Michigan Rescinds Contract Offer to Coach Jim Harbaugh After Sign-Stealing Allegations

From a Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Beaton and Rachel Bachman headlined “Michigan Rescinded Contract Offer to Jim Harbaugh After Sign-Stealing Allegations”:

The University of Michigan has rescinded a new contract offer for head football coach Jim Harbaugh in the wake of a sign-stealing scandal that has rocked one of the favorites to play for college football’s national championship, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The move is the first sign that the school may be hesitant about its future relationship with the famed coach who revived its football program and is frequently cited as a candidate for jobs in the National Football League. Harbaugh’s pay had been cut during the pandemic, but he was given a new contract just last year after bringing the team back to national prominence.

The Wolverines’ title chase this year put him in line for another raise. Michigan recently had made an offer that would have made Harbaugh the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten, before the school pulled it once the sign-stealing allegations rocked the school, the person said.

A spokesman for the athletic department said the school, athletic department and personnel—which would include Harbaugh—don’t comment on employment contracts until they are completed and fully executed.

The NCAA is investigating whether Michigan executed a scheme to illegally steal opponents’ play-calling signs. On Oct. 20, Michigan suspended a football staff member named Connor Stalions after a report that the NCAA was investigating the school for allegedly violating rules that ban teams from in-person scouting of future opponents.

The university’s pullback from contract negotiations casts doubt on Harbaugh’s future at Michigan, even as he has led the Wolverines to an 8-0 record, a No. 2 ranking and favorite status at sportsbooks to win a national championship.

Harbaugh, 59, returned to his alma mater in 2015 with great fanfare. The coach, who had played as a quarterback at Michigan, had thrived while leading teams both in college and the NFL and was hailed as the great hope to restore the once-powerful program. Michigan’s last national title came in 1997, when the Wolverines were crowned champion in the AP Poll while Nebraska won the coaches’ poll. Harbaugh got closer than ever in recent seasons when he led Michigan to back-to-back berths in the College Football Playoff.

That run of success has included consecutive wins over nemesis Ohio State, which had won eight games in a row in the rivalry. The school’s offer of a new contract this fall meant it was willing to stick by the coach even after he faced potential discipline by the NCAA in connection with alleged recruiting violations.

Everything changed, though, when Michigan football faced yet another firestorm. After the sign-stealing allegations broke, Harbaugh said in a statement: “I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed staff members or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment.”

Subsequent media reports alleged that Stalions bought tickets to more than 30 games of Michigan’s future opponents over the past three years. ESPN also reported that there was evidence that at one game, someone sitting in the seat bought by Stalions held his smartphone up and appeared to film the home team’s sideline the entire game. NCAA rules prohibit any attempts to record the signals opponents use to communicate plays. Stalions hasn’t commented on the allegations.

Even before the sign-stealing allegations caused an uproar in the college football world, Harbaugh had been under fire. The NCAA already had been investigating him for alleged recruiting violations in 2021, leading to Michigan self-imposing a three-game suspension on the coach to start this season. The case remains open in part because the NCAA and the school couldn’t agree on a negotiated resolution.

It isn’t clear when the situation will be resolved, but given the typical NCAA process, it could be next year.

Both the recruiting and sign-stealing allegations could be problematic for Harbaugh under an NCAA rule that says a head coach is “presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach.” A violation of that rule can be a Level I infraction, according to the NCAA, the most serious kind.

The most severe penalty for a coach, for repeat or aggravated violations, can include suspension from coaching at his current and any other NCAA school for a period of time.

Harbaugh is at the pinnacle of his college coaching career, having led Michigan to a 33-3 record in the past 2½ seasons, including two consecutive Big Ten Conference titles. He is in his ninth season as head coach at Michigan, where he was a star in the 1980s under legendary coach Bo Schembechler.

In 2020, however, Harbaugh was at a low point. After Michigan struggled to a 2-4 record during the pandemic-shortened season, he agreed to a halving of his base salary to $4 million.

The contract was laden with incentives, however, and the Wolverines’ strong 2021 season earned Harbaugh $2 million in bonuses. He said he and his wife planned to donate the money to athletic-department employees whose salaries were reduced in the financial crunch of the pandemic.

In early 2022, Harbaugh agreed to a five-year, $36.7 million deal that would keep him at Michigan through 2026.

His performance that season—when Michigan went 13-1—and so far in this one put him in position for another raise. Harbaugh ranks 12th in the nation with roughly $8.2 million a year in total pay, according to a USA Today database. Alabama’s Nick Saban tops the list with $11.4 million, and three Big Ten coaches rank above Harbaugh.

A combination of factors—his salary, his past success coaching the San Francisco 49ers and his run-ins with the NCAA—had previously led to questions about just how long Harbaugh would stay at Michigan. In recent offseasons, he has interviewed for NFL coaching gigs before ultimately staying at Michigan.

The pause on his raise in recent weeks, parallel to the additional scrutiny in the sign-stealing investigation, is likely only to increase the speculation that Harbaugh may decamp for the professional game before the NCAA makes its ruling. In the meantime, Harbaugh has Michigan marching toward yet another College Football Playoff appearance.

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