Michigan president Santa Ono urged Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti to respect due process and the ongoing NCAA investigation into the football program as Petitti mulls potential discipline for the Wolverines for alleged off-campus scouting and signal stealing, according to a letter obtained by ESPN on Saturday.
Ono emailed Petitti on Thursday night, in advance of their meeting Friday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Petitti was attending the Big Ten field hockey tournament. Petitti and Ono discussed the allegations against Michigan, as well as the information Petitti has obtained from the NCAA, sources told ESPN.
In the email, Ono noted that no program would want to be in Michigan’s position and that he’s “deeply concerned” about the allegations, adding that the school is “committed to ethics, integrity, and fair play.” But Ono encouraged Petitti to let the NCAA’s investigative process play out before imposing discipline, which other Big Ten coaches and athletic directors have encouraged him to do.
Ono also shared the email with the other Big Ten presidents and chancellors.
Under the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy, Petitti has the authority to investigate and impose discipline independent of the NCAA’s drawn-out investigative and infractions process, which likely would extend well after the 2023 season.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Ono’s public support this week is “deeply appreciated” during a news conference Saturday night following his team’s 41-13 win over Purdue. Athletic director Warde Manuel declined to answer questions Saturday night about the investigation or whether he also met with Petitti during the commissioner’s visit to Ann Arbor.
“I have nothing to say,” Manuel said.
Harbaugh declined to answer questions about a potential punishment from the Big Ten. He said he felt that his players were motivated by any doubts about how Michigan’s alleged cheating might have helped the No. 3-ranked Wolverines win back-to-back Big Ten titles and start the current season 9-0.
“[They are] stalwarts and savage warriors,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, go ahead and question them on why they’re good and how they got good. That’s practically a priceless gift to get to where we want to go.”
The NCAA is investigating Michigan for allegedly sending people to the games of future opponents and recording their sidelines in order to learn their opponents’ play-calling signals. The investigation is centered on former Michigan analyst Connor Stalions, who resigned from his position Friday after initially being suspended with pay.
“It’s precisely at these times — when all key facts are not known but others are all too comfortable offering strongly held opinions — that it is essential for everyone to ensure that investigations are conducted fairly and that conclusions are based on what actually happened,” Ono wrote to Petitti. “The reputation and livelihoods of coaches, students, and programs cannot be sacrificed in a rush to judgment, no matter how many and how loudly people protest otherwise. Due process matters.
“We, as would any other member of the Big10, deserve nothing less. Our students, our coaches, our program — all are entitled to a fair, deliberate, thoughtful process.”
Ono referred to the pressure Petitti is facing from other Big Ten schools to impose discipline against Michigan. Petitti held calls this week with Big Ten coaches and athletic directors, many of whom pushed him to act, sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel.
“We are aware that other representatives of the Big10 are demanding that you take action now, before any meaningful investigation and full consideration of all the evidence,” Ono wrote. “That is not something our conference rules permit. And we both know it is not what any other member would want if allegations were raised against their people or programs.
“The Big10 has not informed us of any investigation of its own, as would be required under conference rules. And, to be clear, oral updates from NCAA enforcement staff do not and cannot constitute evidence, nor do we think the NCAA would ever intend for an oral update to be given that meaning or weight.”
Ono wrote that the “best course of action” would be to let the NCAA complete its investigation and that the Big Ten could not act against Michigan without launching its own probe first, which would give the university a chance to provide its position. The Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy states that the league commissioner “has the discretion to pursue, or choose not to pursue, an investigation as to whether an offensive action has occurred.”
Sources told ESPN that if Petitti takes action, he likely would target Harbaugh rather than a team-related penalty. If discipline exceeds a two-game suspension, Petitti would need approval from the Big Ten’s Joint Group Executive Committee, which can approve, deny or reduce a proposed penalty.
According to a source, Michigan will “look into every option to protect due process” if Petitti imposes discipline.
ESPN’s Dan Murphy contributed to this report.