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Irony of ironies: John Harbaugh condemned Bill Belichick in 2012 for cheating, but now ...

Will Jim Harbaugh jump to the NFL to avoid "the stain"?

… if the Wolverines win, Michigan may have to return its trophy like USC did for 2004

We can select a spouse or a friend or a colleague, but we have no impact of who are siblings are.

That is the case for John Harbaugh, who is currently the coach of the NFL Baltimore Ravens. Some of the critical words that he uttered in 2012 about one of his fellow coaches is now coming back to haunt him as his brother, Jim, leads his scandal-plagued team to a national championship game tonight against the University of Washington.

That scandal has taken some of the luster off the accomplishment of the Wolverines, even though it had nothing to do with the players. They did nothing wrong.

It was the coaches.

That was the case with Spygate. It was the coaches, and John Harbaugh said that the New England Patriots’ championships were “stained” by the cheating.

Calling out Belichick for Spygate

What was Spygate?

The cheating known as Spygate occurred in the early years of the 21st Century, but the bombshells really came out later since the media was reluctant to detail too much about what they knew.

In 2015, ESPN detailed what had happened in 2007 when the first evidence of the scandal erupted,

A palpable anger and frustration had rumbled inside club front offices since the opening Sunday of the 2007 season. During the first half of the New England Patriots' game against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, a 26-year-old Patriots video assistant named Matt Estrella had been caught on the sideline, illegally videotaping Jets coaches' defensive signals, beginning the scandal known as Spygate.

Don Van Natta, Jr. and Seth Wickersham, “Spygate to Deflategame: Inside what split the NFL and Patriots apart,” ESPN, September 8, 2015

Deflategate was the second scandal, and this analysis by ESPN details all of the sordid details of the two cheating scandals.

John Harbaugh’s reaction

In an interview with a television stations in 2012, the Ravens coach detailed his revulsion about the cheating by the Patriots — prior to Deflategate,

"In the end, everything is brought before the light of day, when it's all said and done. What happens, even the thing in New England, no matter whether those things had any impact on whether they won their championships or not, they got asterisks now. It's been stained."

Greg Rosenthal, “John Harbaugh on the ‘stain’ and ‘asterisk’

of cheating,”, May 1, 2012

The Spygate controversy will always tarnish the legacy of both Belichick and the Patriots. As the story noted,

Fans and even folks around the league look at the Patriots in a different light after Spygate. The videotaping scandal has become part of the team's legacy.

Greg Rosenthal,, May 1, 2012

Harbaugh’s conclusion, something that his brother must have been thinking about as he approached this national championship game?

"To me, it's never worth it. You have to figure out ways to use the rules to your advantage … You just have to make them work for you. That's what success is in the world. You have to find a way to do things better than somebody else.

“But if you're cheating, in the end, you're going to get discredited. It's not worth it."

Greg Rosenthal,, May 1, 2012

So, John took the high road. Why did his brother choose to allow people on his staff to take the low road, one that could be very costly down the road?

Michigan’s cheating scandal

Regardless of whether you are rooting for the Michigan Wolverines or the Washington Huskies, you have to feel sorry for Harbaugh’s players who had nothing to do with this. Not sure if this won any games, but it apparently took place since the university fired the assistant coach who essentially did the same thing as brother John criticized about 11 years ago.

After Jim sat out a suspension and was not on the sidelines when Michigan defeated Penn State at Beaver Stadium, Jemele Hill write a critical analysis of the scandal for The Atlantic, which is a cerebral publication, not a sports one,

[Harbaugh] was serving a suspension for letting a significant alleged cheating scandal unfold right under his nose—or worse. The NCAA is investigating claims that the former Michigan staffer Connor Stalions concocted a scheme to surveil and sometimes film opposing coaches’ signals, in violation of NCAA rules. Last week, while the NCAA investigation was ongoing, the Big Ten, Michigan’s athletic conference, imposed a punishment of its own, suspending Harbaugh for three games.

Yesterday, the school announced that Harbaugh would stop fighting the suspension. This was surprising, because the coach and the school had until then struck a defiant tone.

They have worked hard to create the public perception that their program is being unfairly targeted, making it seem as if there is a grand conspiracy to derail the Wolverines’ undefeated season and their realistic bid for a national championship.

It’s a response that seems pulled from the world of politics: Never admit fault. No accusation has merit. Everything is a witch hunt.

Jemele Hill, “Don’t cry for Jim Harbaugh,” The Atlantic, November 17, 2023

Did this matter?

Stalions had a very complicated operation that apparently stole signals over a period of years. Harbaugh claims to have no knowledge of this, which could be true.

Nevertheless, this is a stain on college sports and the beleaguered NCAA, which has been carrying stains for years.

However, as the Washington Post noted, the actions of the assistant coach did not occur in a vacuum, and they were in operation when the Michigan program was struggling. There may not be a realistic tie, but this is the case,

There’s reason to believe the Stalions’ operation goes back at least three seasons, and the Wolverines have gone 33-3 during this span after struggling to live up to their standard before then, including a 2-4 record during a pandemic-shortened 2020.

Jerry Brewer, “Michigan’s sign-stealing mess is the scandal that college football deserves,” Washington Post, November 4, 2023

Not the first college cheating scandal affecting a title game

This is not the first time that college football was under a cheating microscope, although that one, like this one, did not involve cheating on the field.

The University of Southern California captured the national title in 2004 after overwhelming Oklahoma in the championship game,

USC was forced to vacate their 2004 National Championship and 14 victories for which Bush was on the field from 2004 to 2005. The Trojans also lost 30 scholarships and were banned from playing in the postseason over a three-year span. Bush was banned from the university altogether.

Led by Heisman-winning quarterback Matt Leinart, the Trojans went 13-0 and absolutely demolished Oklahoma 55-19 in the BCS National Championship Game. However, the title would later be vacated by the NCAA due to the Reggie Bush scandal.

Jonathan Lloyd, “USC great Reggie Bush announces defamation

lawsuit against NCAA,” NBC Los Angeles, August 23, 2023

Bush and his family had apparently accepted money from an agent or some other miscreant, which was illegal under the then NCAA rules, though may not be today.


În either case, could the NCAA investigation find systemic cheating in this sign-stealing scandal, and if Michigan wins tonight, this will be one of those “stains” that John Harbaugh discussed about 12 to 13 years ago, albeit in a different context.

Perhaps the NCAA will exonerate Jim, but by that time, he may be gone from Ann Arbor.

Both siblings are outstanding coaches, and though some Steeler fans may be pained to see me write this, John has not been ethically challenged as his brother has been.

Nevertheless, it is sort of ironical how John’s comments from 2012 now reflect on his brother, Jim, who may be gone back to the NFL after tonight’s game, win or lose.

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