June 13, 2024

BEFORE JAMIE GRANT entered the Florida House of Representatives, he was a former high school football player working on the equipment staff for the Auburn football team in the early 2000s. But his responsibilities extended beyond loading and unloading the bus.

He also assisted the coaches, helping run drills in practice. Somewhere along the way, a member of the staff approached him with an opportunity to be the third ball boy on the visiting side of the field during games.

Never mind that Grant didn’t know a single thing about the job. The staff was more interested in his knowledge of the game as a former player. The other two ball boys would handle the grunt work. He just needed to act the part, steer clear of the referees and keep his eyes and ears open.

“I was going to hold two footballs and my only job was to try and pick up intel,” he said.

When it comes to sign stealing in college football, a consensus among coaches about what is unequivocally wrong is hard to find. Grant said Auburn tried to decipher signs only in real time. Because of that he never felt like they were crossing the line.

But talk to enough coaches and you’ll find shades of gray when they search for a competitive advantage. Paranoia is rampant, rationalizing the kind of behavior American Football Coaches Association executive director Todd Berry said is, at the very least, unethical.

Ethics in college football. Imagine that.

“There’s honor amongst thieves,” a former SEC coach said. “Want to turn someone in? Fine. But you better make sure no one in your building is doing anything remotely resembling cheating.”

Last Thursday, the Big Ten confirmed that the NCAA is investigating Michigan for an alleged off-campus sign-stealing operation. Coach Jim Harbaugh denied any knowledge or involvement in plotting to steal opponents’ playcalling signals by sending representatives to their games. The supposed ringleader of the operation, an analyst named Connor Stalions with a military background, was suspended by Michigan with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation.

On Monday, ESPN reported that Stalions purchased more than 30 tickets to 11 different Big Ten venues over the past three years. Sources said the alleged sign-stealing operation includes both video evidence of electronics prohibited by the NCAA to steal signs and a significant paper trail.

Several Big Ten coaches noted to ESPN the difference between in-game signal scouting versus advance scouting, which ultimately launched the NCAA probe of Michigan. Coaches’ attitudes between the two are sharply different.

ESPN surveyed coaches in the aftermath of the news out of Michigan to see what they thought. Some were aghast at what Michigan is accused of doing. Others shrugged their shoulders. A Big Ten coach said, “If they were sending people to live-scout and film, that’s bulls—, then they should catch hell.”

But another coach with Big Ten and SEC experience asked what the big deal was in practical terms. Between the TV broadcast, coaches’ tape and what fans film with their phones and post online, the coach said there’s more than enough footage that’s accessible without ever leaving the office. “Anything that happens in the public eye hasn’t gone too far,” the coach said. “To be honest, I can watch TV copy [of] two to three games and get everything I need.”

Sign stealing, whether legal or illegal “is incredibly rampant in this business,” a longtime Power 5 assistant said. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles told ESPN in December that he estimates 75% of teams do it in some form. NCAA rules don’t directly ban stealing signals, but they prohibit using electronic equipment to record signals and ban off-campus scouting of future opponents.

Berry, whose organization includes more than 10,000 members, has lectured coaches about stealing signs. “Quite honestly,” he said, “I don’t think it’s OK.” But he acknowledged that improvements in technology have made it so much easier to access information than in the past.

“I’m going to admit to this,” said Berry, who was last a head coach at Louisiana Monroe in 2015, “I would have fans that would go to opponents’ games and film their sidelines and film just on their phones, their smartphones, and then send me that stuff.” But, he added, “I didn’t look at it because that was wrong.”

Berry said you can call coaches paranoid.

“But I will tell you this: Anybody that denies it and says, ‘Oh, nobody’s doing that,’ that is ridiculous. That’s silly to even think that.”

THE NCAA’S INVESTIGATION into Michigan did not generate much surprise around the Big Ten. Although signal stealing is somewhat common around the league, some coaches said Michigan had been pushing the limits.

“No one’s that good,” a Big Ten coordinator said.

Stalions also had appeared on other teams’ radars. Big Ten coaches said they had seen him on the Michigan sideline in their games, often positioned next to the defensive coaching staff. They suspected what he was doing.

Another Big Ten coach added of Stalions: “Everybody knows he’s the guy.” But he and other coaches, both within and outside the conference, said any scouting operation involves more than one person.

A Big Ten coach said he and the staff decided to hold back what they did in their annual spring game, mindful of who could be in the stands. Another Big Ten coach said his program has kept film off of its internal server because of a potential hack.

A coach said he “didn’t feel good” about playing any game near Michigan’s campus because of who could be filming his sideline.

“We knew about it,” he said. “We started changing our signals.”

Said one Big Ten coach: “The game day [signal stealing] is just part of it. That’s why everybody [tries] to hide it. It’s just part of the deal. But sending people to games and doing it that way is flat-out wrong, which is why this has caused a pretty big stir. It’s not supposed to be that way.”

HOW FAR ARE coaches willing to go, exactly? There have been accusations of employing lip-readers and taking advantage of sympathetic referees. Coaches worry that their headsets have been hacked. Everyone on the sideline is subject to scrutiny.

The teams that have a reputation for pushing the boundaries are well known, as are the individual coaches and staff members who are considered gurus. A source rattled off the name of a Group of 5 linebackers coach and Power 5 offensive line coach who are well-versed in the dark art of deciphering signals. Going into certain games, the source said he’ll warn coaches, “You need to be prepared for this.”

When LSU played Clemson in the 2020 College Football Playoff, sources said the staff suspected Clemson of sending people to scout them in the SEC championship game and Peach Bowl. Brent Venables, then Clemson’s defensive coordinator, has long been the focal point of sign-stealing speculation, according to multiple sources, though no one has publicly accused him of anything illegal. After LSU’s first three offensive drives ended with three punts and one first down, sources said a frustrated coach Ed Orgeron told offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, “Change it up.” Upon changing signals, LSU scored touchdowns on five of its next six drives.

It was hardly the first championship game in which a team allegedly cracked an opponent’s code. During the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin was heard in the TV broadcast telling quarterback Jameis Winston that Auburn assistant Dameyune Craig, who was on the Seminoles’ staff the previous year, was “calling all the plays” FSU was running. Coaches brought out towels to shield the signalers in the second half and went on to outscore Auburn 24-10 to come from behind and win. A victorious coach Jimbo Fisher acknowledged their signals were stolen — and couldn’t have cared less. “That’s our fault,” he said. “You’ve got to change them. … That’s part of the game.” Fisher rehired Craig in 2017 and brought him to Texas A&M, where he remains on staff today.

Grant, the Auburn ball boy, said it usually took him about a quarter to figure out who was the dummy signaler and who was live. From there, it was as simple as matching signals to plays. He recalled a game against USC when he picked up on their naked boot call. “He’d kick his heel and tap his ankle,” Grant said, comparing it to an exaggerated cowboy gesture, spurs and all.

The only problem? The staff member he relayed the signal to either forgot or ignored him, because USC ran a naked boot and QB Matt Leinart hit the receiver for a big gain.

So, cracking the code doesn’t always yield results. Coaches need to act on the information and players have to execute. Even then, it’s not guaranteed success.

“Where’s the line?” Grant asked. “If it’s out in the open, I think it’s OK.”

A former SEC coach said there’s an expectation you’re being watched at all times, including opponents sending spies to spring games and open scrimmages.

Some teams push the boundaries more than others, but ultimately coaches say it’s not hard to tell when you’ve been skunked.

A former head coach said it’s simple. If a defense blows up your bubble screen three times in a row, chances are they have your number and you better switch things up and hope your players don’t get confused.

“Look, we’re all trying to compete and everybody’s trying to find that advantage,” a source said. “And if the advantage is that the guy that’s on your sideline can watch their sidelines and pick it up … at some point in time, you got to be better at hiding your signals. That’s just all there is to it. I mean, if we’re going to live in a world where signals exist, you’ve got to hide them.”

BUT WHAT IF we don’t have to live in a world with signals?

Depending on what level of football you’re talking about, that world already exists.

“It’s 10:56 right now,” an industry source said. “They could call CoachComm [which produces headsets for nearly all of the FBS] and have this fixed by 11. They could overnight helmet speakers to every school by the end of the day.”

Berry’s frustration built slowly over the course of a half-hour conversation, starting with mild annoyance over coaches’ shenanigans and ending with outright anger over the NCAA’s inability to take up the solution staring them in the face.

“This is too easy a problem to solve,” he said.

You don’t want to use a speaker in the helmet like the NFL does with quarterbacks? Fine. Some coaches have suggested that it would put no-huddle offenses at a disadvantage because the quarterback would have to audibly relay the play call to teammates. Administrators, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about forcing every school to wear the same helmet.

Instead, Berry said, they could utilize a wearable technology independent of the helmet like PitchCom, which is currently used in professional and college baseball, that every player on the field would have access to. And he said that it wouldn’t necessarily allow offenses to go faster, which is what some defensive-minded coaches fear. “We’ve done all the testing on it,” Berry said, “and by the time that you punch in those things on your laptop on the sideline or your iPad or whatever you’re going to end up utilizing, it takes about the same amount of time [as signaling].”

As Berry pointed out, colleges already use both forms of technology in practice. High schools use it, too. So maybe the obvious excuses of cost and implementation don’t hold water.

“If you want to clean up what’s going on at Michigan and every other school, put a transmitter,” a longtime official said. “The NCAA talks about losing the warranties on the helmets. With the USFL, XFL, NFL, with transmitters, it does not lose the warranty. I don’t care what it costs, we want it. Clean up the game, make it more professional. It’s just technology.”

SEC coaches discussed utilizing in-helmet communication this spring, but it ultimately went nowhere, sources said, after two main points of contention were brought up: possibly voiding the warranty of helmets and not being able to use them in nonconference games. Big Ten coaches have discussed installing helmet communication, which several support. They were told cost, reissuing warranty and liability language on the helmets could be a stumbling block.

In recent conversations with Bill Carollo, the Big Ten’s longtime coordinator of football officials, he has strongly advocated for the use of helmet technology to limit signal stealing.

“We were able to play a COVID year, but we aren’t able to put transmitters in headsets?” a Power 5 coach said. “C’mon. You look at sideline technology, you go to high school football games, they all have sideline technology. They’re watching video in-between series, they have it just like the NFL. We have none of that. Of all the games, we’re the worst right now. It’s weird. It really is weird.”

Berry said there’s ample support among coaches to make the change, and the NCAA committees he’s spoken to seem open to the idea as well. All they need is a demonstration of the technology, he said. But he’s been unable to get that accomplished, given the attention on name, image and likeness and transfer portal.

“We have so much crap going on — and you can quote me on that — that we can’t see the forest through the trees,” Berry said. “Every meeting I’m at, something takes all the oxygen out of the room. There are some things that are really, really simple like this one, boom-boom, it’s done.

“It’s been a problem for a long time. We need to resolve it.”

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