Michigan football's offseason demands accountability from Jim Harbaugh, Warde Manuel
Transparency. Consistency. Accountability.
These principles should be expected from any collective entity, from the publicly traded company on Wall Street to a local government. But why haven't we seen this from the Michigan football program and athletic department at large?
On the field, Michigan football is coming off its best run in decades. The 25 wins are the most in a two-year stretch in program history. The back-to-back outright Big Ten titles are the program's first since 1990-91 and the two-game winning streak over Ohio State is the Wolverines' first since 1999-2000.
U-M is one of just six programs over the nine seasons of the College Football Playoff to qualify in consecutive seasons; seven starters from the 2022 team who could have gone to the NFL instead opted to come back to take care of what the team is already calling "unfinished business."
In those regards, the culture has never seemed stronger.
But mixed throughout the the team's "happy mission" are a number of incidents, from ethnically insensitive content and gun charges to another offseason of coaching rumors and investigations — both by the NCAA into the program and by the program into a former coordinator — that have put U-M football in the spotlight for plenty of reasons beside winning.
It's easy to forget, as Michigan athletics looks to emulate the brand recognition and sustainable success of a corporation and is funded mostly by private donations, that the program, and the school itself, is still a public institution. Apple and General Motors, after all, don't have fight songs.
While these issues vary in the nature of seriousness, what they seem to share is a lack of consistency, transparency and accountability in the response from the program and the school that we should demand from all public institutions.
A forgettable October
It was 9:34 a.m. on Oct. 7 when U-M defensive tackle Mazi Smith was pulled over in Ann Arbor for speeding. Police found Smith was driving without a license; he then admitted to law enforcement he had a gun on him which he did not yet have a license for (though the paperwork was pending and has since been approved).
Smith was arrested but never jailed, and given felony weapons charges pending review by Washtenaw County prosecutor Eli Savit. The senior traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, later that afternoon and suited up for the Wolverines against the Hoosiers the following day.
"Mazi was completely honest, up front, cooperative," Harbaugh said when asked why Smith was never suspended. "Felt like he gave us the exact circumstances. I really respect the justice system and feel like there will be a fair resolution to come soon from that."
"(We) all who know Mazi Smith and know the kind of person that he is," Harbaugh said. "The trust that he’s built up in our program.”
Harbaugh used a similar "know the kind of person he is" refrain when running back Donovan Edwards raised eyebrows off the field on Oct. 26. The sophomore retweeted an anti-Semitic tweet that read, "Jewish people will literally tell you that they want you to kill your own and humiliate your women simply because they have children to feed."
When he first acknowledged the retweet, Edwards called it "a glitch." After a few hours of backlash on social media, he walked back the phrasing and formally apologized for "mistakenly retweeting a message that was so hurtful to so many especially those in the Jewish Community."
University of Michigan president Santa Ono publicly condemned hate speech against all marginalized groups. Board of Regents member Jordan Acker posted on social media he had spoken to Harbaugh and that they planned a team trip to the Zekelmen Holocaust Center in the offseason to help the team "learn first hand where hate speech leads."
But Edwards was never publicly reprimanded. He made the first start of his career two days later at home against Michigan State.
"It was a mistake, an inadvertent tweet, something that apologized for, making that retweet," Harbaugh again explained. "I talked to Donovan, I know the kind of person Donovan is. Donovan clearly explained who he is and what his position is and that was sufficient.”
Search for consistency
But an apology was not sufficient in Harbaugh's eyes for what occurred days later. It was Oct. 29, when eight MSU players "attacked" — in Harbaugh's words — two Michigan players (Gemon Green and Ja'Den McBurrows), separately, in the Lloyd Carr Tunnel following U-M's 29-7 rivalry victory.
Harbaugh was fuming at the postgame news conference. For the first time all season, athletic director Warde Manuel made public comments too, calling the events "wholly unacceptable" and added he was in contact with law enforcement.
Harbaugh seemingly hadn't cooled off for his Monday news conference and had demands as it pertained to the MSU players who were involved.
"There needs to be accountability," he said. "An apology will not get the job done in this instance. There should be serious consequences for the many individuals that are culpable. ... I can't imagine that this will not result in criminal charges."
MSU indefinitely suspended all eight athletes involved within 72 hours. None played again in the 2022 season, including Jacoby Windmon, an early favorite for Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year who was instead left off all postseason awards lists altogether.
Smith, meanwhile, was named to the All-Big Ten first team.
Of course, Harbaugh almost wasn't in Ann Arbor in 2022 to begin with.
In February 2022, he flew to Minnesota to interview for the Vikings head coaching position, but it was never offered. Harbaugh came back and signed a five-year contract extension that paid him more than $10 million (including bonuses) this past season.
Upon his return, he called the interview a "one-time thing" and told Manuel "this will not be a reoccurring theme every year."
In January 2023, however, reports surfaced that people from his inner circle reached out to the Carolina Panthers about their coaching vacancy.
That was a few days before he took a Zoom interview with the Denver Broncos.
That was followed by a tweet from Ono, on Jan. 16, announcing Harbaugh informed him of a return to Ann Arbor to coach in 2023 — and that he was excited to relay the news to Manuel. A new contract, which the Free Press has reported is in the works, still is not official, however.
Investigations piling up
The NFL discussions happened the same week Manuel confirmed he had received a notice of allegation from the NCAA regarding Level I and Level II violations facing Michigan's football program.
"We have cooperated and will continue to cooperate with this investigation," Manuel said in a statement. "Out of respect for the NCAA’s enforcement process, we will not offer further comments.”
The Free Press has filed a Freedom of Information Act for the specifics of the notice of allegations sent to athletic department, and the school requested an extension in fulfilling the request and will respond "on or before Feb. 8."
The smaller violations pertain to a self-reported violation for improper use of an analyst for on-field instruction and impermissible contact with recruits made during the COVID-19 dead period. The more significant violation is for Harbaugh specifically, after the NCAA found he failed to cooperate with investigators, which could lead to a multi-game suspension.
However the Free Press has learned Harbaugh has denied any wrong-doing, which has put a snag in negotiations with the NCAA.
The most recent and perhaps significant issue of the year came when quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was placed on leave amid a police investigation into alleged computer access crimes that occurred at Schembechler Hall from Dec. 21-23.
A U-M employee notified authorities on Jan 5, according to the U-M Police log. Weiss was suspended shortly thereafter and fired on Jan. 20. The Free Press requested interviews with both Harbaugh and Manuel in recent weeks to ask for comment on either investigation and multiple U-M spokesmen have responded that per university rules, staff are not allowed to speak about open investigations.
The details of why Weiss was let go remain unclear.
"After a review of University policies, the athletic department has terminated the appointment of co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss,” Manuel said. “Consistent with university policy, we will have no further comment on this personnel matter.”
It's not just football
Manuel's track record at U-M's athletic director includes other improprieties and curious moves in other programs.
In the early morning of Jan. 26, 2020, former basketball player Zavier Simpson crashed into a light pole in a car registered under Manuel's wife, Chrislan Manuel. Simpson lied to officers and told them his name was "Jeff Jackson" before they recognized him as the Michigan point guard.
Simpson was suspended for just one game before Manuel and coach Juwan Howard agreed to reinstate him.
Last year, Howard smacked a Wisconsin basketball staffer in the face after a game. Manuel suspended him for five games, but he was allowed to return to coach in the postseason.
There were the culture issues under former U-M hockey coach Mel Pearson. A 68-page WilmerHale report detailed several instances of misconduct including Pearson encouraging student athletes to lie on COVID-19 contact tracing forms, harassment of women in the program and retaliation against players for raising concerns about culture.
Manuel had the report on his desk for more than three months but didn't fire Pearson until days after the report went public.
The Michigan Daily recently reported longtime volleyball coach Mark Rosen signed a five-year extension last October before he was let go less than two months later in December. The FOIA office told that newspaper there was no record of a termination letter.
The three pillars
That we haven't heard formally from Harbaugh since the College Football Playoff (outside of statements through the program's social media) while he's accused of lying to the NCAA and his co-offensive coordinator is fired, is a lack of transparency.
That he didn't immediately quash NFL rumors after promising to do so a year ago shows inconsistency.
And for Harbaugh to let players such as Edwards and Smith — who do seem like thoughtful, reflective young men — continue to play despite major lapses in judgment skirts accountability.
Harbaugh has won two consecutive Big Ten titles and gone to the CFP twice in a row. He has returned Michigan football to the level dreamed of for decades. That's doing his job as a coach.
Manuel has overseen an athletic department that won 13 Big Ten championships in the 2021-22 academic year and has returned an athletic department that lost millions of dollars during the pandemic to financial solvency. That's doing his job as an athletic director.
But there's doing their jobs, and then there's living up to the ideals captured, well, in the words of Michigan's own fight song: "Hail! Hail! to Michigan/the leaders and best".
But when it comes to handling off-the-field issues, both have been far from being either leaders or the best.
Contact Tony Garcia at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @realtonygarcia.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's offseason demands accountability from Harbaugh, AD