Jim Harbaugh's suspension bombshell a fitting backdrop for Big Ten Media Days
INDIANAPOLIS — From an academic and cultural perspective, the University of Michigan is the closest thing Northwestern University has to true a brother-in-arms within the Big Ten.
And, oh brother, did that brother ever come through in a big way on the eve of Big Ten Media Days.
With the heat coming down on Northwestern as the program’s hazing issue continues to reveal more threads, the Wildcats are heading into this event under the microscope — so much so that the 3 players scheduled to speak with reporters on Wednesday elected not to leave Evanston.
A statement from our student-athlete representatives regarding Big Ten Media Day: pic.twitter.com/er6vCO3iRH
— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) July 25, 2023
Who could blame them?
Northwestern was going to send players to speak to the media about the scandal and the firing of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald before athletic director Derrick Gragg, who has yet to take a single question about the matter.
Truly unreal. And yet another indicator that Gragg may be in way over his head for a situation of this depth. Perhaps he would have done just fine at a school without a scandal and lawsuits unfolding, but unfortunately those aren’t the cards he drew.
Improbably, Northwestern is no longer the top story heading into Media Days. At the very least, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh now shares the spotlight.
On Tuesday afternoon, Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger reported that Harbaugh will likely serve a 4-game suspension to begin the upcoming season. The offense? Harbaugh lied to NCAA investigators about a benign set of recruiting violations. (In theory, it could get worse — it’s a negotiated resolution that is now in the hands of the NCAA’s infractions committee, which could always reject the offer.)
While there’s no comparing the respective allegations — there’s way more than a fine line between uninvited simulated sex acts and lying about hamburgers — the penalty and Michigan’s prominence are putting the situation front and center at Big Ten Media Days.
Even though it’s a momentary distraction from Northwestern’s bigger issue, Michigan’s bizarre offseason is again a major talking point.
Michigan’s unexpected turnover and turmoil
Michigan is favored to win the Big Ten for the third straight year and expected to contend for a national championship for the first time since 1997.
There’s good reason for this.
Few teams across the country have as much production returning as the Wolverines do this season — in any given year. If it’s a key position, Michigan pretty much has a starter coming back. And the few holes in the roster are being filled by savvy pickups of veteran transfers.
The coaching staff, on the other hand, has had an offseason of unexpected turmoil.
In January, quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was fired after being named in a criminal investigation into hacking into university e-mail accounts — among the strangest reasons ever for a significant staff change.
And now Weiss isn’t the only member of last year’s Michigan’s staff who won’t be in attendance for the season opener. Harbaugh is expected to miss the East Carolina game as well as the 3 that follow.
Fortunately for Michigan, all of those games are at home. And the opponents are UNLV, Bowling Green and Rutgers. Even Rich Rodriguez would struggle to lose a game with that slate.
Yahoo’s report indicates that offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore and tight ends coach Grant Newsome will also be sanctioned. The severity of their penalties is not yet known.
Former defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has a 1-year NCAA show-cause penalty, though that’s less than a slap on the wrist since he works for the Baltimore Ravens now.
A survivable suspension
This chaos likely won’t derail Michigan’s long-term goals for 2023. Fittingly, their most hated rival is proof.
In 2018, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was suspended 3 games for his handling of domestic violence allegations against his wide receivers coach. The Buckeyes had a far tougher slate — Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU — and still started 3-0. Only a stunning 49-20 loss at Purdue in Meyer’s fifth game back kept Ohio State from the College Football Playoff.
That Harbaugh’s behavior comes at a heavier cost than Meyer’s is a whole different can of worms. What’s relevant to the current season is how avoidable this situation was. Harbaugh could have admitted to making a mistake that likely would have come with little penalty and no conversation.
Instead, he bizarrely chose to dig his heels in and double down. Which means we’re talking about his pending suspension this week rather than the players he so adamantly prefers the media to focus on in postgame interviews.
That’s a shame for Michigan. And it’s a heck of an assist for Northwestern. Perhaps Gragg should send Harbaugh a gift basket for his month off.