The Michigan Outrage Meter seems to no longer be registering.
Last Friday it was all restraining order and rush-to-judgment this and due-process that and unfairrrrrrrr. The next day it was tears from the interim coach. On Sunday came a dramatic social media post from the school president about facing “challenges and adversity.” Monday gave us a declaration that the Wolverines should be considered “America’s team.”
Today? No outrage. After receiving new information, the only audible sounds from Ann Arbor are the circling of wagons. The only sight is the pointing of fingers at a booster who claims he didn’t do anything.
Jim Harbaugh and the school quietly accepted his three-game suspension from the Big Ten and called off the court hearing that was scheduled for Friday. Linebacker coach Chris Partridge has been abruptly fired. And a booster identified as “Uncle T” is alleged to have at least partially funded former analyst Connor Stalions’s widespread spying scheme, according to Yahoo Sports.
I’m not hearing any calls for Michigan to secede from the Big Ten today.
The premise offered by many Wolverines backers was that Stalions was a rogue employee, out there alone, concocting a certifiably ridiculous scheme to buy tickets and send associates into stadiums across the Midwest and elsewhere to gather opponents’ play signals. The lingering question was this: Where did Stalions, making $55,000 per year, get the funding to bankroll such an ambitious plan?
It’s good to have a rich uncle.
(A Michigan booster named Tim Smith has denied to Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports that he is “Uncle T.” Smith told Yahoo he was terminated from his membership in the Champions Circle collective, which raises funds for NIL opportunities for Michigan athletes. Smith said he is a “fall guy.”)
If covering college athletics for three decades has taught me anything, it’s this: When a scandal is uncovered, it’s almost never the work of a rogue employee acting in a complete vacuum. Denial is universal but rarely truthful.
In the case of Stalions, an astounding number of people wished fervently for it to be true. Story line: obsessed zealot plots path to importance via secret spying scheme. Maybe this went no further than Stalions and the shadowy Uncle T, but that’s still further than one man working alone. Maybe nobody else on the coaching staff knew, but that is freshly called into question.
The same new information received this week that led to Michigan abandoning its attempt to get a temporary restraining order that would get Harbaugh back on the sideline led to the firing of Partridge, sources told SI. Yahoo cited sources in reporting that Partridge “allegedly participated in the destruction of evidence on a computer after the scandal broke.” The publication added that Partridge “is not alleged at this time of knowing about the advanced scouting by Stalions, but acted after the fact to cover up evidence.”
Was Partridge allegedly covering up for Stalions? (SI reported last month that while discussing the Michigan staff via text with an associate, Stalions said he was “close with CP.”) Or was Partridge allegedly covering up for Uncle T? Or someone else? Regardless, this has become a fireable offense for a full-time assistant coach, which spreads the dragnet further than Stalions himself.
Strictly from an NCAA standpoint, Partridge could be facing a Level I violation charge if he destroyed evidence. Michigan likely already is looking at a Level I charge if the Stalions scheme can be substantiated (thus far, nobody has disputed his alleged actions). And Harbaugh sits in the crosshairs under the NCAA’s “strict liability” designation of head coach responsibility bylaws.
There has been no public evidence that Harbaugh knew what Stalions was doing or condoned impermissible, in-person scouting. That hasn’t changed, and that wasn’t part of surrendering the court fight to coach again in the regular season.
But Harbaugh still is on the hook here, and the scandal has now ensnared one of his assistant coaches. He’s also facing potential additional sanctions for the other NCAA investigation of Michigan, which pertains to impermissible recruiting during the COVID-19 noncontact period. Harbaugh is alleged to have lied to the NCAA about meeting with recruits. The messes keep getting messier.
Michigan still has a chance to get what it really wants out of this, which is a national championship before the house burns to the ground. The screaming about due process was easily translated to mean: Just let us finish this season. The Wolverines will have to beat Maryland and—much bigger challenge—Ohio State without Harbaugh; then he’s free to coach in a potential Big Ten championship game and the College Football Playoff. We’ll see whether the team is good enough to give Harbaugh those opportunities.
But recent events have forced the school and its backers to abandon the righteous indignation stance. It was obnoxious before and no longer tenable now. A legal challenge has been abandoned, an assistant coach has been fired and Uncle T is now entered into Connor Stalions lore alongside a Central Michigan coaching disguise and the “Michigan Manifesto.” None of those are good things.
Time to pipe down and hope this doesn’t get any worse, Michigan.