U of M and Jim Harbaugh are under investigation by the NCAA. Image: Getty Images
Less than a week after the Michigan Wolverines were eliminated from the college football playoffs, the NCAA issued a notice of allegations to the university. This document consists of five alleged rule violations affecting the university’s football program and head coach Jim Harbaugh in particular.
Four of the five violations are Level II violations, which are not considered very serious. The precedent for penalizing Level II violations is rather light. In 2017, the University of Virginia was reprimanded for a self-reported Level II recruiting violation from the previous year. The breach reportedly revolved around assistant coaches taking photos with prospects. Virginia was fined just $5,000 for this violation, but was ordered to reduce off-campus contacts from six to four and spring 2017 exams from 168 to 150.
In Michigan’s case, the Level II violations outline contact with two potential athletes during the COVID-19 death period, as well as a self-reported violation for improper use of an analyst for on-field direction. As I said earlier, these are considered minor violations.
The most serious allegation concerns Jim Harbaugh
Level I violations, on the other hand, are taken very seriously and can result in a variety of penalties from the NCAA. While not every Level II violation can be individually considered serious, collective Level II violations can be considered a Level I violation. Since the trial phase begins after Michigan received notification of the allegations, it seems unlikely that they would suffer a second Level I violation under the circumstances, but that’s still a possibility.
Michigan’s Level I violation involves Harbaugh allegedly providing false or misleading information to NCAA investigators investigating one of the Level II violations listed above. If Harbaugh had simply complied with the investigation and allowed Michigan to commit the various Level II violations, the university would not have faced serious consequences.
What kind of penalty might Michigan face?
The NCAA’s penalty system deems a postseason suspension of 1-2 years acceptable for a Level I violation. However, a serious Tier I violation can result in a 2-4 year post-season ban. What counts as “aggravating,” you ask? Well, one of the complicating factors is whether the accused party “compromised the integrity of the investigation” and/or failed to cooperate with it. Providing false information to investigators appears to fall within this distinction.
In 2019, the University of Arizona was hit with five Tier I violations, including unethical recruiting practices, and in one case, former assistant coach Mark Phelps asked an Arizona player to start a text thread regarding a 500 he had granted and then lied to -Dollar loan delete investigators about it, among many more. In response, the university itself imposed a one-year postseason ban. After extensive deliberation within the framework of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), a one-year ban was deemed sufficient. Though the university has also suffered several other penalties, including cutting available scholarships and a two-week ban on attending official men’s basketball prospects, the damage has been more or less mitigated. While we can’t be sure what penalties Michigan will face, similar recruitment restrictions, as well as a postseason ban or suspension, are likely on the table.
Should Harbaugh be found guilty of this Level I violation, Harbaugh would be open to termination from Michigan. His contract with the school allows them to fire him “for cause” if he commits a Level I or II violation.
Harbaugh has expressed interest in returning to Michigan after his second straight trip to the 2023 College Football Playoffs. However, Harbaugh is also a popular name amidst NFL head coaching rumors. A Level I violation could see Harbaugh taking an NFL job he wouldn’t otherwise have. After all, reports suggest Harbaugh would take an NFL job if offered one.
While a Level I infraction can be serious, it also might not be a deal-breaker for Michigan, provided it chooses to remain at the university. Harbaugh is unlikely to be given a show-cause penalty like former Arizona men’s basketball assistant coaches Book Richardson and Mark Phelps were in 2019. Although the university may receive a Level I “lack of institutional control” violation, it is still possible in the event that the school and Harbaugh agree to undisclosed disciplinary actions separate from NCAA consequences. If that were the case, Michigan would likely choose not to fire Harbaugh.