Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh are being investigated by the NCAA for the second time this year.
A low-level staffer with a military background has emerged as one of the linchpins of the NCAA investigation into the University of Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing operation, sources told ESPN on Thursday.
Harbaugh has already served a university-imposed three-game suspension this season stemming from alleged recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period and for not cooperating with NCAA investigators.
Here are a few answers to questions based on what we know about the developing investigation.
What is Michigan accused of doing?
The NCAA notified Michigan officials and the Big Ten Conference on Wednesday that it is investigating allegations that the Wolverines were stealing signs. According to a report from Yahoo, Michigan allegedly had people attending future opponents’ games — as well as those of potential College Football Playoff opponents — to gather information about the teams’ signals for offensive and defensive plays that are sent from the sideline. The NCAA’s investigation also includes games prior to the 2022 season, sources told ESPN.
If the Wolverines sent people to games to steal signs, it would violate NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1, which states: “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited.” There aren’t a lot of details available, including how much, if any, head coach Jim Harbaugh knew about the sign stealing; how many games someone associated with Michigan attended; how long the alleged sign-stealing system has been used; what staff members, if any, attended future opponents’ games; and if electronic devices were used to record the signals.
Who is Connor Stalions?
Stalions is a person of interest in the NCAA’s investigation, sources told ESPN. He has worked as an off-field analyst for the Wolverines since May 2022. According to his LinkedIn account, he was previously a volunteer coach at Michigan from 2015 to 2022.
The son of two Michigan alumni, Stalions attended the United States Naval Academy, where he was a student assistant on the football team. After being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 2017, Stalions worked as a graduate assistant at Navy before beginning his military training, according to his LinkedIn account.
Stalions wrote on LinkedIn that he attempts to “employ Marine Corps philosophies and tactics into the sport of football regarding strategies in staffing, recruiting, scouting, intelligence, planning and more.”
Among the skills Stalions wrote about on LinkedIn were “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.”
Why is in-person scouting banned in college sports?
Sign stealing is technically not against NCAA rules and is a practice that has gone on with a wink-wink for decades. Scouting opponents in person was outlawed by the NCAA in 1994 as a cost-cutting measure.
The rule change eliminated all live scouting by staff members or scouting services, which was a big change for football and men’s and women’s basketball. University presidents believed it was just as easy for coaches to scout opponents on TV or tape. They also hoped it would bring more equity to the playing field because schools with smaller athletics budgets couldn’t afford to send their coaches all over the country on scouting trips like the big schools did.
Many coaches were upset when in-person scouting was banned nearly three decades ago, especially those from smaller schools who couldn’t watch their opponents’ games on TV. But coaches adjusted by swapping tapes of recent games. Coaches complained that they couldn’t gauge an opponents’ speed on tape or pick up details like cadence and tendencies without seeing them live.
How does college football send in its plays?
College football doesn’t use one-way helmet communications like the NFL does, so teams assign players and other sideline personnel to signal in plays. Teams usually have multiple signalers — only one who communicates the correct plays — to limit sign stealing. They also use large placards, often divided into four squares, that display logos, symbols and pictures of celebrities and pop culture references to identify certain plays. Some play sequences at the beginning of each half are scripted, so players know the general sequence of what will be called.
Why doesn’t college football use radio communication like the NFL?
Despite increasing support among coaches for helmet communications, college football has held off, namely because of cost but also some liability concerns. The vastly different budgets of leagues and teams would make helmet communication technology a financial challenge for the less-resourced programs throughout the sport. Steve Shaw, the national coordinator of officials, told The Athletic in 2022 that any change to helmets could void liability and warranty language, which then could open potential lawsuits for head injuries. “The long pole in the tent on this is getting the helmet authorization from the manufacturers and making sure they meet all standards and are totally supportive,” Shaw said.
One Power 5 coach told ESPN on Thursday, “Sign stealing is a huge issue in college football that no one talks about. It’s the easiest thing to fix. There are wearable devices. It’s embarrassing to watch college football and see all the lengths people go to to hide signals. It’s a bad look.”
What would this mean for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh given he’s already under investigation by the NCAA?
Harbaugh already faces NCAA charges of failure to cooperate and head coach responsibility related to recruiting violations committed during the COVID-19 dead period. Another violation by a member of his coaching staff could trigger another charge of head coach responsibility, which could potentially be a Level I violation. According to NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199: “An institution shall be considered a repeat violator if the Committee on Infractions finds that a Level I or Level II violation has occurred within five years of the starting date of a Level I or Level II penalty stemming from a previous case.” Because the NCAA has not ruled on Michigan’s Level II violations case, stemming from alleged recruiting infractions during the COVID-19 dead period, the school and potentially Harbaugh could be deemed repeat violators.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions rejected a four-game negotiated suspension for Harbaugh in the recruiting case, and Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension. With that case still needing to be resolved, an additional head coach responsibility charge based on alleged signal stealing would significantly increase his exposure to additional punishment, including a longer suspension.
The NCAA’s committee on infractions would not need to render its decision on the initial case for the repeat violator provision to be enacted. The infractions committee is not expected to make its decision on the first case until 2024.
Will Michigan have to forfeit games if found guilty?
The retroactive vacation of wins is always possible in major infractions cases. Sources told ESPN that the NCAA is investigating allegations that stem from before the 2023 season, so impacted games that Michigan won could be vacated. Other possible penalties include postseason bans, scholarship reductions, fines and coaching restrictions (game suspensions and off-campus recruiting privileges) for those who are implicated.
Is there precedent for sign-stealing accusations like this in college football?
Some coaches have been more tolerant of sign stealing than others. As Clemson’s longtime defensive coordinator, Oklahoma coach Brent Venables earned the reputation of being one of the best at stealing signs during games.
Before the Tigers played Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in 2021, Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said, “He’s one of the best defensive coordinators in college football. He does a great job calling the game. Seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing in terms of the plays that they’re running, each play. Seems to call the right defense into that play a lot. Why that is, I don’t really know, but I can tell you he’s been doing it for a really long time and it’s a good challenge.”
In 2015, Washington State coach Mike Leach, who was never one to mince his words, accused Arizona State of stealing signs. He doubled down before the teams met the next year.
“I think they still steal signs,” Leach said. “We’ll have to keep an eye on it. That’s certainly the reputation. And I think they have a certain amount of technology and expertise on the subject which if they ever go to a different conference or something I’d certainly like them to share it with us.
“But yeah, you’ve got to keep an eye on it because they’ll steal signs and they’re pretty clever about it. And it’s like breaking the enigma code with them. … I think they ought to do a full on investigation to see how they’re doing it and make sure it’s within the rules.”
Then Arizona State coach Todd Graham even admitted as much.
“We are definitely going by the rules,” Graham said. “There’s not anything illegal about looking at somebody’s signals or somebody’s groupings.”
In 2016, then-Baylor assistant coach Jeff Lebby was suspended for a half for being on the sideline at a Tulsa-Oklahoma game. Lebby was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to attend a wedding, and he and his wife had been invited to the game. Someone spotted him on the Golden Hurricane sideline and told him he wasn’t supposed to be there under NCAA rules, and Lebby left. He missed the first half of Baylor’s game against Oklahoma that season.
The NCAA accepted Baylor’s self-imposed punishment for a Level III violation.
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