Dan Murphy and Pete Thamel5 minute reading
The extent of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s involvement in the remainder of No. 3 Michigan’s regular-season games will be determined Friday in an unprecedented midseason court battle in Ann Arbor.
Harbaugh said he plans to be in the relatively small courtroom at the Washtenaw County Courthouse at 9 a.m. Friday when a judge hears his plea to effectively eliminate the remainder of a three-year suspension matches pronounced by the Big Ten last week. He will be joined by lawyers representing Michigan and the Big Ten, before Judge Timothy Connors and six rows full of spectators, to debate whether the coach should be allowed to be out for the final two games of the season regular for the Wolverines against Maryland. and No. 2 Ohio State.
Harbaugh said Monday that he would like a chance to speak at the hearing, but he didn’t know if that would be possible. Michigan’s attorneys did not respond to calls seeking comment about the hearing. Preliminary injunction hearings can include witnesses called to the stand, but more often rely on arguments made by attorneys, according to Donald Shelton, who served as chief judge in Washtenaw County before retiring to teach at UM-Dearborn Law School.
“If there is a dispute over the facts, which I doubt there will be, the judge may require witnesses or documents,” Shelton said. “The conference then has the same opportunity to present arguments or evidence.”
Rather than disputing facts, the judge’s decision will likely depend on his interpretation of the Big Ten’s authority to punish the coach through its sportsmanship policy and how the conference rules overlap with the NCAA application process.
Connors has wide latitude, legal experts say, on how he wants Friday’s hearing to proceed and when he will issue a ruling.
For Harbaugh to coach during the regular season again, his lawyers will have the responsibility of convincing Judge Connors that: 1) They have a reasonable chance of proving at trial that the Big Ten is ignoring its own rules by imposing a punishment now, and 2) Harbaugh’s absence from the team the next two Saturdays could cause irreparable harm to him, the football program and the university.
Based on what both sides shared in court filings and in a volley of heated letters last week, their arguments will likely focus on two specific parts of the Big Ten rules.
The first is Rule 32, which states that when the NCAA opens an investigation into a Big Ten school, the conference may decide to impose additional sanctions after the NCAA takes action. In that case, the conference became aware of the cheating allegations against Michigan after the NCAA opened an investigation in October. Michigan’s lawyers claim in court documents that the Big Ten and Commissioner Tony Petitti “abandoned the proceedings” in the rush to punish Harbaugh because of pressure from other league coaches and athletic directors.
Petitti wrote in a letter explaining the suspension last week that Rule 32 does not preclude him from using another part of the Big Ten rulebook — the sportsmanship policy — to impose sanctions when he believes the The integrity of the competition has been compromised.
Petitti wrote that evidence he saw from NCAA investigators and other conference members gave him enough information to conclude that the in-person scouting operation orchestrated by former staffer Connor Stalions impacted the integrity of competition in Michigan games. He said it was at his discretion whether to use the sportsmanship policy or the “slower procedures set out in Rule 32.”
“This language couldn’t be clearer,” Petitti said. “When issues of sportsmanship, including the integrity of the competition, are implicated by offensive conduct, the Commissioner is authorized to use the procedures and authority prescribed by the Sportsmanship Policy, even if this Offensive conduct may also involve a violation of NCAA or Conference rules.”
Michigan’s lawyers also argued in their motion for a restraining order that the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy does not give the league the authority to specifically punish Harbaugh. The policy says the Big Ten commissioner can hold accountable either a person “convicted of an offensive act” or the institution responsible for that person.
“Coach Harbaugh is neither,” his lawyers wrote in their legal filing last week.
Petitti said in his Friday letter that the conference had no evidence to suggest Harbaugh knew of this unacceptable conduct. Instead, in handing down his punishment, he attempted to draw a distinction between punishing the institution by removing its head coach from the sidelines and specifically punishing Harbaugh. He said he believed it was an appropriate sanction that avoided harming players by stripping them of their ability to participate in games, while noting that “the head coach embodies the university for the purposes of its football program.
“This is not a punishment from Coach Harbaugh,” Petitti wrote.
Judge Connors will be asked to analyze the semantics of these interpretations of the rules presented by both sides on Friday. There is no deadline for a decision, but he is unlikely to rule directly from the bench during Friday’s hearing.
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