Disguises, subterfuge, and conspiracy: college football’s sign-stealing scandal explained

What is Michigan accused of?

The Big Ten, the conference where Michigan plays, and college sports’ main governing body, the NCAA, claim that Michigan is a “huge network” from people who have covered the sidelines of future opponents, both in and out of conference, over the past three seasons.

Michigan and their head coach, Jim Harbaugh, deny any knowledge of the alleged cheating. On Friday the Big Ten banned Harbaugh from the sidelines on game days for the remainder of the 2023 regular season, though he will be able to work with his players during the week. The suspension is big news in the college football world, as Michigan is a national championship contender this season and Harbaugh is one of the biggest personalities in the sport. The Wolverines’ average attendance at home games exceeds 110,000 and they bring in tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year.

Is stealing signs illegal?

Unlike the NFL, there is no communication system between coach and player in college football. Instead of calling in plays through headphones in the quarterback’s helmet, staff communicate with their players through hand signals and graphics on the sideline. If an opponent can decode these signals, he or she has advanced knowledge of the game.

Sign stealing is a time-honored tradition in American sports. In the frenzied, multibillion-dollar world of college football, trying to decipher the opponent’s signals is a part of everyday life. Teams assign staff members to review opponents’ so-called “coaches film” or All-22 video in the lead-up to games, and to evaluate the “TV copy” of the game to try to decipher the opponent’s signals. During games, teams compare their pre-match notes with what they see on the opponent’s sidelines to confirm whether they have cracked the code or not.

Sign stealing in the week leading up to the game and during the game itself is part of the game within a game. What is prohibited under NCAA law is in-person scouting.

In the 1990s, the NCAA banned schools from sending staff members to the games of prospective opponents. School employees are no longer scheduled to attend future opponents’ games, where they can have a better vantage point on the sidelines.

Filming another team’s signals is prohibited under both NCAA and Big Ten law.

So how did Michigan get around the rules?

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

Stalions is a lifelong Michigan fan who presented a 600-page “Michigan Manifesto” to the school before being hired as a volunteer. He joined the staff full-time ahead of the 2022 season. In texts revealed by Sports IllustratedStalion boasted of sign stealing and his close relationship with Michigan’s staff. “I grew up with the vision of coaching football at Michigan my entire life,” Stalion said Soldiers on the sidelines in 2022.

Reviews of TV footage have shown Stals next to Michigan coordinators for several seasons, with a laminated copy of signs in hand.

Other Big Ten schools told ESPN that they had proof that tickets purchased through a third-party app were purchased under Stalion’s name. Tickets were purchased for games against future Michigan opponents on the 50-yard line, the ideal advantage for watching teams’ signals. Yahoo Sports reports this that Stalions also purchased tickets for games involving schools outside the Big Ten, which would be potential opponents if Michigan made the College Football Playoff.

Yahoo Sports also reported that TCU was aware of Michigan’s sign-stealing team before the teams faced each other in the 2022 College Football Playoff. TCU then used “dummy signals” in their 51-45 semifinal victory, alternating between the signals of which they knew Michigan had decoded them and new signals to deceive Michigan’s coaching staff and players.

After the NCAA and Big Ten acknowledged they had launched an investigation into Michigan, Yahoo Sports initially reported that the school fired Stalions before Michigan released a statement saying Stalions had resigned.

In a statement from his lawyersaid Stalion that no member of Michigan’s coaching staff, including Harbaugh, had any knowledge of rule violations or inappropriate behavior related to advanced scouting.

But isn’t sign stealing common?

Michigan draws huge crowds for every home game. Photo: Tony Ding/AP

Yes. The art of decoding an opponent’s boards has been around for as long as they have been using boards. The coaches’ ranks are filled with black market auction houses, cliques and pat-on-the-backs where employees from different schools share their research – perhaps to help another team beat a rival school or to help coaches climb the ladder in an industry built on nepotism.

A former Division III college football coach told ESPN that Stalions paid him “a few hundred dollars” and gave him a ticket to a Michigan home game to help take on a future Michigan opponent.

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 reads the statutes,” the coach told ESPN. “I just felt like if you’re not doing it, you’re not trying to move forward.”

Were there disguises involved?

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

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“Before we go any further, we are clearly aware of a photo floating around with the guy stealing the signs,” McElwain said at a post-match news conference after the photos were first reported. “Our people are doing everything they can to get to the bottom of it. We are not aware of it, completely unconscious.”

The person on the Central Michigan sideline was dressed in team gear, wearing Central Michigan pants, a polo shirt and a team hat. Throughout the game, the person on air was seen holding a clipboard and frequently stood apart from the rest of the staff with a visitor’s pass.

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

Michigan defeated Michigan State 49-0 on Oct. 22, the week the Big Ten confirmed it was investigating allegations of sign theft.

How did other schools respond?

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

Did Michigan offer a defense?

Michigan’s defense breaks down into two buckets:

1) Stalions was a lone, rogue actor who left the show. Stalion’s attorney issued a statement to The Athletic saying Harbaugh was unaware of attempts to steal opponents’ signs.

2) Everyone does it. Michigan shared evidence with the Big Ten on Nov. 7 showing that Ohio State, Rutgers and Purdue had conspired to steal signs in a coordinated effort. Michigan claimed they received a document from a former Purdue coach showing the three schools worked together to decode Michigan’s signs. That document was distributed to various media outlets, as well as to Big Ten and NCAA investigators. Michigan does not allege that any of the three schools mentioned used in-person scouting to steal signals.

The College Football Playoff is an end-of-season knockout tournament in which the top four teams in the country compete for the title of national champion. The CFP operates independently of the NCAA. Michigan is 9-0 in third place in the CFP rankings, behind Ohio State and Georgia. Even if the Big Ten or NCAA moved to overturn Michigan’s wins, the College Football Playoff committee would have the power to judge the team on its merits on the field. If the Big Ten excludes Michigan from the Big Ten Championship game, the lack of a win on their resume could impact Michigan’s chances of securing a spot in the playoffs.

If Michigan lost, would anyone worry about sign stealing?

Yes, but much less. Michigan is one of the most dominant teams in the country. After a rocky start to life in Michigan, Harbaugh has turned the school into a freight train. They have defeated archrival Ohio State the past two seasons and made the College Football Playoff in consecutive years. Part of the hysteria surrounding the scandal is that Michigan’s success coincides with alleged sign theft. Michigan finished 2-4 during the Covid-affected 2020 season. Since then, they are 34-3, with two Big Ten championships.

What’s next?

This isn’t ending anytime soon. The NCAA investigation into the allegations is still ongoing, and ESPN reports that Michigan has prepared to fight any discipline imposed by the Big Ten. That could mean Michigan tries to get a temporary restraining order so Harbaugh can still coach the Wolverines in Saturday’s game against Penn State.