Trying to get inside Jim Harbaugh’s head would probably end up like one of those lab exercises where they put a mouse in a giant maze and see if it can find its way out. Not only is it impossible, the journey would be terrifying.
But Harbaugh may not be quite as slick or unpredictable as he’s been given credit for. In recent days, the man who enjoys saying nothing of substance is starting to show his cards.
What’s with all the sudden talk about him being ready to return to the NFL? Why put out a statement through the University of Michigan that he “expects” to remain there in 2023, albeit with the caveat that “nobody knows what the future holds?”
Well, a giant piece of that puzzle fell Thursday night when multiple outlets, led by The Athletic, reported that Michigan is under NCAA investigation for some potential violations during the 2020 COVID-19 dead period, and that Harbaugh in particular could be in some trouble to provide false or misleading information to NCAA enforcement personnel, considered a Level 1 (most serious) violation.
It remains to be seen how big a deal this will be. Michigan recently received its Notice of Allegations, which is the beginning of a process that will likely take months and months to resolve.
The underlying violations that form the basis of the case seem minor. Unauthorized contact with recruits and improper use of an analyst coaching on the field are not high crimes in the NCAA ecosystem. Sometimes these things happen. The best thing for schools to do is to combat any violations that occurred, accept a small penalty, and move on.
But if Harbaugh lied to NCAA investigators or wasn’t part of the interview process, a nothing case automatically becomes a big case. Whether you like or loathe the NCAA, its often ridiculous rules and its nonsensical enforcement process, the only real hammer it can wield is to catch a player, coach or administrator in a lie — even a minor one.
This kind of thing, for example, is what got basketball coach Bruce Pearl fired from Tennessee in 2011 and kicked out of college coaching for the next three years. It wasn’t because he had recruits over to his house to barbeque when they weren’t supposed to be there; it was his failure to admit it to NCAA investigators, who already had photographic evidence in hand and corroboration from one of those present.
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No one is suggesting Harbaugh is in that kind of danger. Rather the opposite, actually. School officials were well aware of the allegations against Harbaugh when Michigan’s official athletic department account tweeted his statement Thursday that he intended to return for the 2023 season along with the caption, “A Michigan man through and through.”
At the very least, it suggests the university is ready to stand with Harbaugh for what comes next, which could include some form of suspension if the Level 1 charge sticks. And why not? All he’s done in the last couple of years is beat Ohio State twice, win a couple of Big Ten titles and get the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff in consecutive years. At a school where things can go really bad really fast with the wrong guy in charge (see Hoke, Brady and Rodriguez, Rich), it would be absurd to think Michigan will do better if Harbaugh strikes.
And yet, it’s hard to think of many things that would be more personally embarrassing for Harbaugh than having the scarlet letter as an NCAA rule breaker. For all we know, that could be why he couldn’t bring himself to admit that Michigan might have cheated, even as small as it might have been.
The world has long moved on from taking the NCAA seriously or caring about its voluminous rulebook. Just consider how Harbaugh reacted in 2016 when both Nick Saban and Kirby Smart suggested Michigan was exploiting a loophole by setting up so-called “satellite camps” for recruiting throughout the Southeast.
“Unbelievable” to me – Alabama broke NCAA rules and now their HC is lecturing us about the possibility of rules being broken in clay. Truly “unbelievable,” Harbaugh tweeted, referring to a 2015 NCAA violation case that led to the firing of former assistant coach Bo Davis.
And a couple of months earlier, when Smart suggested the NCAA would “have to step in” because Michigan was setting up spring practice at IMG Academy, Harbaugh shot back: “If the Georgia coach suggests any intention on our part to break the rules, he barks up the wrong three.”
When you brand yourself as a white knight of amateurism, as Harbaugh and his Michigan Man minions have done time and time again throughout their college coaching careers, it won’t be pretty when the world suddenly sees that you’ve been doing business the same way. way like everyone else. That’s just how these things work.
And if you try to look at it the way Harbaugh can, why stick around to deal with that nonsense? Especially right now, having dutifully met every realistic goal expected of him to return to his alma mater. Michigan was a mess when he got there in 2015. It’s now a top-five program in the country. If his term ends now, it will be a smashing success.
But it would be a shame for the sport if it comes to that. Harbaugh may be a creature of the NFL, and his desire to hoist a Super Bowl trophy may be the greatest of all his professional goals, but at the end of the day, he’s just another good coach in that league. At Michigan, he’s a superstar whose quirk adds to the rich tapestry of what makes college football fun and unique.
Unless there is more to the NCAA investigation than has been reported so far, it would only be a blip in Harbaugh’s tenure if he stays. Make the necessary mea culpas, accept the penalties and figure out how to beat Ohio State one more time.
But if Harbaugh really wants to run back into the arms of the NFL and take another shot at a Super Bowl, he now has his excuse ready. That would be the easiest thing, certainly the more lucrative thing. It might even make the most sense.
Who knows how it will play out at this point. Trying to guess—with Jim Harbaugh, of all people—is a maze with no exit in sight.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken