The football program at the University of Michigan, among the favorites to play for the national championship, has become embroiled in an alleged sign-stealing scheme that involved impermissible, in-person scouting of opponents going back as long as three seasons.
Both the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference, of which Michigan is a member, have been looking into the claims for at least three weeks while the second-ranked Wolverines (9-0) continue their season. Coach Jim Harbaugh has denied any knowledge of any kind of improper scouting scheme in his program.
The NCAA investigation is likely to take weeks if not months. Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti, who has had the job for about six months after a career in Major League Baseball and television, decided to take more immediate action: He banned Harbaugh from coaching in the team's final three regular-season games, including Saturday's showdown at No. 9 Penn State.
Michigan, which warned it would go to court to challenge any discipline, followed up by seeking a court order late Friday. Harbaugh served a three-game, university-imposed suspension earlier this season for an unrelated and still unresolved NCAA violations case tied to recruiting; his team won all three games.
Here is what you need to know about the scandal that could hang over the rest of the season.
There are no NCAA or Big Ten rules against football teams trying to decipher each other's play-calling signs. It's understood when teams square off, there will be eyes on the sidelines looking for clues.
Teams go to great lengths to protect their signals, though the exact value of having another team's signs is hard to peg. Coaches say it has become something of an epidemic in college football as no-huddle offenses became the norm.
There are, however, clear NCAA rules against in-person, advanced scouting of opponents during the season that date to the mid-1990s and were put in place because not every school could afford to do it. Using electronic equipment to record another team's signals is also banned by the NCAA.
Punishments are extremely rare; in 2015, the Big 12 Conference issued a public reprimand of then-Baylor assistant Jeff Lebby for being on the sideline during an Oklahoma game. He was suspended for the first half of Baylor's game against the Sooners in a Baylor-imposed penalty.
In this case, the Big Ten noted that both the league and the school were warned by the NCAA about the allegations — an unusual step — "due to the unprecedented scope of the then-alleged scheme,"
If it seems old school that teams still use signs to signal plays it is because the NCAA does not yet allow coach-to-player audio technology that is a familiar sight in the NFL. That so far remains off limits, also because of concerns that not all schools would end up with equitable systems.
THE MICHIGAN CASE
The allegations against Michigan center on a former low-level staffer, Connor Stalions, purchasing tickets to the games of future opponents and sending people to those games to record video of that team's signals.
The Big Ten called it “an organized, extensive, years-long in-person advance scouting scheme,” backing up earlier media reports. In announcing the penalty, Petitti described a “master spreadsheet” that included sign-stealing assignments and “monetary amounts associated with certain assigned games.”
Multiple Big Ten schools say they found records of tickets purchased in Stalions’ name to their games and surveillance video of the people sitting in those seats pointing their phones toward the field.
Photos on the internet also suggest Stalions was on the Central Michigan sideline during the Sept. 1 game against Michigan State, wearing CMU gear and sunglasses. Central Michigan said it was working with the NCAA.
Just who tipped off NCAA investigators is among the unanswered questions.
WHO IS STALIONS?
Stalions had been employed by Michigan since 2022 as a recruiting analyst. Social media accounts for Stalions identified him as a graduate of the Naval Academy and a longtime Michigan football fan.
He was suspended by the university shortly after the NCAA and Big Ten acknowledged the school was being investigated. Two weeks later, he resigned, saying through his lawyer that neither Harbaugh nor any member of his coaching staff told anyone to break any rules or were aware of improper conduct regarding the recent allegations of advanced scouting.
Now that Petitti has decided to punish Michigan — as plenty of coaches and administrators around the Big Ten suggested he should — the school awaits word from a judge on whether the penalty will be stayed.
Michigan contends the commissioner does not have the authority to punish Harbaugh, especially when the NCAA investigation is not complete. The Wolverines say they also have proof that shows other teams in the Big Ten have stolen signs in ways that could also violate the sportsmanship policy.
Whether that argument will work in court is an open question. The Big Ten doesn't think it will, saying it “vehemently rejects any defense by the university or any other conference member that cheating is acceptable because other teams do it too.”
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Ralph D. Russo, The Associated Press