Michigan lawsuits try to block Jim Harbaugh’s suspension

Adam Rittenberg and Dan MurphyNov 11 2023, 12:04 AM ET5 minutes of reading

Wilbon ‘stunned’ by Harbaugh’s 3-game sideline ban

Michael Wilbon explains why he’s shocked the Big Ten is banning Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh from being on the sidelines until the end of the regular season.

Attorneys representing the University of Michigan and football coach Jim Harbaugh filed a breach-of-contract complaint Friday night, asking a state judge to prevent the Big Ten from imposing a suspension on Harbaugh this weekend.

Along with the initial complaint, Michigan and Harbaugh filed an additional motion asking for a temporary restraining order. They argued that keeping Harbaugh away from the No. 3-ranked Wolverines for Saturday’s top-10 game against Penn State would cause irreparable harm to the coach, players and university.

The two documents — each more than 20 pages long — were filed hours after Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti announced the conference suspended Harbaugh for the final three games of Michigan’s regular season for the football program violating the league’s athletic policy.

Michigan’s lawyers wrote that the Big Ten did not give Harbaugh or the school the due process protections outlined in its own rules. They said the interruption of a season in which the team could contend for a national championship “threatens the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for dozens of student-athletes and irreparable damage to the reputation of the university and Harbaugh.”

“This shoot first, ask questions later approach to sanctions is a flagrant violation of fundamental fairness,” they wrote.

Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Carol Kuhnke will rule on the restraining order, according to a source. To grant a temporary restraining order, Kuhnke must determine that Harbaugh and Michigan have a reasonable chance to prove that the Big Ten is breaking its own rules, and that the two parties would suffer “irreparable harm” without an immediate response from the court.

If the judge issues an injunction before Saturday’s noon start, both sides will then have a chance to argue their case at an injunction hearing sometime in the next 14 days. Michigan ends its regular season 14 days from Saturday with a home game against rival and No. 1 Ohio State.

Petitti said in a letter explaining the conference’s decision to suspend Harbaugh that he received ample evidence from the NCAA to prove that a Michigan employee — presumably Connor Stallions, who resigned from the team last week — orchestrated a plan to to steal the play – call signals about future opponents by paying several people to go on illegal personal scouting trips.

Michigan’s lawyers argued that Petitti’s actions violate the contract between the league and its members by using the sportsmanship policy to punish Harbaugh instead of waiting for the results of an open NCAA investigation into the scheme.

The Big Ten’s rules state that the sportsmanship policy may only be used to punish an individual “found to have committed an offensive act” or the institution responsible for that individual. Petitti said Friday that he was punishing the institution by removing its head coach from the field, not specifically punishing Harbaugh. Michigan’s attorneys argued that Harbaugh does not qualify as the institution and therefore should not be punished personally.

“Defendants’ conference actions were fraudulent, illegal, unethical, unjustified and per se wrongful and were done with malice for the wrongful purpose of causing the termination or termination of Plaintiff Harbaugh’s relationship and expectation,” they wrote.

The attorneys argued that this case meets the threshold for irreparable harm because of the reputational damage suffered by the school and the coach, saying it is “impossible to quantify the full extent of the significant harm that will befall the university without an injunction, but there is no doubt the university, its students and the community will suffer greatly.”

For Harbaugh, they continued, “No more dramatic blow could be dealt to his character and reputation than the permanent lifetime tag of ‘missing in action’ due to an alleged — but still unsubstantiated — cheating scandal.”

They suggested to the judge that the Big Ten itself would suffer no harm by waiting for the NCAA to complete its investigation before imposing appropriate sanctions. The lawyers said it would benefit the conference to ensure that a penalty is warranted, “especially in light of recent news reports that suggest the alleged conduct is more widespread than previously realized.”

Petitti wrote in his letter Friday that he felt action was needed to restore competitive fairness this season because they found Michigan violated the sportsmanship policy earlier this season.

Harbaugh flew to Penn State Friday afternoon and was with the team Friday night. Kuhnke could make a decision anytime between Friday night and Saturday’s kickoff.

If Harbaugh’s restraining order is not granted, a source told ESPN on Friday that a possible replacement as acting head coach in Happy Valley would be Mike Hart, the team’s running backs coach. Hart previously served as acting head coach during the second half of a win over UNLV in early September, while Harbaugh was suspended by the school due to a separate NCAA investigation into recruiting violations.

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