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NFL likely won't be safe harbor for Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh from potential NCAA discipline

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Amidst a tumultuous week for Michigan football, speculation has ramped up again about head coach Jim Harbaugh potentially making his long-discussed return to the NFL.

It might not be that simple.

The NFL is unlikely to make itself a safe harbor for Harbaugh to escape what could be substantial NCAA discipline, league sources say, raising the strong possibility Harbaugh would need to serve some or all of any possible suspension he could face in college if he returns to the pros.

There isn't a bylaw governing the matter. But sources pointed to former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel as precedent for how the NFL and its teams could handle a college suspension of Harbaugh, who already served a school-imposed three-game suspension this year for alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period and not cooperating with investigators, could still be further disciplined by the NCAA in that case and now faces allegations against the program for an elaborate sign-stealing operation.

Back in 2011, Ohio State quarterback Terrell Pryor was facing a five-game suspension for trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos when he declared for the NFL supplemental draft. Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the five-game suspension, saying in a then-statement: "This smacks of a calculated effort to manipulate our eligibility rules."

Tressel -- who also was suspended five games by Ohio State, but ultimately resigned as Buckeyes coach amidst the scandal -- had taken a game-day consultant job with the Colts, and the NFL's decision on Pryor raised questions. As is often the case with coaches, the league allowed the team to handle the case, and the Colts announced Tressel wouldn't be with the club until Week 7 of the 2011 season.

It wasn't officially announced as a suspension, but in consultation with the NFL, the effect was the same. And the point was made: No one should escape discipline by leaving college for the pros.

That precedent could prove relevant for Harbaugh, who interviewed for the Vikings and Broncos head coaching jobs the past two offseasons, respectively.

A former NFL quarterback, Harbaugh was highly successful in his first run as an NFL head coach with the 49ers from 2011-14, going 49-22-1 (including playoffs) with three NFC Championship Game appearances and a trip to Super Bowl XLVII, where the 49ers lost to Harbaugh's brother, John, and the Ravens 34-31. Jim Harbaugh left for his alma mater, Michigan, after the 2014 season.

Asked last month by about potential interest in the NFL, Harbaugh released a statement through the team's media relations department saying in part: "My wife, dad or brother, the people I trust the most, would be the only individuals that I would speak with regarding my future, and we have not had that conversation."

Yahoo! Sports first broke the story last week that the NCAA was investigating a sign-stealing operation -- allegedly run by a low-level staffer -- centered around in-person scouting of future (in-season) opponents, which has been prohibited at the college level for decades. No reports have established a direct link to Harbaugh, who said in statement: "I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment. I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action. I do not condone or tolerate anyone doing anything illegal or against NCAA rules."

However, that doesn't absolve Harbaugh from potential discipline. The NCAA still has not ruled on the recruiting violations and non-cooperation case. And another violation by a member of his staff related to the alleged sign-stealing scheme could potentially be considered a so-called Level I violation and head coach responsibility charge, opening up the possibility of an even longer suspension.

Michigan had a bye this weekend. The Wolverines are 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

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