We still don’t know, officially, where the information about Connor Stalions’ sign-stealing operation came from, or how the evidence was discovered. But what we do know is it was leaked very strategically to the media, after the program won back-to-back Big Ten titles, before the most important games of the season, and while U of M was reportedly discussing an extension with Harbaugh.
And we know that as soon as the information was leaked, a group of Big Ten coaches were aligned in their demands for the conference to take action against Harbaugh, even though the NCAA and Big Ten have both openly admitted that they have yet to find evidence linking him to the operation.
The leaks were enough to keep Harbaugh off the sidelines for Michigan’s game at Penn State, and that punishment might extend through the rest of this regular season.
But if the goal was to get rid of Harbaugh for good, again, the plan might have backfired.
It’s no secret Michigan has had to fight to retain Harbaugh throughout his nine-year stint in Ann Arbor. He’s been linked to dozens of NFL openings, and he nearly took a job or two along the way.
Many have speculated that this season could be Harbaugh’s last in Ann Arbor. J.J. McCarthy, Blake Corum, Roman Wilson, Kris Jenkins, Jaylen Harrell, Trevor Keegan, Zak Zinter, and a host of others will likely move on to the NFL, and Harbaugh has already achieved his goal of returning the program to prominence.
With the win over Penn State, Michigan is 33-1 in the regular season since the start of 2021. The Wolverines won conference titles in 2021 and 2022, and appeared in the College Football Playoff both times.
Ohio State was once a hurdle that felt insurmountable, but Michigan has won the past two meetings by a combined score of 87-50.
If Harbaugh packed his bags after this season, he would go down as one of the top coaches in program history. Maybe the best of them all, considering what he inherited.
About a month ago, rumblings began about Michigan discussing an extension that would make Harbaugh the highest-paid head coach in the Big Ten. He even acknowledged his contract situation during a press conference, which is unusual.
That’s right when information about Stalions’ rule violations emerged, and it felt like a wrench had been thrown into Michigan’s long-term plans. How could the university extend Harbaugh amid these new allegations, especially since the separate NCAA investigation that resulted in his earlier suspension remains unresolved?
Each day, the national media reported new details about the operation. Michigan became (and still is) the most hated team in the country. Every show begins with the latest in the sign-stealing story. Every fan base thinks Harbaugh should be banned. Every poster board on every pregame shows says, “Please don’t steal my sign.”
Whoever leaked the information about Stalions must have been feeling pretty proud of themselves. But then something funny happened.
Everybody at Michigan came together.
Take a look back at what Harbaugh said in October, when he was asked about a possible contract extension:
“You want to be somewhere where you’re wanted, you know, where they like what you do and how you do it, and then they tell you that -- your bosses tell you that, and then that gets reflected in a contract,” Harbaugh said. “Bottom line, any of us, right, you want to be somewhere where they like how you do it, and what you do.”
That’s tricky, because it’s easy for Michigan officials to say all the right things now that the team is regularly competing for championships. But actions speak louder than words, and when Michigan struggled during the COVID season, Harbaugh was forced to take a pay cut to remain the head coach. That was an action that had to sting, and one that probably strained his relationship with his boss, athletic director Warde Manuel.
Well, you know what the sign-stealing scandal has done? It’s given Michigan another chance to prove its commitment to Harbaugh -- through action.
The University of Michigan is not an institution known for valuing sports above all else. As a matter of fact, academics and reputation have often gotten in the way of the football program. The university’s strict transfer policy, admissions standards, and hesitance to fully buy into NIL has made Harbaugh’s job more difficult.
Never before have I seen the university and athletic department as aligned as they are right now in their defense of Harbaugh. The unity is so strong that the board of regents was willing to list itself as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Big Ten over Harbaugh’s suspension.
That never would have happened 10 years ago. Or even five.
U of M President Santa Ono has been an outspoken advocate of Harbaugh throughout the process. He defended Harbaugh when the allegations first came out, and he continues to do so during the suspension.
Has Harbaugh noticed? When asked about it after Michigan’s win over Purdue, Harbaugh said simply, “It’s deeply appreciated.” I’m guessing the sentiment is even deeper now.
Then, on Saturday, after a judge didn’t rule on Michigan’s temporary restraining order in time for Harbaugh to coach against Penn State, Manuel got his chance to stand up for his coach.
And he did so. Emphatically.
“You may have removed him from our sidelines today, but Jim Harbaugh is our head football coach,” Manuel said, in part. “We look forward to defending Jim’s right to coach our football team at the hearing on Friday. He has instilled his pride, passion, and the team’s belief in themselves to achieve greatness. I will continue to support Jim throughout this process, my coaches and staff, and especially our student-athletes as we continue to play this game and fight to win for Michigan and all who love us.”
They say you find out who your true friends are during times of adversity. Harbaugh probably felt spurned by the university after the COVID season. But now, he’s receiving an overwhelming display of support.
As the criticism against Michigan mounts, the team and fan base have united under the “Michigan vs. Everybody” mentality.
During the Michigan hockey game against Minnesota on Friday night, just hours after Harbaugh’s suspension was announced, five separate “Free Jim Harbaugh” chants rang through Yost Ice Arena.
After Michigan’s 24-15 over Penn State, acting head coach Sherrone Moore fought back tears during his postgame interview on Fox.
“I want to thank the Lord, and I want to thank Coach Harbaugh,” Moore said. “I f------ love you, man. I love the s--- out of you, man. This is for you, for this university, the president, our AD. We’ve got the best players, best university, best alumni in the country. Love you guys.”
Millions of people rolled their eyes. Scoffed. Laughed. But I doubt Harbaugh was laughing.
We don’t yet know the full scope of the sign-stealing operation, or how many people were involved. Maybe, as this process plays out in court, more evidence will emerge that implicates Harbaugh or someone else on his staff. Maybe the penalties against Michigan will be severe, and a coaching change will be unavoidable.
But for now, we don’t know what the future of the investigation holds. What we do know, is while the rest of the world was demanding blood, Harbaugh watched Ono, Manuel, the regents, Moore, and his entire team stand by his side.
If that doesn’t show him that he’s wanted, I’m not sure what will.
The sign-stealing case has done irreparable damage to Michigan’s public image, and there will be rival fans who never let it go.
But if there’s one silver lining, it’s that Michigan got a chance to prove to its championship-caliber coach that he’s valued. And maybe, just maybe, that’ll be enough to keep him in Ann Arbor for many more years to come.