Last season, for only the second time in Jim Harbaugh’s 14-year career as a head football coach, his team took a significant step backward. After leading Michigan to 10-3 records his first two years at Michigan, the Wolverines dropped back to 8-5, capped by a bad loss in their bowl game.
Michigan had great defense, but sputtered on offense, mainly due to sub-par quarterbacks. Of course, when injuries force you to use your back-up, then your back-up’s back-up, that’s gonna happen.
Salvation came from an unlikely source: the University of Mississippi, whose star sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson decided to transfer to Michigan. If you think that sounds simple – college students transfer all the time, after all – you don’t know much about college athletics.
If you’re a college athlete, you can transfer – but only with the permission of your previous coach, for some reason. And you can’t compete at your new school until you’ve sat out one season. Because otherwise, the NCAA reasons, student-athletes would transfer from school to school whenever they thought they might find a better fit. In other words, they could do exactly what coaches do every season.
We can’t have that, of course, so it looked like Shea Patterson might have to sit out a season before he could play for Michigan. He had a wildcard, however, which he hoped to parlay into an exception to the rule.
The NCAA had just slapped his old school, Ole Miss, with serious sanctions, including three years’ probation, scholarship reductions, and no post-season play next year. So if Patterson stayed, he’d be in for a rough ride. Worse, Patterson claimed his coaches had lied to him when they told him they weren’t going to be in serious trouble, when they knew otherwise.
On that basis, Patterson appealed to the NCAA to waive the transfer rule, and allow him to play for Michigan this fall. This put the NCAA’s leaders in a tough spot, the kind they often get into because so many of their rules make no sense.
If they let Patterson play immediately, they feared it would establish a precedent for other players whose coaches lied to them – not a rarity. But if they refused Patterson’s appeal, they would once again be accused of punishing an innocent student-athlete to defend a thoroughly corrupt coach – because that’s exactly what they’d be doing.
Common sense and decency would seem to dictate that Patterson should be allowed to play this fall. But the NCAA does not function on common sense and decency. Likewise, Ole Miss’s leaders fought to defeat Patterson’s appeal, because they didn’t want to admit he was right.
To win this case, Patterson’s parents retained a big name lawyer from Arkansas who happened to be very familiar with Ole Miss athletics. He had represented their previous coach in a lawsuit against the school – and won. He lent his skill and expertise to Michigan’s compliance officers, who convinced the NCAA’s leaders to do the right thing, even if they didn’t want to.
Now Michigan’s future looks very different. Patterson is the real deal. Three years ago he was the nation’s top high school quarterback, and played very well for Ole Miss in a very tough conference. With Patterson, Michigan’s diabolically difficult schedule becomes manageable. They could get back to ten or even eleven wins this season, with more ahead.
This is a pivotal season for the Wolverines, but now they’ll be led by the most important transfer the program has ever seen.
John U. Bacon is the author of nine books. His latest is The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.