violations are coming. 

Among those potential infractions is a Level I violation for Harbaugh under coach responsibility provision, which was updated in January 2023. The updated interpretation holds a head coach accountable for any actions of his/her staff that lead to Level I violations. That updated coach responsibility provision reportedly played a big role in why Harbaugh’s agent requested to update the language of his contract with Michigan. So if Connor Stalions — the staff member who allegedly guided the prohibited scouting operation — or any other assistant coach is charged with a Level I violation, Harbaugh could be held accountable as well.  

Harbaugh sitting the final three games of the 2023 regular season — wins against Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State — was the result of punishment from the Big Ten for a violation of its sportsmanship policy. Michigan could argue the suspension serves as a mitigating factor in the case, but officially, it is the three-game suspension at the beginning of the season, not the end, that’s tied to NCAA issues. 

Potential penalties for Harbaugh

Individually, each of these investigations could have resulted in another suspension for Harbaugh in the 2024 season under the coach responsibility provision. But stacked on top of each other, the NCAA could have charged Harbaugh as a repeat offender, which is an additional Level I violation. Multiple Level I violations for a head coach have, in the past, led to the NCAA issuing a “show-cause” punishment. 

The show-cause greatly restricts an individual’s ability to coach at an NCAA institution for a set period of time, requiring that school to “show cause” for employing an individual with a history of violations by making them agree to NCAA punishments. When the NCAA handed down repercussions in Tennessee’s recruiting violations case, former coach Jeremy Pruitt received a six-year show-cause that triggered a mandatory a one-year suspension should he be hired before the show-cause expires. A show-cause does not prevent a coach from returning to an NCAA school eventually; Houston men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson (five years), Auburn men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl (three years) and UCLA football coach Chip Kelly (18 months) all spent time away from college coaching during a show-cause period. 

Kelly’s case most resembles what could be in store for Harbaugh. The penalties the NCAA could reasonably hand down would likely end up running their course all during his time in the NFL, similar to how Kelly’s show-cause expired while he was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles and San Fransisco 49ers. 

If Harbaugh were still at Michigan when he received a show-cause penalty or suspension that extended through an entire season, the school would have been forced to decide whether it was comfortable trying to navigate an extended period of time with an interim coach leading the way. Harbaugh staying with Michigan might not have created additional exposure as much as an awkward environment where university leadership had to stand behind a national championship-winning coach who was prevented from coaching due to NCAA violations. 

Harbaugh leaving for the NFL, it seems, saved Michigan from making some of those tough choices. But it has not saved the Wolverines from facing punishments in both NCAA cases. 

What Michigan can expect 

Well aware of the specifics around the Level II recruiting and coaching violations from the first investigation, Michigan will not be caught off-guard by the results of the judicial process. With self-imposed penalties already in place, that case presents no real challenge to the legacy of the Wolverines’ recent success. 

But there are a lot of questions to answer for the prohibited in-person scouting and sign-stealing investigation. Will the NCAA be able to connect the alleged scheme to other members of the Michigan staff? Will any of those staff members still be employed by the Wolverines when the NCAA issues a notice of allegations? 

We already saw one wave of staff shake-ups with Stalions’ resignation and linebackers coach Chris Partridge’s firing two weeks later. Though the school didn’t comment on the move or release any details, the timing of Partridge’s firing fell in line with Michigan backing down from its legal challenge to Harbaugh’s late-season three-game suspension. Partridge vigorously denied reports of foul play on his part, but officially he can be counted as another casualty of the scandal. 

According to ESPN, the Big Ten’s decision to move forward with punishment for Harbaugh under the sportsmanship policy came in part from “information gleaned in NCAA interviews.” Michigan’s change in tone from defiance to acceptance was not an admission of guilt, but it implied the NCAA’s case had enough evidence to be taken seriously.

Sending a staff member to attend home games of future opponents for the purposes of scouting and sign stealing is against NCAA rules. It is sensible to expect violations and punishments to come from the case, but Michigan can take some comfort in two things: First, many potentially connected to the scheme will be somewhere else. Second, the NCAA’s approach on how punishments impact current players has softened in recent years. 

Postseason bans have been less frequent, eliminating the shameful situation of current athletes — sometimes in the midst of a season — paying the price for a scandal that occurred before their arrival at the school. The coaching staff may have to deal with a few less scholarships or restricted days for recruiting and scouting, but the punishment is not likely to be a heavy tax on the current or future Wolverines. 

The biggest X-factor here is vacated wins. It is impossible for us to know the extent of the evidence until the notice of allegations is released, but Michigan will likely do as much as it can to prevent a sullying of their championship run in the record books. 

Michigan should (and likely will) provide its case that whatever edge it gained from the prohibited scouting was not significant enough to put results in doubt, pointing to late-season, post-scandal success in 2023 against the toughest teams on its schedule. That seems like a fair argument, but what matters is whether it is enough for the NCAA, which might not be able to punish Harbaugh in the NFL but still can issue a crushing blow to the Wolverines in the record books. 

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