Two days had passed since the Michigan football team’s dismantling of Rutgers, and Jim Harbaugh still wasn’t quite over the game. Earlier in the season, Harbaugh emphasized that he generally takes just a few hours to enjoy a victory. After that, his focus turns to the next game.
That mantra clearly doesn’t apply when Harbaugh is upset about something from the previous game. In his weekly press conference Monday, Harbaugh explained that he was still “offended” by the unsportsmanlike penalty call on his team late in the first half Saturday, when junior tight end Jake Butt made a 51-yard reception down Michigan’s sideline, only to be called back because the referees ruled that the play was intended to deceive the opponent.
Harbaugh insisted after the game that the Wolverines were not trying to deceive the Scarlet Knights. In Harbaugh’s version of the story, Butt was simply going to line up out wide. The fact that he trailed other players who were going to the sidelines was irrelevant.
Harbaugh did not change his tune Monday, discussing his disappointment with some of the calls made against his team at length, much of it unprovoked. He did not particularly understand the nature of the penalty that was called against this team.
“I take the rules very seriously, understanding the rules, understanding the consistency, the clarity of the rules,” Harbaugh said. “Not just the rules, but the spirit of the rules, and doing everything that we can to follow the rules.”
Harbaugh said he would like specifics so that he can show his team the proper protocol for substitutions, and ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen again. He also said he would like to know what else could be considered deception. What if, Harbaugh asked, a team decided to throw a backward pass into the dirt, only to have a player pick it up and throw it? Would that, too, be deception if the defense stopped playing?
The part that seemed to offend Harbaugh most, though, was not that his team was accused of attempting to deceive the opponent. It was that the Wolverines were accused of being unsportsmanlike.
Harbaugh, by nature, doesn’t always seem like a coach obsessed with sportsmanship. Sideline tirades are not uncommon, and videos have captured him hollering expletives at referees.
Still, he frequently preaches sportsmanship to his team. His players have had standing orders all season to refrain from trash talking and showboating. Redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers was worried that Harbaugh was going to yell at him for strutting into the end zone Saturday on his second-quarter touchdown run.
“I take my sportsmanship very seriously,” Harbaugh said. “(You) want to do it at the highest level, and you also want to be able to talk to your players about what the rules are to give them clarity.”
Michigan’s players preferred to let Harbaugh sort out any qualms about officiating and interpretation of rules.
“Players play, coaches coach, officials officiate, so we just do our part,” said junior defensive end Taco Charlton.
Michigan senior linebacker Joe Bolden, who was ejected from the Wolverines’ game against Michigan State in a call that also bothered Harbaugh, offered a similar perspective. Playing football is his task, not worrying about officiating.
Harbaugh said Monday that he did not want his focus to be on the officials, professing respect for what he considers a difficult job. His ire instead falls upon the rules themselves.
The intent to deceive call was not the only rule that offended Harbaugh. He used the same expression to describe his feelings about the lack of a penalty on a punt return from Saturday’s game, when Michigan redshirt sophomore long snapper Scott Sypniewski was upended by a hit to his upper body. The play was reviewed for targeting, but no penalty was called after the targeting call was overturned. Targeting calls have mystified Michigan this season, and Saturday’s was just the latest example. Charlton said referees came to one of the Wolverines’ practices earlier this season, but even that did not clear up the ambiguity.
“A player looks like he made a decision to hit him, hit him high, hit him in the back,” Harbaugh said. “At least should be a block in the back. Should be unsportsmanlike for making that play, so I’m offended for our defenseless player, so you can put that on the list of things.”
It is worth a reminder that Michigan won Saturday’s game, 49-16.