April 14, 2024

Connor Stalions, the suspended Michigan staffer at the center of the NCAA’s sign-stealing probe, purchased tickets in his own name for more than 30 games over the past three years at 11 different Big Ten schools, sources at 11 different league schools told ESPN.

The scope of the University of Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing operation includes both video evidence of electronics prohibited by the NCAA to steal signs and a significant paper trail, sources told ESPN. Stalions forwarded the tickets he bought to at least three different people in different areas of the country, sources say, which hints at the breadth of the operation.

The NCAA is expected to receive video evidence this week of illegal technology used in scouting tied to tickets purchased by Stalions, according to sources. An opposing Big Ten school looked up in-stadium surveillance video from a game earlier this year, and sources said the person in the seat of the ticket purchased by Stalions held his smartphone up and appeared to film the home team’s sideline the entire game.

Sources confirmed to ESPN that Stalions purchased tickets on both sides of the stadium — across from each bench — for Ohio State‘s game with Penn State on Saturday. Michigan plays both teams in upcoming weeks. According to sources, the tickets purchased by Stalions were not used Saturday. Stalions’ name emerged publicly in an ESPN story Friday. He was suspended with pay by Michigan.

None of the tickets that the 11 schools told ESPN about involved Michigan as an opponent, per sources. The games involved either one or both of the teams that the Wolverines were playing later that season, according to sources.

Stalions did not respond to ESPN’s request for comment. Michigan on Monday reiterated that it is unable to comment further due to the ongoing investigation.

“The Big Ten conference considers the integrity of competition to be of the utmost importance. Due to the ongoing nature of the NCAA investigation, the conference has no comment at this time,” the league said in a statement Monday.

Michigan is ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, looking for its third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff. It is the current betting favorite to win the national title.

Sources indicated that Stalions forwarded tickets to at least three other individuals, with the ticket transfer showing up through ticket data tracking. Those tickets were used by individuals other than Stalions to get into the game, including the one in the video the NCAA is expected to receive.

Sources told ESPN last week of an “elaborate” scouting system, and that appears to be emerging less than a week after Yahoo Sports first reported that the NCAA was investigating Michigan’s scouting. Stalions often purchased the tickets with his own credit card, according to sources. The sources added that tickets at multiple venues were bought via the online retailers such as StubHub or SeatGeek.

The ticket purchases fall into a seat location pattern — somewhere around the 45-yard line and raised up enough for a clear view of the opposite sideline.

One source told ESPN that Stalions bought tickets to five different games at that school over the past three years. Another said it was four games over the past two years. A third source said it was nine games over the past three years. Some of the purchases were single tickets, others were for multiple people, and sometimes seats were bought on both sides of the stadium near midfield.

One source said Stalions bought some tickets across from the home sideline in order to scout the home team, which Michigan played that season. But the source added there have also been tickets purchased on the other side of the stadium facing the sideline of the opponent, including one purchase across from the visiting sideline in the weeks before Michigan played Ohio State.

In the back half of last season, for example, tickets were bought by Stalions on both sidelines for one league game in which Michigan had both opponents remaining on the schedule.

Officials around the Big Ten are upset, according to sources, as allegations of this type of coordinated and orchestrated capturing of signals looms as distinctly different allegations than the gamesmanship of attempting to decode signals from across the sideline (in-game stealing is not prohibited under NCAA rules).

The alleged evidence of the signals being captured on film means the Wolverines could now face more scrutiny for violating an additional NCAA rule.

The first NCAA rule in question is scouting in opposing stadiums, which has been in place since 1994. The second potential rule being broken, evidence of which had not been reported prior, could mean that Michigan violated Article 11 subsection H of the NCAA football rulebook: “Any attempt to record, either through audio or video means, any signals given by an opposing player, coach or other team personnel is prohibited.”

It’s uncertain who was funding the purchases. Stalions makes $55,000 per year, according to the University of Michigan’s website. But the operation included thousands of dollars in ticket sales and the cost of travel to the stadiums.

Even if the school doesn’t sell the ticket directly, it can electronically trace the tickets to the school’s home games, sources said, including the time the person entered. School officials around the Big Ten began to trace Stalions’ purchases on Friday, soon after ESPN named Stalions as a person of interest in the NCAA’s probe early Friday morning (sources said the NCAA has interest in his computer as part of the investigation).

The schools began discovering Stalions had bought the tickets himself, and it raised suspicions because either the home school or visitors were future Michigan opponents. Stalions is a former captain in the United States Marine Corps who boasted on LinkedIn of his knack for “identifying and exploiting critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity in the opponent scouting process.” He’d been a volunteer at Michigan, according to LinkedIn, from 2015 to 2022 before being hired full time in May 2022.

Soon after ESPN identified him as a central part of the probe, he erased multiple social media accounts.

Michigan, which was already involved in an NCAA investigation for alleged illegal recruiting during the COVID-19 dead period, has pledged full cooperation with the latest investigation. There’s no precedent to indicate what any potential punishment would be for Michigan or coach Jim Harbaugh, as NCAA enforcement has never seen a case of this scope in signal stealing.

The allegations against Michigan could be greater than what got the New England Patriots in trouble during the Spygate scandal that unfolded during the 2007 season. The crux of those allegations revolved around in-game taping of opponents’ signals during Patriots games.

The potential of these allegations being added to the NCAA case could increase Harbaugh’s exposure to punishment by the NCAA’s head coach responsibility rules, which essentially state the head coach is responsible for everything that happens in his program, whether they are aware of it or not.

Harbaugh said after Michigan’s 49-0 win over Michigan State: “There’s been stuff. There’s been attempts to diminish the team in a lot of ways, starting with the easy schedule. They just play.”

Last week, he denied “illegally stealing signals” in a statement.

“I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment,” he said on Thursday. “I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.

Michigan has a bye this week before playing Purdue at home on Nov. 4.

ESPN’s Dan Murphy contributed to this report.

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