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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

John U. Bacon: Michigan and Harbaugh accept Big Ten suspension, but questions remain

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and the University of Michigan reached an agreement with the Big Ten on Thursday. Harbaugh will serve a three-game suspension as punishment for a sign-stealing scheme.
Abbie Parr
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh (left) and the University of Michigan reached an agreement with the Big Ten on Thursday. Harbaugh will accept a three-game suspension related to an alleged sign-stealing scheme. U of M and Harbaugh have dropped their legal challenge against the conference.

Jim Harbaugh and the University of Michigan have ended their legal battle to block Harbaugh's suspension. The Big Ten conference issued that punishment last week in response to the sign-stealing scandal at U of M.

A court hearing had been scheduled for Friday in Washtenaw County. Harbaugh already missed last weekend's game against Penn State. He'll now be out for games against Maryland and Ohio State.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to discuss U of M's decision to accept the suspension.

Saturday's games: Michigan at Maryland - Noon (Fox Sports)
Michigan State at Indiana - Noon (Big Ten Network)

Doug Tribou: Michigan and the Big Ten reached an agreement to end their legal dispute Thursday. Now Michigan is accepting the three-game suspension that it seemed so ready to fight.

U of M hasn’t discussed its reasoning, but in a statement said, “the Conference has confirmed that it is not aware of any information suggesting Coach Harbaugh’s involvement in the allegations.” What do you make of Michigan’s changing its position?

"My very strong hunch here is Michigan has determined that its position is weaker than it had originally thought."
John U. Bacon on Michigan's decision to accept the Big Ten's three-game suspension for football coach Jim Harbaugh.

John U. Bacon: Well, not good for Michigan is what my take is. It's being portrayed as a win-win. And yes, Michigan gets a guaranteed three-game suspension versus, [what] could be four or five. And the investigation ends, so there's some finality to it.

A week ago, that 10-page letter [U of M] sent was strong, forceful, unequivocal. And then you basically accept the Big Ten's suspension. So my very strong hunch here is Michigan has determined that its position is weaker than it had originally thought.

DT: With all that’s happened this fall, it feels like ages ago, but this is Harbaugh’s second three-game suspension of the season. U of M suspended him for the first three games after allegations of recruiting violations and some other violations that the NCAA is investigating. By the end of this second suspension, he will have coached six games and sat out six. How much damage could this do to U of M’s football program long-term?

JUB: Great question. And we don't, of course, know yet. I would say that the suspensions themselves don't necessarily harm Michigan all that much. The question will be the why. In the first case, it's about cheeseburgers and other very low-level, Level 2 offenses, even by the NCAA's reckoning. But [the sign-stealing investigation] could be more serious.

DT: I want to pull back and talk about some of the institutional structures that are on display here. The NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, is conducting its own investigation of the sign-stealing allegations. And the NCAA rarely moves quickly on big investigations, so any final report or actions are likely to happen after the end of this season. But this latest news is about the Big Ten’s punishment for Harbaugh. The conference has its own authority to take some actions.

And this is one of the unusual things about college sports: you’ve got more than one organization with authority and there can be times when they're not in sync. Could you describe the power dynamic between the major football conferences and the NCAA and how it’s at play here?

"Michigan won't lose too much with Harbaugh not being on the sideline versus Maryland. But versus Ohio State next week, I think that's a real deficit."
John U. Bacon on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's latest three-game suspension

JUB: Oh, Doug, you ask a lot, don't you? [Laughs] I'll do my best. In the NFL, you've got the NFL and that's all there is to it. Your divisions in the NFL - NFC Central and West and so on - cannot mete out separate punishments.

In college football, however, the NCAA is kind of tantamount to your school district. And the conferences - the Big Ten, the ACC and so on - are like your five high schools. So your high school can give you detention. And then, of course, the district can expel you. That's kind of what's happening here. The Big Ten has given Michigan detention and now we're waiting to see what the NCAA will do, which will be on a higher level.

DT: Well, John, there will be football played Saturday, regardless. [Laughs] The Wolverines will be on the road against Maryland. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore will be acting head coach again this weekend. We saw Michigan take a grind-it-out, run-heavy approach against Penn State. Do you expect more of that this weekend?

JUB: No, I do not. Maryland's a decent team. They're not bad. They're not Penn State and they're certainly not Ohio State. So J.J. McCarthy, the quarterback, will be allowed to throw in this game. He did not for 32 straight plays in the second half of the game against Penn State. Also it should be noted, by the way, Michigan won't lose too much with Harbaugh not being on the sideline versus Maryland. But versus Ohio State next week, I think that's a real deficit.

DT: Also on the football schedule this weekend, Michigan State will be on the road against Indiana Saturday. Both teams are 3-7 on the season. And in the NFL, the Lions will be looking for their eighth win of the season when they host the Chicago Bears Sunday afternoon at Ford Field.

John, thanks a lot. Have a good weekend.

JUB: Doug, thank you.

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

Editor's Note: The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's broadcast license.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Radio staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Radio during the summer of 2023.
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