Michigan sign-steal scandal explained

What are Michigan accused of?

The Big Ten, the conference in which Michigan play, and college sports’ main governing body, the NCAA, claim that Michigan used a “vast network” of people to tape the sidelines of future opponents, both in and out of the conference, across the last three seasons.

Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of Michigan, and the university reject any knowledge of the alleged cheating. The Big Ten announced on Friday that Harbaugh would not be allowed to watch games on game days during the remainder of the 2023 regular season. Nevertheless, he will still be able to work with his players in the week. Given that Michigan is a strong contender for the national championship this season and that Jim Harbaugh is one of the biggest figures in college football, the suspension is major news. The Wolverines bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually, and their home game attendance averages surpass 110,000.

Is sign-stealing illegal?

Unlike in the NFL, there is no coach-to-player communication system in college football. Instead of calling in plays via a headset in the quarterback’s helmet, staff communicate with their players through hand signals and graphics on the sideline. If an opponent can decode those signals, they will have advanced knowledge of the play.

In American sports, there is a long-standing custom of stealing signs. In the fast-paced, high-stakes realm of college football, figuring out the signals of the opposition is a common occurrence. In the lead-up to games, teams assign staff members to watch opponents’ “coaches film” or All-22 footage and analyze the “TV copy” of the game in an attempt to figure out their signals. Teams will verify whether or not they have cracked the code by comparing their pre-game notes with what they observe on the other sideline during games.

One aspect of the game within a game is sign stealing both during the week before and during the actual game. In-person advanced scouting is prohibited by NCAA legislation.

The NCAA outlawed colleges from sending employees to future opponents’ games in the 1990s. The school no longer allows its employees to go to upcoming opponents’ games so they can watch from a better vantage point on the sidelines.

Videotaping another team’s signals is banned under both NCAA and Big Ten legislation.

So how did Michigan skirt the rules?

The scheme, it is alleged, was orchestrated by Michigan staffer Connor Stalions, a retired captain in the US Marines who worked as a recruiting analyst for the school.

Before being accepted as a volunteer, Stalions—a lifelong Michigan fan—presented the school with a 600-page document titled “Michigan Manifesto.” Before the 2022 season, he became a full-time member of the staff. Stalions boasted of his close relationship with Michigan’s staff and his ability to steal signs in texts that Sports Illustrated obtained. “I have always dreamed of coaching football at Michigan,” Stalions stated in 2022 to Soldiers on Sidelines.

According to reviews of TV footage, Stalions can be seen holding laminated copies of signs while standing next to Michigan coordinators for several seasons.

According to evidence provided to ESPN by other Big Ten universities, tickets purchased using a third-party app were made using Stalions’ name. Tickets were bought for games on the 50-yard line, which is the best spot to watch teams’ signals, against opponents who would later play Michigan. According to Yahoo Sports, the Stalions also purchased tickets to non-Big Ten schools that might play Michigan if the team advanced to the College Football Playoffs.

Additionally, according to Yahoo Sports, TCU was aware of Michigan’s sign-stealing squad prior to their 2022 College Football Playoff matchup. Then, in TCU’s 51-45 victory over Michigan in the semifinals, they employed “dummy signals,” switching between signals they knew Michigan had figured out and new ones to trick Michigan’s players and coaching staff.

Prior to Michigan releasing a statement stating that Stalions had resigned, Yahoo Sports first reported that the school had fired Stalions after the NCAA and Big Ten acknowledged they had opened an investigation into Michigan.

According to a statement from his legal representative, Harbaugh and the other Michigan coaching staff members were unaware of any violations of the rules or unethical behavior involving advanced scouting.

But isn’t sign stealing commonplace?

Indeed. For as long as teams have used signs, there has been a skill to decipher what the other team is trying to say. The coaching ranks are full of cliques, black market auction houses, and you-pat-my-back favors where staff members from different schools trade research, maybe to help a team defeat a rival or to help coaches advance in a nepotistic industry.

In exchange for helping to film a future Michigan opponent, Stalions paid the former Division III college football coach “a couple hundred dollars” and gave him a ticket to a Michigan home game, the coach told ESPN.

The coach said he recorded the opponent on his phone and uploaded the footage to a shared iCloud photo album. “You can call me naive, but no one is reading the bylaws,” the coach told ESPN. “I just felt like if you’re not doing it, you’re not trying to get ahead.”


Were disguises involved?

Of course. This is college football. Images surfaced online of a man who looked like Stalions standing on the Central Michigan sideline on 1 September during the team’s game against Michigan State. Central Michigan have multiple staff members who worked for Michigan last season, including head coach Jim McElwain.

“We’re obviously aware of a picture floating around with the sign stealer guy before we go any farther,” McElwain stated following the game at a press conference held following the initial reports of the images. “Every effort is being made by our people to find the truth about it. We are completely oblivious to it.

The person on the sidelines for Central Michigan was decked up in team apparel, including a polo shirt, hat, and pants. The individual was seen on camera carrying a clipboard and frequently standing apart from the other staff members while wearing a visitor’s pass during the game.

The school said it is reviewing whether or not Stalions was present on the team’s sideline and is cooperating with both the NCAA and Big Ten investigations.

Michigan beat Michigan State 49-0 on 22 October, the week that the Big Ten confirmed it was investigating allegations of sign stealing.

How did other schools respond?

On a conference call with Big Ten athletic directors, the conference’s commissioner, Tony Petitti, was pressed to take action against Michigan. Harbaugh’s suspension could impact Michigan’s Big Ten title bid and their place in the College Football Playoff.


Have Michigan offered a defense?

Michigan’s defense falls into two buckets:

1) Stalions was a lone, rogue actor who has left the program. Stalions’ attorney has given a statement to The Athletic in which he says Harbaugh was unaware of any efforts to steal signs from opponents.

2) It’s what everyone else is doing. On November 7, Michigan provided the Big Ten with evidence that purported Ohio State, Purdue, and Rutgers had planned to steal signs together. Michigan claimed to have received a document from a former Purdue coach that demonstrated how the three universities were cooperating to interpret Michigan’s signals. The Big Ten and NCAA investigators were among the media outlets that received access to that document. Michigan does not claim that any of the three institutions it named attempted to intercept signals through on-site scouting.

Does this mean Michigan out of the College Football Playoff?

The top four teams in the nation play in the College Football Playoff, an end-of-season knockout competition, to determine the national champion. The NCAA has no influence over the CFP’s operations. Michigan, with a 9-0 record, is ranked third by the CFP, behind Georgia and Ohio State. The College Football Playoff committee would still be able to assess Michigan based on its performance on the field, even if the Big Ten or NCAA decided to invalidate the team’s victories. The absence of a victory on Michigan’s record may hinder their chances of earning a postseason berth if the Big Ten keeps Michigan out of the Big Ten Championship game.

If Michigan were losing, would anybody care about sign-stealing?

Indeed, but much less. One of the most dominant teams in the nation is Michigan. Following a difficult beginning to his tenure at Michigan, Harbaugh has transformed the institution into a freight train. They have advanced to the College Football Playoffs in back-to-back seasons and defeated Ohio State, their bitter rivals, in each of the previous two seasons. The fact that Michigan’s success aligns with the purported sign-stealing scheme contributes to the scandal’s frenzy. In the 2020 season that was affected by COVID, Michigan had a record of 2-4. They have since won two Big Ten titles and are 34-3.


What’s next?

This is not going to end very soon. While the NCAA continues to look into the claims, ESPN notes that Michigan has been getting ready to challenge any sanctions the Big Ten may impose. This could imply that Michigan seeks a temporary restraining order in order to allow Harbaugh to continue leading the Wolverines against Penn State on Saturday.


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