In punishing Michigan football, Big Ten’s Tony Petitti maintains league credibility, gains trust of members

Friday decisive action by the Big Ten was not supposed to be Tony Petitti’s sweet spot. The possibility of a scandal as pervasive as Michigan’s alleged sign stealing was certainly not part of the job interview to be Big Ten commissioner.

Try to envision this question from the search committee last May when Petitti was hired to lead the conference: What if a slappy fanboy develops a mind-blowing, elaborate scheme to gain a heinous on-field advantage? It involves spreadsheets, minions and lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers. What are you going to do then?

That never came up for obvious reasons. Who would contemplate that?

A former television executive hired to market the nation’s oldest — and perhaps most respected — conference is a highly regarded idea man. Petitti added another label to his legacy Friday in his short time on the job: credible.

That’s as good a way as any to describe how Petitti oversaw the implementation of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s three-game suspension amid the ongoing NCAA investigation into a sign-stealing scandal led by (now former) Wolverines staffer Connor Stalions.

The 13-page document announcing the move was as stunning, thoughtful, wide-ranging and as transparent an explanation you’ll see for this level of scandal.

You can disagree with Friday’s decision by the Big Ten; you cannot criticize how the Big Ten arrived at its ruiling.

This was not some half-assed effort. It was a cerebral blitz, an approach Harbaugh himself might dig if he wasn’t involved in the legal battle that might last right up until Saturday’s kickoff against No. 10 Penn State.

With decades of experience in another industry, Petitti made a different name for himself on the ground in his new job. He can govern a major conference.

He may not have had much of a conference to govern had he not heeded the wishes of the Big Ten’s other 13 coaches and athletic directors.

They made clear their anger in Michigan gaining advantage, as slight as it may seem to the Wolverine on the street. Better to make the Maize and Blue more blue than lose the support of the remainder of the league.

In suspending Harbaugh, Petitti removed any possible asterisk that might have been attached to Michigan’s players. Their accomplishments have not and should not be diminished.

At a time when surely no one would trust the NCAA to host a block party, the association deserves credit for exposing the wrongdoing. Petitti deserves credit for listening to NCAA president Charlie Baker, who warranted the situation serious enough to inject himself into alerting the Big Ten.

The NCAA took an unprecedented step in opening the case file of an ongoing investigation and sharing it with the Big Ten.

Petitti and the Big Ten’s lawyers have correctly pointed out what may be the deciding factor in the case. Michigan and its lawyers all agree on one thing: “… the existence of the impermissible scheme is proven.”

Everybody’s stealing signs? Perhaps, but neither to this extent nor in this manner (involving advanced in-person scouting of opponents and electronic equipment).

Petitti and his lawyers laid out a compelling case involving a “master spreadsheet” assembled by Stalions.

U.S. Integrity was looped in. The Las Vegas-based firm — used by all Power Five conferences — oversees corruption in the gaming industry. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey informed the Big Ten that Stalions had purchased tickets to last year’s SEC Championship Game. In other words, he was there to advance scout a possible Michigan opponent in the College Football Playoff.

Petitti threaded the needle with a hammer. Most of us weren’t around for the Kentucky point-shaving scandal in the 1950s. That was before there was an NCAA enforcement department. SMU and the death penalty? A case can be made for a lot of that pay for play being routine today.

But there is something un-American about the competitive advantage Michigan enjoyed. If you’ve ever watched the tallest kid in third-grade basketball go for 30 points against your son’s team, you get the picture. This picture is bigger, wider, more historic.

The Big Ten was formed in 1896 during a time of upheaval. There were so-called “ringers” being rounded up to win games back then. It’s not that the Big Ten members of the 19th century weren’t rounding up those ringers. It’s that then — like now — the league was interested in a level playing field.

The Big Ten considers itself as elite academically as it is athletically. Friday’s move at least allows the league to look itself in the mirror. Everybody steals signs? No, not like this. Not this widespread. Not this sinister.

All of it might be moot if a friendly judge issues a restraining order, but that’s hardly the issue now.

Petitti made his stand. He was hired to assimilate USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington into the league while coming up with bold, new ideas to market the conference.

The man practically created the BCS and oversaw what ultimately became CBS Sports Network. He has loads of high-level corporate media experience. Little did anyone know his time managing with the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal as MLB COO would be valuable in the Big Ten.

On Friday, the commish hit out of the park.

Worst of all?

If it happened as alleged, Michigan didn’t need to cheat. The Wolverines are playing so well right now they almost doesn’t need Blake Corum, their leading rusher, 2022 All-American and perhaps Heisman Trophy finalist had he not hurt his knee last season. But without him this year, Michigan would still be 9-0. Maybe a closer point differential (currently a staggering 306) but still undefeated. The Wolverines are that good.

That has been overshadowed lately. We should be writing this week about Corum’s loyalty in deciding to come back for another year. He has not disappointed leading the country in rushing toucdowns (16).

Go ahead and play the weak schedule card. At some point, there is the reality of what Harbaugh has built: a powerhouse. There have been consecutive Big Ten titles. That is not a comfortable conversation at the moment.

At the end of 2020, Michigan was 2-4 with its coach finding himself on the hot seat. Yes, that timeline may coincide with the beginning of Stalions’ influence. Yes, that may beg the ultimate question: Why cheat in the first place?

For those of us old enough to remember, there is Watergate element to all this. Richard Nixon didn’t need to give tacit approval to a break in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters 50 years ago. Like Michigan now, Nixon was that dominant in the polls. Five months later, he beat George McGovern in the United States presidential election by 23 percentage points.

That more or less equals the number of points Michigan is beating opponents by each week.

That comparison begs perhaps the biggest question of the season: If cheating happened, why did it happen? Unfortunately, both the questions and answers have to share space in this theater of the absurd. Poor/great JJ McCarthy is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Will he get fair consideration?

CFP officials have weighed in saying the scandal will not matter inside the rankings room. Suggesting the Michigan team shouldn’t be eligible for the CFP is ridiculous, of course.

However, blame Harbaugh and Michigan for making such blather worthy of discussion. Fabled Michigan athletic director Don Canham once said, “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.” That timeline has been blown out of the water.

In this sport, impropriety is always good for business.

The players have already been unfairly dragged into this mess. Corum this week had to disavow a business partnership with Stalions originating in Wyoming of all places.

“My attorneys are on it,” Corum told reporters.

That unlocked a fitting realization in this scandal that has evolved into a living, breathing Netflix documentary: Corum has attorneys — plural.

Seems about right on a day when a lot of reputations transformed.

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