Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh was threatened with suspension by NCAA last fall for lawyer’s social media criticism

The NCAA threatened to suspend former Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh last fall if his attorney did not halt his satirical social media comments of the association’s ongoing investigation of the Wolverines football program. 

In a “letter of admonition” to attorney Thomas Mars obtained by CBS Sports, current NCAA Committee on Infractions chair Dave Roberts wrote in October 2023 that if Mars didn’t halt his posts criticizing the NCAA’s investigative process “the COI will consider appropriate penalties, including immediate suspension of your client.”

Roberts cited NCAA bylaw 19.4.6-(i) which gives the COI authority to ” … sanction parties and/or their representative(s) for behaviors that inhibit the committee’s ability to effectively manage the docket, ensure a professional and civil decorum in all proceedings or otherwise efficiently solve infractions cases.”

The letter ends with seemingly a final warning from Roberts that read, “There will not be any further admonitions …” 

Mars did not respond to the NCAA and continued his critical posts but it seems Roberts took no further action. 

The letter came during dual investigations of Michigan for NCAA recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period and sign stealing. In a Tuesday release, the NCAA said a negotiated resolution had been reached in the first case. “One former coach,” – supposedly Harbaugh – “did not participate in the agreement, and that portion of the case will be considered separately by the Committee on Infractions …” the statement said. 

Roberts’ letter was dated Oct. 26, 2023, the week the sign-stealing scandal broke. That came during a bye week in Michigan’s national championship season. 

Harbaugh was suspended twice last season – first by Michigan for the first three games of the season as a way to mitigate penalties in the first case. He was then suspended by the Big Ten in the final three regular-season games following the sign-stealing scandal. 

That investigation remains ongoing. Harbaugh’s level of complicity in the case was announced Tuesday after allegations he misled NCAA investigators. Harbaugh has said he did not lie to the NCAA. Since Harbaugh is gone to the NFL and a negotiated settlement was reached, Michigan isn’t expected to suffer major sanctions. 

However, Mars said neither he nor Harbaugh were contacted by Michigan or the NCAA regarding a negotiated resolution in this case.  

“They’ve obviously changed their position to get this resolved and it doesn’t surprise me. I can almost hear the wheels of the bus going, ‘whomp, whomp [over Harbaugh],’ ” Mars said. 

Mars also said at one point the NCAA demanded all of Harbaugh’s texts and emails for the last 2 ½ years. That request included all personal emails, Mars said. He requested the NCAA limit the scope of the request to Michigan athletics but was told no. The NCAA wanted in 24 hours what Mars said were 6,199 emails and at least that number of texts. 

“At which point I said, ‘OK, you’re not getting any of them … ,’ ” Mars told CBS Sports. “It’s an invasion not even the Justice Department is allowed to do.” 

That situation arose before Harbaugh left for the Los Angeles Chargers in January. Mars estimated such a search would have taken weeks and $38,000 in legal fees.

Harbaugh is no longer compelled to cooperate with the NCAA in either Michigan case since he left for the Chargers. He could still suffer a show-cause penalty the first case that could hinder his return to college coaching. Harbaugh’s status is similar to that of Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce

Roberts has a distinguished legal and compliance background. His third term as infractions committee chair expires in August. He is a special advisor to USC president Carol Folt. He was the school’s interim AD when Lynn Swann resigned in 2019. He joined USC in 2010 as vice president of athletics compliance. In 2017, he was recognized with an award from the National Association for Athletics Compliance. 

At one point, Mars pointed out what he said was a conflict of interest regarding Roberts. USC is joining the Big Ten on July 1. He did not receive a response. 

Neither USC nor the NCAA immediately responded to requests for comment. 

The letter to Mars was copied to Michigan AD Warde Manuel, Michigan president Santa Ono, Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti and Kyle Skillman, the attorney from Bond, Schoeneck and King assisting Michigan in the investigation. The law firm is one of the industry leaders in guiding schools through NCAA inquiries. 

Mars was at one time one of the NCAA’s star additions to the newly formed Independent Accountability Resolution Panel in 2019. Mars was on the Complex Case Unit within the IARP for 12 months before resigning. The IARP was disbanded earlier this year essentially for its inability to handle complex cases.


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