Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh agrees to complete suspension as Big Ten ends sign-stealing investigation in settlement

AP photo by Abbie Parr / Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh signals for a touchdown while looking at the replay board during an Oct. 7 game at Minnesota.
AP photo by Abbie Parr / Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh signals for a touchdown while looking at the replay board during an Oct. 7 game at Minnesota.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The University of Michigan said coach Jim Harbaugh will serve the remainder of a three-game suspension from the Big Ten in return for the conference ending its investigation into an alleged scheme to steal opponents' play-calling signals.

The settlement between the parties is the latest twist in a monthlong saga involving one of college football's most recognizable programs, one of its most successful coaches, and allegations that a low-level Michigan staffer purchased tickets to the games of the Wolverines' future opponents and sent people to those games to digitally record teams signaling in their plays.

"Coach Harbaugh, with the university's support, decided to accept this sanction to return the focus to our student-athletes and their performance on the field," Michigan said in a statement released Thursday. "The conference has confirmed that it is not aware of any information suggesting Coach Harbaugh's involvement in the allegations. The university continues to cooperate fully with the NCAA's investigation."

Harbaugh was suspended last Friday by the Big Ten, three weeks after an investigation by the NCAA into the allegations emerged. Hours later, the school asked a court for an injunction and temporary restraining order, but Harbaugh did not coach the team against Penn State on Saturday.

The two sides were expected in court Friday in Ann Arbor, but instead Michigan and Harbaugh dropped the complaint and the Wolverines coach will miss games at Maryland on Saturday and at home against Ohio State on Nov. 25. He will continue to be permitted to coach the team during the week because the penalty is only for game days.

"The University of Michigan is a valued member of the Big Ten Conference and the Conference will continue to work cooperatively with the University and the NCAA during this process," the Big Ten said in its own statement released Thursday.

Michigan (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten) is among the favorites to win a national title and is looking for its third straight appearance in both the Big Ten title game and the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines are ranked second in the AP Top 25 poll and third in the CFP selection committee's most recent rankings with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

The NCAA investigation surfaced four weeks ago amid allegations that Michigan had used a robust in-person scouting and sign-stealing operation conducted by a recruiting analyst, Connor Stalions, who has since resigned after being suspended by the school. The Big Ten said at the time it was also looking into the allegations.

The NCAA does not have rules against stealing signs, but it does prohibit schools from sending scouts to the games of future opponents and using electronic equipment to record another team's signals.

The NCAA investigation process moves slowly, but the Big Ten's rules gave commissioner Tony Petitti the opportunity to hand down discipline more quickly and the conference hit Harbaugh with a three-game suspension, which the school immediately challenged.

University leaders made the decision to settle the case because the Big Ten would not agree to reduce Harbaugh's suspension to two games. The school also didn't want to drag the dispute into court and negotiated for the conference to close its investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

That person spoke Thursday with The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to share the school's rationale.

Combined with a previously served school-imposed, three-game suspension for an unrelated NCAA infractions case tied to recruiting, Harbaugh will miss half the regular-season games on Michigan's schedule this year.

Harbaugh, who has repeatedly denied any involvement with Stalions' apparent scheme, called Michigan "America's team" earlier this week for continuing to win under the cloud of the scandal.

"America loves a team that beats the odds, beats the adversity, overcomes what the naysayers and so-called experts think," he said Monday.

Multiple Big Ten schools have records showing ticket purchases under Stalions' name going back as far as three years and video surveillance footage of people in those seats with cellphones pointed toward the field.

Angry and frustrated Big Ten coaches and athletic directors pushed Petitti to punish Harbaugh before the NCAA concluded its investigation. When he did, Michigan claimed the commissioner overstepped his authority and acted outside the conference's bylaws.

Athletic director Warde Manuel released a scathing statement Saturday shortly before Michigan kicked off at Penn State, a game the Wolverines won 24-15.

"Not liking someone or another university or believing without any evidence that they knew or saying someone should have known without an investigation is not grounds to remove someone from their position before the NCAA process has reached a conclusion through a full NCAA investigative process," Manuel said.

He added: "You may have removed him from our sidelines today, but Jim Harbaugh is our head football coach."

Harbaugh could return if Michigan makes the Big Ten title game on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis. After taking on Maryland (6-4, 3-4), the Wolverines host rival Ohio State (10-0, 7-0) on Thanksgiving weekend with the East Division title and a spot in the Big Ten championship matchup on the line, and it will likely have major implications on the four-team playoff field.

Ohio State is currently second in the CFP rankings and third in the AP Top 25. Two-time reigning national champ Georgia of the Southeastern Conference is No. 1 in both.

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