ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Ric Flair strutted out of Schembechler Hall on Monday and into a private car.
The former pro wrestling legend was at Michigan to see Jim Harbaugh, as the two have been friends since the Wolverines coach played with the Chicago Bears in the late 1980s.
Flair was known as the villain in the wrestling world, and Harbaugh now finds himself and the Wolverines being described as the villains of the college football world amid allegations of sign stealing and in-person scouting that have triggered an NCAA investigation.
Despite what is being said outside the program, Michigan’s players aren’t shying away from the newfound target on their back and the criticism they’re receiving.
“I know there’s a lot of noise going on the outside of the building,” Wolverines offensive lineman Zak Zinter said. “Haven’t really paid too, too much attention to it. But I mean if someone thinks we’re the villain, I mean, I’m fine being the villain.
“You know, sometimes the villain wins and takes down the superhero. So, if that’s got to be the case, let’s be the villain and let’s take them down. I’m fine with being the villain if that’s how the media and everyone else sees it outside the building.”
Michigan’s program and former staffer Connor Stalions are being investigated for in-person scouting, with Stalions allegedly paying people to attend opponents’ games and record their playcall signals from the stands.
The NCAA also is investigating whether Stalions was in disguise on the Central Michigan sideline during the Chippewas’ game against Michigan State this season.
Criticism also has come from opposing coaches, with Purdue’s Ryan Walter asking publicly why there has been a delay in punishing Michigan as evidence mounts. Despite the criticism, Wolverines linebacker Jaylen Harrell said the team is focused only on what’s happening on the field.
“We don’t really react to it too much,” Harrell said. “We just keep everything, keep making the main thing, I think [Harbaugh] said last week, a one-track mind. We just focus on one day at a time, whatever we have in front us, we handle.”
The Wolverines have handled every opponent this season, sitting at 9-0 and outscoring their opponents 114-0 in the third quarter. Michigan has its biggest test upcoming with Penn State on the road Saturday.
Although Michigan’s players say they are not paying attention to the outside noise, Harrell believes it has been a motivator.
“I guess it’s an extra little chip,” Harrell said. “Whatever people got to say and, like I said, outside crowd noise, we don’t pay attention to it. But [our] main focus right now is prepare this week and get ready to battle with Penn State.”
Harbaugh said he has seen his players stay focused, and he mentioned after the 41-13 win over Purdue that the controversy has been the ultimate motivator for his players. While he said he is not able to comment on the investigation, he addressed the criticism and how he is viewing what is being said about him and the team.
“Nobody wants criticism, that’s why I work so hard to do everything right, both on and off the field,” Harbaugh said. “Because it’s been that way for a long time, since I was 22 years old. But if the criticism is directed to me and not my adolescent kids or the players on the football team, then I’m OK with it.”