How new Michigan staffer strayed outside NCAA rules, exposed Jim Harbaugh's hypocrisy

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In the Michigan community directory and on the athletic department’s website, Ryan Osborn is listed as an analyst. It’s a vague title with a job description even more nebulous. The role was created more than a decade ago as deep-pocketed football programs invested their money in personnel and built outsized staffs that numbered in the dozens.

The men who hold these positions tend to operate in the shadows while scouting opponents, formulating detailed game plans, crunching data and consulting with the on-field assistants.

What they can’t do, according to the NCAA, is coach.

But multiple people inside the program have said Osborn was doing just that.

Taylor Upshaw, one of the team’s eight newly labeled edge defenders, revealed as much during an April 5 news conference held in the final stretch of spring practice, when he told reporters Osborn was leading his position subgroup instead of third-year defensive line coach Shaun Nua.

“The reality is Nua is more like a D-tackles coach right now,” Upshaw said. “Coach Osborn is really our main guy. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s a good coach. You can tell just with his passion and the things he’s getting us right with our technique.”

Upshaw wasn’t the only one who raved about Osborn’s impact training the team’s collection of outside linebackers and defensive ends.

An anonymous Michigan edge player told the Detroit Free Press in May that Osborn helped refine his footwork and taught a different way to “flip our hips.”

He then added, “Coach Nua and Coach Oz, it's interchangeable ...They are interchangeable, man. They serve the same purpose. They’re both coaches. Nobody is doing more or less.”

Another spring practice participant, who spoke to the Free Press on background due to the sensitivity of the subject, noticed Osborn “working” with players in drills.

"I wasn’t there with him teaching me stuff," he said.

But according to section 11.7 of the NCAA manual, Osborn is prohibited from providing “technical or tactical instruction … to a student-athlete at any time” and is “prohibited from participating … in on-field activities.” Otherwise, he’d have to be classified as one of Michigan’s 15 countable coaches, which include Jim Harbaugh, his 10 on-field assistants and four graduate assistants.

No word on self-reporting

Asked in April if the football program could refute Osborn had been coaching as defined by the NCAA, a U-M spokesman did not provide a direct response.

“Our compliance office routinely reviews a wide range of NCAA rules issues, and forwards those findings to the Big Ten and NCAA should it be deemed appropriate under the established rules,” the email reply read.

But a week after preseason practice began this month, Harbaugh acknowledged Osborn overstepped his bounds in the spring.

“We’ve addressed that,” he said last Friday. “Like, early spring, I was coaching the quarterbacks and it's my job to be on that and make sure a guy is not over-coaching his position. Ryan Osborn is an analyst; he has got to do analyst duties. That correction has been made. We’re all on top of it. Myself included. Once we became aware of that, put a stop to it. ...Now they know, they know what the assignments are. That happened very early in spring ball.”

Asked on Monday if Michigan self-reported Osborn’s activities to the Big Ten or NCAA, a U-M spokesman — referring to the previous emailed response — said, “We don't have anything to share beyond what was provided previously.”

Harbaugh's had a lot to say on the topic

Osborn’s potential brush with an NCAA violation came less than a year after Harbaugh chastised Ohio State’s Ryan Day during an August 2020 Big Ten coaches call about a Buckeyes assistant pictured working with players at a time when on-field instruction was forbidden. It was the latest instance that Harbaugh had taken a vocal stance about following the letter of the law. During his first season at Michigan, Harbaugh was rankled when the Wolverines were whistled for the famed “Intent to Deceive” penalty, moaning days later about the in-game call.

“I take the rules very seriously, understanding the rules, understanding the consistency, the clarity of the rules,” he said in November 2015. “Not just the rules, but the spirit of the rules, and doing everything that we can to follow the rules.”

Two years ago, Harbaugh made headlines for another preachy quote he gave author John U. Bacon in the book, “Overtime.”

“Hard to beat the cheaters,” he said, without identifying any of the so-called rule-breakers or the type of violations they may have committed.

“I would tell my coaches never, never go out and start pointing the finger at someone else because, in this business, you’re pointing every finger on your hand back at yourself,” said Ohio University professor David Ridpath, a former compliance director at Weber State and Marshall.

But Harbaugh has unwittingly opened his own program to scrutiny since Osborn, 33, came aboard this offseason following a one-year stint in the Football Championship Subdivision as a defensive line coach at the University of Tennessee-Martin. The addition of Osborn filled a critical need after the program struck out on hiring one of his former colleagues, Florida linebackers coach Christian Robinson.

Osborn, after all, worked for the Gators as a graduate assistant and was familiar with the inner workings of the attack-minded 3-4 defense run by Todd Grantham, a mentor of new Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

In late April, after the conclusion of spring practice, Osborn shared multiple pictures of blocking sleds at Michigan’s indoor facility by tagging the manufacturer, Rogers Athletic, in a celebratory tweet. It’s the same company that made a dummy seen in an earlier picture of Osborn, where he was photographed working with a Florida player when he was permitted to do so in the role he held at the time. Osborn’s social media post raised the question of why he would find that equipment useful if he was now forbidden from providing on-field instruction as an analyst.

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Yet Osborn has continued to present himself as a full-fledged coach, emerging as a point person in Michigan’s high school recruiting. Four-star edge defender Mario Eugenio, who committed to the Wolverines in July, recently said Osborn told him “how he was going to use me and how I fit their defense.

“Yes, he did,” Eugenio continued, “because he will be to be one of my coaches — him and Coach Nua.”

Consequences for some programs, but not others

Osborn, who once wrote on his LinkedIn page that he was “determined to work at a Division 1 Football Program,” spent the early part of his career toiling in the lower rungs of the college ranks in ancillary roles such as video coordinator. Todd Berry, the American Football Coaches Association executive director, noted that younger support staffers like Osborn can get carried away and don't understand "what some of the repercussions can be" if they are caught exceeding their duties.

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Yet it’s an open secret in college football circles that more well-funded programs gain a competitive advantage when analysts routinely find their way to the field, where they deliberately or unintentionally assist players in their development, offer tips and teach them technique. Some players can’t distinguish between on-field assistants and noncoaching staff members, according to Berry. The lines are further blurred because some analysts are well-known figures in the sport who have run their own major Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

“It has been, for whatever reason, difficult to enforce, and I don’t know that it’s been enforced across the board,” Berry said. “And I do think there have been some abuses there also in relation to that… There have been conversations to make sure this doesn’t happen, that there is not the temptation; to basically ban them from practice and to not let them on the field in any form or fashion. But that has never come to fruition.”

Ridpath said the NCAA doesn’t have eyes everywhere, which means policing this practice is rather difficult. Besides, he said, an analyst crossing the line shouldn’t constitute more than a Level III secondary violation with a mild corrective action if it’s isolated and self-reported by the university. But there have been cases where staffers in noncoaching positions have committed infractions that led to stiffer penalties, especially when there has been a pattern of wrongdoing.

In April, the NCAA tagged UTEP football with a one-year probation after the school’s administration acknowledged multiple quality control specialists offered skill instruction during practices over a prolonged period, which wasn’t permitted because they weren’t among the program’s countable assistants. The team’s head coach, Dana Dimmel, also received a one-year show cause.

Now, Nebraska coach Scott Frost is in the crosshairs of the NCAA, according to The Action Network. The website reported Wednesday the Cornhuskers are under investigation for improper use of analysts and consultants -- even going so far as to assign one of them control over the special teams in 2020. In Harbaugh’s original contract, there is a clause stating that “he will also use his best efforts to ensure compliance with Governing Rules by the Program’s student athletes, assistant coaches and all other Football Program personnel that directly report to Head Coach.”

Speaking about the potential risks that come with violating the rules, one analyst at another major Power Five program told the Free Press, “It ain’t worth it. It just isn’t worth it… I’ve got people filming practice and I am not going to go out and get caught on film doing stuff you’re not supposed to do.”

The rules are clear, he added, noting he was asked to sign an “NCAA-type” form delineating allowable activities from impermissible ones.

'It's not Ryan's fault'

The Power Five analyst’s aversion to risk also raises the question of how sensible it would be to have support staffers illicitly coaching on game days with the presence of television cameras and thousands in the stands peering down at the sideline.

If Osborn continued as a point person for an important position subgroup, as multiple players revealed, it would seem impossible for him to carry out his role when the Wolverines are playing because he’s not allowed to provide “technical or tactical instruction” or even “signal plays.”

“To have this coach working in practice and not be able to help you during the games,” Ridpath said, “that would just be kind of strange.”

Then again, so too is an analyst who emerged as a key figure on a rebuilt staff by doing more than he was permitted.

“It’s not Ryan’s fault,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a coach. He wants to coach, he wants to talk.”

But as Harbaugh also understands, rules are rules.

Follow Rainer Sabin on Twitter @RainerSabin.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football analyst Ryan Osborn coaching contrary to NCAA rules