Less than one week after the Michigan Wolverines were eliminated from the College Football Playoff, the university was handed a Notice of Allegations by the NCAA. This document consists of five alleged rules violations involving the university’s football program, particularly head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Four of the five violations are Level II violations, which are not considered very serious. The precedent for punishment on Level II violations is rather minor. In 2017, the University of Virginia was reprimanded for a self-reported Level II recruitment violation from the year prior. According to reports, the infraction revolved around assistant coaches taking pictures with prospects. Virginia was fined only $5,000 for this infraction, but was ordered to reduce off-campus contacts from six to four and 2017 spring evaluations from 168 to 150. Furthermore, Virginia staff were given additional rules education — basically the football version of driver’s ed after getting caught speeding.
In Michigan’s case, the Level II violations outline contact with two prospective athletes during the COVID-19 dead period as well as a self-reported violation for improperly using an analyst for on-field instruction. As I said earlier, these are considered minor violations.
Level I violations, on the other hand, are taken very seriously and can incur a variety of punishments from the NCAA. While each Level II violation may not be considered serious individually, collective Level II violations can be considered a Level I violation. With the period of negotiation beginning after Michigan received the Notice of Allegations, it seems unlikely that they would suffer a second Level I violation in this circumstance, but that is still a possibility.
Michigan’s Level I violation concerns Harbaugh allegedly providing false or misleading information to NCAA investigators looking into one of the Level II violations listed above. Essentially, if Harbaugh had just complied with the investigation and allowed Michigan to incur the various Level II violations, the university wouldn’t have faced serious repercussions.
The NCAA’s penalty system considers a postseason ban of 1-2 years acceptable for a Level I violation. That said, an aggravated Level I violation can carry a 2-4 year postseason ban. What deems a violation “aggravated” you ask? Well, one of the aggravating factors is whether or not the accused party “compromised the integrity of the investigation” and/or failed to cooperate with it. Providing false information to investigators seems to fall under that distinction.
In 2019, the University of Arizona was slapped with five Level I violations, including unethical recruitment practices, and one instance where former assistant coach Mark Phelps asked an Arizona player to delete a text thread regarding a $500 loan he’d made and subsequently lying to investigators about it, among many more. In response, the university self-imposed a one-year postseason ban. After much deliberation from the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), a one-year ban was considered sufficient. Although the university did suffer several other punishments as well, including the reduction of available scholarships and a two-week ban on official men’s basketball prospect visits, the damage was more or less mitigated. Although we can’t be sure of the punishments Michigan will face, similar recruitment restrictions as well as a postseason ban or suspension is likely on the table.
Should Harbaugh be found guilty of committing this Level I violation, Harbaugh would be opened up to termination from Michigan. His contract with the school allows them to fire him “for cause” if he commits a Level I or II infraction.
Harbaugh has expressed interest in returning to Michigan in 2023 after his second consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff. However, Harbaugh is also a popular name amidst NFL head coaching rumors. A Level I violation could push Harbaugh into accepting an NFL job he otherwise wouldn’t have. After all, reports indicate that Harbaugh would take an NFL job if one was offered to him.
While a Level I violation may be serious, it also may not be a deal-breaker for Michigan, assuming he wants to stay with the university. It seems unlikely that Harbaugh will be hit with a show-cause penalty, like former Arizona men’s basketball assistant coaches Book Richardson and Mark Phelps were in 2019. Although the university may receive a “lack of institutional control” Level I violation, it is still possible that the school and Harbaugh agree to undisclosed disciplinary action separate from NCAA consequences. If that happens to be the case, Michigan would probably opt not to fire Harbaugh.