Tom Mars: Jim Harbaugh would not have been able to influence NCAA's James Hudson decision

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

The verbal ping-pong between Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell has also become a dizzying mess of fan bases jousting on social media and radio shows.

Harbaugh is right. Fickell is wrong.

Fickell is right. Harbaugh is wrong.

The bottom line is few people, including coaches, fans and sportswriters, know the NCAA transfer-waiver ropes like lawyer Tom Mars, who became the authoritative voice on the subject after skillfully and successfully representing, most notably, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.

Mars maintains his private practice with Mars Law Firm and the NCAA recently announced he is a member of the newly formed Complex Case Unit. He is no longer working with student-athlete clients seeking NCAA transfer waivers, but has handled more transfer waivers than any lawyer in the country and knows the process and knows the rules probably better than anyone.

At the heart of this story, which was brought to the forefront this week with an article published by The Athletic, is former Wolverine James Hudson, who transferred to UC but was not granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. In May, Hudson shared on Twitter that his appeal had been denied and revealed he had been dealing with depression but didn’t feel comfortable seeking help while at Michigan.

Fickell said Michigan did not “back the waiver.” Hudson’s mother, Glenda, said in the story that Michigan had undermined her son’s transfer waiver. Harbaugh at his news conference Tuesday night called Fickell “erroneous” and said Michigan did not block the waiver, adding that’s not possible anyway.

“That is not in the coaches’ hands, it’s not in the university’s hands, it’s not in his hands,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “The way the process works right now, those waivers are decided by the NCAA.”

Fickell was asked Wednesday night about Harbaugh’s comment that the schools have no input on an NCAA appeal.

“I know differently,” Fickell said.

Mars knows differently, as well. He told The Athletic he wouldn’t share how he knows, but he knew what Michigan’s position was on the Hudson waiver and said anyone who believes “Michigan was not supportive is wrong.” He added he isn't aware what Michigan “could have possibly done to change the outcome in the James Hudson case.”

In text messages to The Detroit News on Thursday, Mars explained and shared his insights on the complexities of the waiver rules and how many might be confused by the nuances.

“Finding the exceptions to the year-in-residence requirement and the specific requirements for each requires one to begin with the 440-page (NCAA) DI Manual, which has a table of contents that might as well be labeled, ‘Don’t Start Here,' ’’ Mars said via text message. “Then, if you’re fortunate enough to find what you’re looking for, which often refers you to another bylaw with exceptions to the exception, you have to go to the Legislative updates that have been published since the annual DI Manual went online and search through those to see if anything has changed, which is usually the case.

“With that in mind, it’s probably not wise for coaches and other people who don’t deal with this complex minutia every day to speak publicly as though they’re an authority on transfer waivers.”

Harbaugh said he was told he would have no influence when Mars spent nearly five months working to ensure Patterson’s immediate eligibility at Michigan last year and removed himself from the process.

“Unless I’m reading them wrong or mistaking them, I believe he’s under the impression these waivers are decided coach to coach in some kind of deal fashion,” Harbaugh said of Fickell. “That is not the understanding that I’m under. I’m under the understanding that the NCAA decides these waivers."

Patterson’s case was filed under the “egregious behavior” exception and then was converted to a “mitigating circumstances” waiver request the day after the mitigating circumstances exception was approved by the Legislative Council last April. Patterson’s waiver was granted the next day. The waiver, which was adopted in April 2018 and, in some circles is referred to as the “Shea Patterson Rule,” requires that the former school not object to the waiver, which has the effect of giving the former school veto power, Mars said.

“The cooperation angle never came into play until the new rule was passed last year and made effective immediately to allow the Ole Miss transfers to be eligible,” Mars said. “The type of waiver used in the Fields case was also ‘mitigating circumstances.’ In both cases, the media comments from the schools that sought the waivers praised the former school’s cooperation, more as a matter of collegiality than anything else.”

Mars said it occurred to him Thursday morning that the confusion regarding the rules has generated what he calls “this myth” as fans and media debate the Harbaugh vs. Fickell issue.

“The myth that the enthusiastic support of the player’s former school can or will affect the outcome of a waiver request appears to be the result of sports writers, coaches, and the fans confusing the requirements for a ‘mitigating circumstances’ waiver and nearly all the other categories of waivers – none of which include a requirement that the former school ‘not object,’ but which contain specific documentation requirements that are not necessary for a ‘mitigating circumstances’ waiver,” Mars said.

“It’s been my experience that the level of support from the player’s former school only affects the outcome when the waiver is sought under the ‘mitigating circumstances’ exception to the ‘year in residence’ requirement, or is sought under what’s commonly referred to as the ‘run off rule.’ I’m not aware of any waiver requests filed under the ‘family hardship’ or ‘athlete injury/illness’ exceptions where the level of support from the former school had any bearing on the NCAA staff’s decision to grant or deny the waiver.”

In other words, Mars is suggesting Harbaugh would not have been able to influence the NCAA's decision about Hudson's waiver appeal because it likely would have been an "athlete injury/illness" case.

Harbaugh has said he supports a one-time transfer for football players, no questions asked. But for now, and until a proposal like that gains steam and approval, the waiver appeal process remains challenging and, at times, difficult to navigate.

As Mars pointed out, with that in mind, coaches and fans couldn’t possibly understand all the minutia and details of the transfer rules. Ultimately, this isn’t decided by the school from which a player transfers or the school to which a player transfers.

It’s in the NCAA’s court.


Twitter.com: @chengelis