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A Raiders pursuit of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh? The NFL and NCAA could present a problem.


As news of the Las Vegas Raiders’ firing spree settled Wednesday afternoon, with the franchise cutting loose head coach Josh McDaniels, general manager Dave Ziegler and offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi, a slow simmer of what happens next began to spread into various corners of the league and throughout agent circles.

Would a search firm be retained? Is there already a list of candidates on the back burner? Could Raiders owner Mark Davis try another unilateral approach, replicating his single-minded trek in 2018 that brought Jon Gruden back into the fold? Could he lean on confidants for guidance in what will be his fifth head coach hire (not including interims) since taking over the franchise following the death of his father Al Davis in 2011?

And finally, the familiar “big fish” question that has been trawled twice before in the past decade: Is there any shot the Raiders can hook Jim Harbaugh?

If this feels like an echo from 2014 and 2022, that’s because in may ways it is. The Raiders and Davis were rumored to be interested in Harbaugh in late 2014, when it was clear a messy divorce with the San Francisco 49ers was in the NFL’s pipeline. The pursuit was rumored again in 2022, when Harbaugh had finally turned a corner with the Michigan program and was in line for a reworked contract.

Like most pursuits that fail to find traction, there are widely varying stories about how close either side ever was to embracing the other. And this time around, with Harbaugh quickly becoming the hottest name connected to the Raiders’ vacancy, speculation and presumption is already running rampant. Not to mention a deepening curiosity about whether it could even happen under the specter of the NCAA’s investigation into the Michigan program for alleged on-site sign-stealing.

Wednesday was a prime example, with two league executives and two high-level NFL agents each posing some version of the question that will orbit Harbaugh and the Raiders: If the NCAA investigation ultimately leads to sanctions against Harbaugh, will commissioner Roger Goodell step in and uphold those sanctions on the NFL level?

Though most have long forgotten it, there is precedent to suggest that’s possible.

Jim Harbaugh has had a run of dominance in the Big Ten as head coach of Michigan in the past two seasons. That is under threat by an NCAA investigation over alleged on-site sign-stealing by a member of his staff. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) (Michael Hickey via Getty Images)

In 2011, the NCAA determined that Jim Tressel had lied to investigators to hide violations committed by players in the Ohio State program, while also knowingly playing athletes who should have been ineligible for competition. It moved to suspended Tressel multiple games the following season, but he ultimately resigned from the school in the midst of the probe. Months later, Tressel was hired by the Indianapolis Colts to serve as replay consultant during the 2011 season.

In a show of solidarity for the NCAA’s determination and while also weighing the fact that former and current (at that time) Buckeyes players were being forced to serve out their penalties in the NCAA and NFL, the Colts and Tressel moved to effectively suspended his employment by the team until the seventh game of the season. Despite Tressel’s involvement in the move, the arrangement was interpreted as the NFL pressuring an “equitable” delay of Tressel that would mirror the suspensions held against his former players.

While there was no direct line drawn publicly to the league office and Goodell, most took the move as yielding to public relations optics, which at the time were highly critical of Ohio State players being held responsible for the fallout of the NCAA investigation while Tressel was able to move on freely to NFL employment. Goodell’s own words later gave credence to that belief, saying publicly that he would have held Tressel accountable if the Colts hadn’t — despite failing to have any rule on the books that pertained to the NFL upholding NCAA sanctions at the professional level.

“I support that decision,” Goodell told ESPN after the Colts determined Tressel wouldn’t be used by the team until Week 7 of the NFL season. “I think that’s a wise one. … I think it was clear that if they didn’t take an appropriate action, I would have taken appropriate action.”

More than 12 years later and with Harbaugh and the Wolverines under NCAA investigation, it raises the question of whether Goodell or an NFL team could revisit the Tressel decision and again hold a coach responsible for sanctions at the NFL level. At this time, nobody across the NFL seems to know the answer to that.

“Speaking generally, I’d think like many things with personal conduct and conduct detrimental in player instances, Roger could also weigh in on coaches as well,” one NFL team president told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “Coaches have contracts that bind them to league arbitration, so I think Roger has the latitude to punish coaches as he sees fit and then if it’s something that requires legal arbitration, that’s where it would go. But I don’t think anyone really knows until it happens. Until Roger or the league does something — or even a team does something — it’s all a guess.”

Of course, this is all a theoretical question at this point. First and foremost, Harbaugh has to indicate his intention to leave Michigan and pursue an NFL job before any of this would become relevant to the Raiders or any other team. And at this point, that hasn’t occurred. There also have been media reports that a contract extension with Michigan is still in play, which would render any interest from the NFL a moot point.

Nothing has happened yet that would suggest there’s a certainty of Harbaugh facing sanctions. The NCAA’s investigation is still ongoing. Any determinations by investigators are subject to a long and drawn out appeals process that could take months, if not years. Even the initial thrust of NCAA determinations are long and drawn out. For example, per NCAA bylaws, if a notice of infractions was delivered by the NCAA to Michigan, the school would have 90 days to respond. At that point, there would be hearings scheduled with an infractions committee and what amounts to a legal battle would begin to move forward.

That process could take an expansive amount of time before any final judgement is rendered. And all the while, the impacted parties could move on with their lives until everything is ultimately settled by the NCAA’s committee on infractions. That means in a way, nothing tangible in this process even begins until an investigation ends.

But with Goodell’s previous comments on Tressel’s hiring providing some historical context, you can bet the Raiders or anyone else hoping Harbaugh could take a turn toward the NFL will want a clear answer to at least two questions:

If the NCAA were to sanction Jim Harbaugh in any way following this investigation, would an NFL team face pressure to hold up those sanctions if it were employing him at that time?

And …

If an NFL team refused to uphold NCAA sanctions — which do not appear to have any tangible written governance in professional football coaching contracts — would Goodell make good on his previous threat in the Tressel case to “take appropriate action”?

The Raiders and any other team pursuing Harbaugh in the coming months — if he doesn’t sign a new deal with the Wolverines — is going to be asking these questions. And until there is a concrete answer, any other suggestion will fall into the same massive swirl of speculation and curiosity that is orbiting Michigan and its head football coach right now.

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