Jim Harbaugh’s stubbornness was a bridge too far even for the laughably lenient NCAA

Remember when then-LSU basketball coach Will Wade was caught on a FBI wiretap discussing a “strong-ass offer” he made to a recruiting middleman? And then remember when it was later played on HBO in the documentary “The Scheme” for all to hear?

Well, the NCAA system of justice is so weak, so disorganized, so ridiculous that on that specific charge — the “strong ass offer” — Wade was actually cleared of any wrongdoing. He was, of course, suspended for 10 games at his new school, McNeese State, and hit with additional sanctions for myriad other NCAA violations, but not on that one.

Wade managed this by claiming that the “offer” was actually a job offer for the guy even though that made no sense.

First, he said on the call it was initially “tilted toward the family a little bit,” which begs the question of how one job could be tilted between two people? Was he hiring the recruit’s mom, too? Second, if there had been such an innocent explanation — “it was a JOB offer” — common sense suggests he would have mentioned it — or shouted it repeatedly — immediately after the contents of the call became public.

Instead, Wade refused to meet with school officials to discuss the call at all. He instead chose to be suspended for 37 days and miss the entire 2019 NCAA tournament. He then didn’t mention the explanation in public. Sure. Totally believable.

The NCAA’s system was further troubled that it couldn’t “verify” by “independent means” the full contents of the call. Apparently, the FBI needed to hand over the recording of the entire conversation which, you are probably not shocked to hear, is completely against policy and would simply never, ever, ever occur. They don’t even give that to defense attorneys. Regardless, that was the NCAA’s apparent standard for evidentiary admission.

As such, Wade skated.

While the NCAA found him guilty on other charges, when it specifically came to the “Strong Ass Offer” accusation, “the hearing panel [found] that there is insufficient credible and persuasive information.”

That’s how easy it is to beat the NCAA these days.

And yet somehow, someway Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is staring at a likely four-game (25% of the season) suspension to start the 2023 campaign. He’ll be asked to explain himself at Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day.

None of this is to say the NCAA got it wrong with Harbaugh. By their rules, they got it right.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is likely facing a four-game suspension this season simply because he refused to admit to alleged minor violations. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is likely facing a four-game suspension this season simply because he refused to admit to alleged minor violations. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Harbaugh and his staff committed some minor-to-moderate violations. Harbaugh, for example, is alleged to have met with two recruits during a period when that clearly wasn’t allowed. He watched a Zoom video of players working out when that clearly wasn’t allowed. He had too many staffers coach during practice.

Nothing huge. Certainly not a “strong-ass offer,” but violations nonetheless. Had he admitted them when questioned by investigators, some minor penalties and additional training on the rule book would have been the likely penalty.

Instead, Harbaugh was, the NCAA alleged, less than honest and forthcoming with investigators. Suddenly, some Level II violations became Level I. Suddenly, Harbaugh is likely suspended.

How Harbaugh got here practically explains everything about him.

He is a gifted coach, but an even more gifted competitor. That he managed a 16-year NFL quarterbacking career was a testament to maximizing his talents. As a coach, he won wherever he went from the non-scholarship University of San Diego, to downtrodden Stanford, to the San Francisco 49ers, and finally to a reeling Michigan program.

He’s strong-headed. Painfully so sometimes.

Along the way, though, he’s worn out his staff, found himself in the middle of various feuds — from Mike Ditka to Pete Carroll — and exhausted his bosses. He got run out of San Fran despite taking them to the Super Bowl.

He’s the guy who finally beat Ohio State in 2021 and then decided to fly to Minnesota on National Signing Day to interview for the Vikings job. When he didn’t get the job, he promised he no longer cared about working in the NFL. He then beat Ohio State again and then talked again to the NFL.

So of course he’d get himself suspended at a time when the NCAA couldn’t catch a cold (or seemingly even wants to in the first place).

The best guess on why Harbaugh didn’t just cop to the initial violations?

Multiple people close to him have advanced the theory that if he did deny breaking the rules to investigators, it was because he so believes that he acts in an ethical manner that he could never admit that he might not have.

That’s an explanation, not an excuse, they note. It’s a strange rationale, but probably accurate. This is a multi-millionaire who used to wear cheap khakis every day and mutter things like how he was attacking the day “with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” Who knows?

Michigan knew what it was getting when it hired Harbaugh back in 2015. Or it should have. He returned to Ann Arbor to restore the program and settle some old scores. He’s delivered and this season is potentially his best team yet.

The glory of beating the Buckeyes and winning the Big Ten, however, comes with everything else.

The good. The bad. The bizarre.

Perhaps none more so than getting suspended by the NCAA when not even a strong-ass offer is against the rules anymore.