No. 2 Michigan played without coach Jim Harbaugh on Saturday, beating No. 9 Penn State after a judge did not issue a ruling on the school's attempt to at least temporarily lift the Big Ten Conference's penalty against the Wolverines for a sign-stealing scheme.
About 90 minutes before kickoff, Michigan confirmed Harbaugh would not be at Beaver Stadium with the team and that a hearing in the school’s lawsuit challenging the Big Ten’s punishment was scheduled for Nov. 17.
“We look forward to presenting our case next week where we intend to demonstrate that the Big Ten has not acted legally or fairly,” Michigan said in a statement.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Chicago sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore served as acting head coach and led the Wolverines to a 24-15 victory.
He said the players and coaches did not know for sure that Harbaugh would not be at the game until after they arrived at Beaver Stadium. Moore, who filled in for Harbaugh once earlier this year, said they prepared during the week for the possibility that he would be leading the team again.
“Play for yourselves, play for the team and play for Michigan was the constant message,” Moore said. “We didn't make it about him.”
Maybe a little.
“Obviously, everything that happened yesterday, we just want to use that as fuel and motivation,” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “We got a very hungry team, a lot of leaders and guys that just want to prove the haters wrong. They’re going to be hating on us and we just want to prove them wrong. We wanted to do this for Coach Harbaugh.”
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel issued a statement about 50 minutes before kickoff saying the Big Ten and Commissioner Tony Petitti acted “unethically” on Friday when they banned Harbaugh from the team's final three regular-season games.
He called it “an assault on the rights of everyone (especially in the Big Ten) to be judged by a fair and complete investigation.”
“Not liking someone or another university or believing without any evidence that they knew or saying someone should have known without an investigation is not grounds to remove someone from their position before the NCAA process has reached a conclusion through a full NCAA investigative process,” Manuel said.
On Friday, hours after the Big Ten banned Harbaugh from coaching the rest of the Wolverines' final regular-season games as punishment for an in-person-scouting and sign-stealing operation, the coach and his alma mater filed a request for a temporary restraining order against the Big Ten and Petitti.
Their attorneys asked for a speedy decision from a judge in Washtenaw County, Michigan, that would allow Harbaugh to coach against the Nittany Lions in the top-10 matchup.
“The harm to the university’s student-athletes would be irreversible,” attorneys for Michigan and Harbaugh said in the filing.
But it was to no avail.
“All of the Head Coaches in the Big Ten (some who have been accused of actively participating in the trading of signals of opponents) and my Big Ten AD colleagues can rejoice today that someone was ‘held accountable,’ but they should be worried about the new standard of judgment (without complete investigation) that has been unleashed in this conference," Manuel said.
Michigan already has played three games this season without Harbaugh on the sideline. He served a school-imposed suspension for the team's first three games as penalty for an unrelated NCAA recruiting violations case.
Michigan let a different assistant assume the role of head coach each week, with Moore getting one game, defensive coordinator Jesse Minter getting another and special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh and running backs coach Mike Hart splitting the third.
The Wolverines easily won all three against East Carolina, Bowling Green and UNLV.
Harbaugh returned in time for the conference schedule, but now they are 4-0 without him.
About 2 hours and 45 minutes before kickoff Saturday, four buses carrying Michigan players, coaches, Manuel and other staff were greeted by a few dozen Michigan fans lined up behind steel barriers.
Some cheered and yelled “Go Blue!” as the buses emptied.
One fan yelled out to Manuel: “Let's join the SEC!"
Manuel raised a hand to acknowledge the fans but otherwise Michigan entered the stadium with little fanfare.
The conference disciplined the school Friday for an elaborate, in-person scouting scheme that is also being investigated by the NCAA. Michigan leadership insists conference bylaws require the NCAA investigation to play out and that Petitti overstepped his power by doling out punishment.
The Big Ten noted that Michigan is only arguing procedure and process and had conceded the impermissible conduct went on. Conference rivals have been angry and frustrated as evidence mounted that a former low-level staffer was buying tickets to the games of Michigan's opponents and sending people to record video of sideline signals.
The rare punishment of a national championship contender in the final stretch of its season and one of college football's most successful coaches by its own conference has become one of the biggest stories in sports.
On the field, Michigan has been the most dominant team in the country, beating its opponents by average of 36 points per game.
Penn State provided a tougher challenge, Michigan's first ranked opponent. The Wolverines grinded down the Nittany Lions to improve to 3-0 since the NCAA investigation was revealed.
Harbaugh's team is vying for a third straight Big Ten championship and appearance in the College Football Playoff.
After Penn State, the Wolverines play at Maryland before the traditional regular-season finale against heated rival Ohio State. The third-ranked Buckeyes visit Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Nov. 25.
The Big Ten's penalty would allow Harbaugh to return for the Big Ten championship game and the playoff, if Michigan makes it.
“You may have removed him from our sidelines today, but Jim Harbaugh is our head football coach," Manuel said. "We look forward to defending Jim’s right to coach our football team at the hearing on Friday. He has instilled his pride, passion and the team’s belief in themselves to achieve greatness. I will continue to support Jim throughout this process, my coaches and staff, and especially our student-athletes as we continue to play this game and fight to win for Michigan and all who love us.”