Sources: Michigan assistant at center of NCAA investigation purchased tickets to potential CFP opponents

On the morning of Oct. 24, 2022, as the then-7-0 Michigan Wolverines entered the Monday of their bye week, a young recruiting analyst on staff opened a secondary market ticket website, selected a seat in Neyland Stadium for the Tennessee Volunteers’ upcoming game against Kentucky and punched in his credit card information.

That analyst was Connor Stalions, the now-suspended Michigan staff member at the center of an NCAA investigation into illicit sign stealing.

Stalions’ alleged in-person scouting of college football games went beyond Michigan’s Big Ten opponents. He purchased tickets to games involving teams that the Wolverines might meet in the College Football Playoff as well.

One of those included Tennessee, who at that point was undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the country, having beaten Alabama two weeks prior. Sources within the program released information on Stalions’ ticket-purchasing under the condition of anonymity.

At 11:42 a.m. that day, Stalions purchased a single ticket to the Tennessee-Kentucky game on Oct. 28, 2022. Three minutes later, he transferred the ticket to another person. That person did use the ticket, attending the game and sitting in a seat positioned opposite of Tennessee’s sideline in range of viewing the coaching staff’s signals, a source confirmed to Yahoo Sports.

ESPN reported Monday that Stalions purchased tickets to 30 games involving Big Ten teams, but he also booked tickets to several games involving CFP contenders. In what appears to be an elaborate web of in-person scouting — against NCAA rules — Stalions used several associates to attend games and record a team’s play-call signals.

He purchased tickets involving several more teams, most of them at that time in line for CFP bids or participating in championship games. Those teams are believed to be Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Oregon. He bought tickets for the 2021 and 2022 SEC championship games, according to sources familiar with the information.

Like the Tennessee case, Stalions purchased a ticket to the Oregon-Washington game on Nov. 12 and then immediately transferred the ticket to another person. The seat was facing the Oregon sideline. The Ducks at the time were ranked No. 15 in the country.

Stealing an opponent’s signals during a game or even from television broadcasts is quite common in college football and is not against NCAA rules. However, the NCAA’s investigation is more focused on how Michigan and Stalions gained information on its opponents to learn such signals in advance.

If the school learned information through scouting future opponents’ games in-person, that violates a near 30-year-old NCAA rule. If the school learned information through the use of recording or video devices, that violates another NCAA bylaw.

Harbaugh’s involvement or knowledge of the alleged scheme is unclear. In a statement Thursday, the coach denied knowledge of the accusations of sign stealing and in-person scouting of opponents.

Sign stealing, even to this magnitude, is an issue that provokes disagreement from an ethical standpoint. One Big Ten school source described Michigan’s sign-stealing system as an “elaborate scheme” that relied on a combination of video footage and in-person recordings and something that should be banned.

“Some things are so obvious you don’t do it. It doesn’t need to be written down,” said one source.

Others paint the picture differently: “If you don’t like it, stop it,” another staff member said.

Either way, the scheme, now dating back at least three years, has been known to those in the Big Ten for at least a year. News of the sign-stealing spread enough that multiple Michigan opponents this season dropped its signaling and used wristbands for much of the offensive play-calling during the game against the Wolverines.

Connor Stalions is shown on the Michigan sideline. (Obtained by Yahoo Sports from a Big Ten school staff member)
Connor Stalions is shown on the Michigan sideline. (Obtained by Yahoo Sports from a Big Ten school staff member)

As reported by Yahoo Sports on Friday, photos and video of Stalions during games have emerged of him standing on the sideline near Michigan coaches while gesturing and gripping a white sheet presumably with opponent play-call signals.

According to LinkedIn, Stalions served as a student assistant for the Navy football program while in school there in 2013-2016 and was a graduate assistant on the staff. In his LinkeIn bio, Stalions described himself as being adept at “identifying the opponent's most likely course of action and most dangerous course of action” and “identifying and exploiting critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity in the opponent scouting process.”