The magic of Jim Harbaugh: Finding trouble with what remains of a toothless NCAA

Of all the wild situations, self-created feuds, and quirky, if not almost sitcom-like scenarios that Jim Harbaugh has delivered over his nearly 40-year football life as a player and a coach, somehow catching a Level I NCAA violation when there is hardly an NCAA remaining, let alone any NCAA rules, might be his finest work.

Harbaugh talks weird, acts weird, is known to dress weird (at least during the khaki pants stage) and yet weirdly almost always finds a way to come out on top. The man they used to call "Captain Comeback" may still yet, here.

The reality, though, is rather than basking in the excitement of delivering Michigan consecutive Big Ten titles, College Football Playoff appearances and, most important, victories over Ohio State, he’s dallying with the NFL as a potential escape hatch and issuing ridiculous open-ended statements because he’s found the last remaining incisor in the otherwise toothless NCAA.

Don’t lie to us.

On Thursday, Michigan received a draft of a notice of allegations that cites four Level II violations inside the football program and a single Level I against Harbaugh himself.

The Level II stuff includes using too many coaches at practice sessions, meeting with two recruits during a COVID-19 dead period and watching player workouts via Zoom, sources told Yahoo Sports.

It’s not nothing. There are four “Levels” in what remains of the NCAA manual and Harbaugh’s own contract allows for his firing without compensation for a single Level II conviction.

Yet it isn’t much, either, certainly not what most fans consider a real violation such as dropping a Lamborghini off at a recruit's house — although that’s essentially permissible now.

Pretty much all Harbaugh had to do was acknowledge the mistakes and take some minor sanctions. Almost no one would care or even remember after a few days. Even FBI wiretaps get forgotten these days.

Instead the NCAA alleges he failed to comply with investigators, essentially being dishonest. The details of exactly what that entails will eventually come out.

As such, he caught a Level I violation for essentially a process crime, the latest proof that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Even the most sympathetic Harbaugh fan has to admit this was a self-inflicted scandal.

This is similar to what took down Jim Tressel at Ohio State over a decade ago, maybe the last time a head coach of this accomplishment got caught up in such a thing. Tressel, though, was ignoring actions of his players — selling memorabilia, which is now essentially legal — in perhaps an effort to protect them. With Harbaugh, that doesn’t appear to be the case. This was on him and others on his staff. There isn’t a lot of loyal nobility here.

What impact this has on his future remains to be seen.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against TCU, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Jim Harbaugh is 25-3 in his past two seasons at Michigan, and yet finds himself in the middle of an NCAA investigation of his own making. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

If proven true, Michigan would have grounds to fire him for cause, meaning it doesn’t owe him any money. Such a determination by the slow-moving NCAA system, however, is unlikely any time soon, perhaps multiple football seasons.

Would anyone care by say, 2025? Does anyone even care now?

Harbaugh might have to sit out some games or perhaps be suspended from recruiting. The program isn’t exactly going to fall apart due to either, and again, who knows what form the NCAA is in by then?

The uncertainty over everything could also push him to the NFL. Close friends believed he was happier and more content than ever at Michigan this season, that his unsuccessful efforts to get hired by the Minnesota Vikings last winter allowed him to move on from the dream of winning a Super Bowl.

At 59, with a lot of momentum within the program and a burgeoning name, image and likeness collective at the school, what once felt like a short-term run in Ann Arbor was beginning to look like a final destination.

Yet, as the situation grew increasingly serious after some fall NCAA interviews, Harbaugh was suddenly offering strange comments about how “no man knows the future” and saying he “thinks” and “expects” to be coaching the Wolverines in 2023.

Maybe part of that is wondering if Michigan will keep him. Maybe part is that if the Denver Broncos or Carolina Panthers offer a job, he’ll take it. Maybe it’s the generally unconventional way he answers just about everything. His news conferences are famous for puzzlement.

The more likely option is that Harbaugh, Michigan and the NCAA reach a settlement on this case, which speeds up the timeline and mitigates whatever punishment. The school is unlikely to be interested in getting rid of a coach who is 25-3 over the past two years.

This is college athletics, after all, and unlike during Tressel’s time, the concept of amateurism has, at last, been mostly rejected.

The allegations against Michigan don’t involve payments to players, but the shifting national perception on that subject, and the NCAA's recent history of letting recruiting violations skate with minimal punishment, has cut the organization's credibility off at the knees. The Emperor has no khakis.

The disregard extends to even reasonable restrictions that are Level II violations. Even the NFL limits contacts with free agents, has rules about how practices can be conducted and enforced COVID protocols.

The next step, though, is whether Harbaugh wants to cooperate, acknowledge wrongdoing or just find the path of least resistance. Or maybe he wants to go with the idea that nothing happened.

He may be correct and the NCAA may be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. A prolonged standoff may win him the war in the long run, but losing all the immediate battles has to be a consideration as well.

Harbaugh has never been afraid of a fight. As a player, he famously clashed with no less than Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka. As a head coach in college and the NFL he enraged his bosses and his peers along the way, often leaving them bewildered at why the hard way is sometimes his way.

“What’s your deal?” Pete Carroll once famously asked him.

The answer is that he’s Jim Harbaugh.

It may be the only explanation how someone enjoying such massive success could find themselves in an NCAA infractions drama when almost nothing these days is an NCAA infraction.