Harbaugh’s Potential Contract Carveout Tests NCAA Limits

If Jim Harbaugh remains as Michigan’s head football coach, his new contract with the school could spark a trend that limits the discretion of schools to invoke “for-cause” firings and undermines NCAA enforcement of head coach responsibilities.

According to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, Harbaugh demands language that would “grant him immunity from termination from any finding or sanction that could arise from multiple current NCAA investigations into the football program.”

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If Michigan grants such language to Harbaugh—who recently led the Wolverines to a national championship and is being courted by NFL teams with head coach openings—it would be a departure from typical termination-for-cause provisions. Coaches’ contracts ordinarily authorize the university to fire the coach, without liability or any penalty, if the coach engages in a crime, partakes in conduct constituting moral turpitude or becomes involved in a violation of a significant NCAA, conference or university rule.

A university’s invocation of “for-cause” language can have dramatic financial consequences. Last year, Michigan State fired head football coach Mel Tucker for cause on grounds of alleged improper sexual conduct (Tucker disputes the allegations). The decision reportedly cost Tucker $80 million in a 10-year, $95 million contract. A couple of years ago, LSU fired basketball coach Will Wade for alleged NCAA rule violations, costing him millions.

In 2014, Harbaugh signed an employment contract with Michigan that stated the school could fire him for cause if “the NCAA or the Conference determines . . . [Harbaugh] has committed a material violation of a material provision of the Governing Rules (including, without limitation, a Level I or Level II violation of NCAA Rules) . . . “

Should Harbaugh sign a new contract with Michigan, this type of language would presumably be excluded.

The threat of losing a lucrative contract is an important deterrent for coaches in ensuring compliance with NCAA rules. If coaches have a contractual guarantee immunizing them from such a threat, they will—at least in theory—has less incentive to promote enforcement.

The NCAA also places particular importance on the responsibility of head coaches. Bylaw holds the head coach is presumed responsible for their staff. To that end, the head coach must “promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program and shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members.”

This is a relevant provision for Harbaugh. The NCAA could determine he played no role in the sign-stealing scheme linked to former Wolverines football analyst Connor Stalions, but is nonetheless blameworthy for failing to sufficiently monitor his staff.

The NCAA can’t block Michigan from signing an employment contract with Harbaugh, whose contractual and employment relationship would be with the school. However, the NCAA could remind the university that it can still punish coaches via suspensions and other measures, even if the school has contractually waived some of its usual discretion to fire the coach for-cause.

Harbaugh, 60, enjoys unique bargaining leverage at the moment. Perhaps other than former New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, there is no more coveted coach for NFL teams. That’s a key point. If Harbaugh remains at Michigan, it’s not clear if immunity from NCAA sanctions would become a new trend in DI coaches’ contracts or merely mark a special provision for an exceptional coach.

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