Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh unbothered by off-field drama as program hums along

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Throughout fall camp, the word that has reverberated through the mind of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is “vibrant.” It’s a one-word descriptor applied to the environment at Schembechler Hall by one of the “football people” who visited Ann Arbor over the last few weeks, someone in the mold of an NFL scout, general manager or personnel executive. That person, Harbaugh explained, had watched the Wolverines practice and soaked in some of the team meetings before offering a dictional selection.

“I can’t get that word out of my head,” Harbaugh said. “That just best describes the vibe, the mentality. It’s infectious. Can’t help (but) pick up on that. That was well-defined. It’s vibrant. And they take that from the meeting rooms to the weight rooms to the practice fields to the stadium.”

That Harbaugh was so relaxed and, seemingly, unbothered during his first news conference following the latest whirlwind of unsavory headlines surrounding the program speaks to how flawlessly his on-field product is humming. After all, the second-ranked Wolverines landed ahead of Ohio State in the preseason Associated Press poll for the first time since 2012.

But it was only this past weekend when Yahoo Sports reported on the crumbling of a proposed resolution between Harbaugh and the NCAA. The agreement would have settled an ongoing case involving alleged Level II violations by Harbaugh and his staff, along with a Level I violation attached to the coach himself. The Level I violation, which is a more serious penalty, stems from his supposed dishonesty with NCAA investigators.

Under the agreement, Harbaugh would have been suspended for his team’s first four games of the 2023 season, with smaller suspensions doled out to two more assistant coaches. But once the dissolution went public in Yahoo’s story, the NCAA quickly released a statement slamming the fan-driven notion that everything about the case can be traced to Harbaugh’s illicit purchase of food for recruits.

“The Michigan infractions case is related to impermissible on and off-campus recruiting during the COVID-19 dead period and impermissible coaching activities — not a cheeseburger,” NCAA vice president for hearing operations Derrick Crawford wrote in the statement. “It is not uncommon for the COI (Committee of Infractions) to seek clarification on key facts prior to accepting. The COI may also reject an NR (negotiated resolution) if it determines that the agreement is not in the best interests of the association or the penalties are not reasonable.”

With a resolution seemingly off the table, the case is expected to progress through the NCAA’s disciplinary process. Reports suggest the next steps won’t occur until sometime in 2024, long after the current football season ends, which means Harbaugh is free to coach in every game. There’s also a chance Michigan could preempt the hearing by self-imposing penalties that would include a suspension for Harbaugh, but the chances of that happening are exceedingly slim.

Instead, fans are rallying around Harbaugh with renewed ferocity ahead of what many expect to be an incredible season for the Wolverines. They care far more about Harbaugh’s orchestration of the program’s stunning turnaround — consecutive wins over Ohio State, consecutive Big Ten Championships, consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff — than the clouds of uncertainty he’s created. His prolonged contract negotiations with athletic director Warde Manuel, his never-ending flirtations with the NFL and, most recently, his purported actions to land Michigan in the NCAA crosshairs have done nothing to impede Harbaugh’s ability to win football games.

“My wife asks me to do things during these days, during these weeks,” Harbaugh said in response to a question about outside factors influencing the program. “And I really try my best. But, I mean, it is really (about being) locked in on this football team.”

And so Harbaugh declined to comment on Tuesday afternoon when asked about the latest twist in what fans have dubbed “Burger Gate.” He had nothing to share about the impending additions of Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten. He sidestepped a question regarding the importance of this season to his legacy at Michigan given the lack of clarity surrounding eventual NCAA punishments.

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All Harbaugh wanted to do was wax poetic about the deepest roster he’s had since returning to Ann Arbor in 2015, a group that he believes will shatter the record for most NFL Draft picks in a single year next April. The players are on a mission, he said, to surpass the heights Michigan reached each of the last two seasons by winning a national title. And to get there — amid all the noise, the negative headlines, the litany of potential distractions — they’re embracing one of Harbaugh’s most commonly used expressions, culled from his famous father and transformed into helmet stickers for a select group of players. 

“It’s the beauty of my dad’s mantra,” Harbaugh said. “Attack each day with an Enthusiasm Unknown To Mankind. He just frames it right there. Attack each day, attack this day, with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. Living by it daily, and it’s been good. It’s worked.”

Clouds of uncertainty be damned.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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