May 20, 2024

Attorneys representing the University of Michigan and football coach Jim Harbaugh filed a breach of contract complaint Friday night, asking a judge in the state to prevent the Big Ten from imposing a suspension on Harbaugh this weekend.

Along with the initial complaint, Michigan and Harbaugh filed an additional motion asking for an emergency temporary restraining order. They argued that keeping Harbaugh away from the No. 3-ranked Wolverines for Saturday’s top-10 game against Penn State would cause irreparable harm to the coach, the players and the university.

The two documents — each more than 20 pages long — were filed hours after Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti announced that the conference was suspending Harbaugh for the final three games of Michigan’s regular season due to the football program violating the league’s sportsmanship policy.

Michigan’s attorneys wrote that the Big Ten did not provide Harbaugh or the school the due process protections outlined in its own rules. They said the disruption to a season in which the team could contend for a national championship is “threatening the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for dozens of student athletes and irreversible harm to the University’s and Harbaugh’s reputation.”

“This shoot first, ask questions later approach to sanctions is a flagrant breach of fundamental fairness,” they wrote.

Judge Carol Kuhnke of Washtenaw County Trial Court will make a ruling on the restraining order, according to a source. To grant a temporary restraining order, Kuhnke must determine that Harbaugh and Michigan have a reasonable chance of proving that the Big Ten is breaking its own rules and that the two parties would suffer “irreparable harm” without an immediate response from the court.

If the judge does issue a restraining order before Saturday’s noon kickoff, both sides would then get a chance to argue their case during an injunction hearing at some point in the next 14 days. Michigan wraps up its regular season 14 days from Saturday with a home game against rival and No. 1-ranked Ohio State.

Petitti said in a letter explaining the conference’s decision to suspend Harbaugh that he received ample evidence from the NCAA to prove that a Michigan staff member — presumably Connor Stalions, who resigned from the team last week — orchestrated a scheme to steal the play-calling signals of future opponents by paying several people to go on impermissible in-person scouting trips.

Michigan’s lawyers argued that Petitti’s actions breach the contract between the league and its members by using the sportsmanship policy to punish Harbaugh instead of waiting for the results of an open NCAA investigation into the scheme.

The Big Ten’s rules say the sportsmanship policy only may be used to punish an individual “found to have committed an offensive action” or the institution responsible for that person. Petitti said Friday that he was punishing the institution by removing its head coach from the field, not specifically punishing Harbaugh. Michigan’s lawyers argued that Harbaugh does not qualify as the institution and therefore should not be personally sanctioned.

“The actions by Defendant Conference were fraudulent, unlawful, unethical, unjustified, and per se wrongful, and were done with malice for the improper purpose of causing the termination or disruption of Plaintiff Harbaugh’s relationship and expectancy,” they wrote.

The lawyers argued that this case meets the threshold for irreparable harm because of the reputational damage that the school and the coach could suffer, saying it is “impossible to quantify the entirety of the significant harm that will befall the University absent injunctive relief, but there can be no doubt that the University, its students, and the community will suffer greatly.”

For Harbaugh, they continued: “No more dramatic blow could be given to his character and reputation that the permanent lifetime label of ‘missing in action’ because of a purported — but still unsubstantiated — cheating scandal.”

They suggested to the judge that the Big Ten would not suffer any harm itself by waiting for the NCAA to complete its investigation before imposing any appropriate sanctions. The lawyers said it would benefit the conference to make sure a punishment is warranted, “particularly in light of recent news accounts suggesting that the alleged conduct is more widespread than previously realized.”

Petitti wrote in his letter Friday that he felt some action was necessary to restore competitive fairness this season because they found that Michigan violated the sportsmanship policy earlier this season.

Harbaugh flew to Penn State on Friday afternoon and was with the team Friday night. Kuhnke could make a ruling anytime between Friday night and Saturday’s noon kickoff.

If Harbaugh’s restraining order is not granted, a source told ESPN on Friday that one possible replacement as acting head coach in Happy Valley would be Mike Hart, the team’s running backs coach. Hart previously served as an acting head coach for the second half of a win over UNLV in early September while Harbaugh was suspended by the school due to a separate NCAA investigation into recruiting violations.

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