Michigan Sign Stealing Scandal: Everything That’s Known (So Far)

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Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, front left, watches against Rutgers as analytics assistant Connor Stalions, right, looks on during an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 23, 2023. Stalions was suspended by the university last week and is at the center of a sign-stealing scheme that is being investigated by the NCAA.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Chase Kiddy @chaseakiddy Nov 09, 2023, 3:14 PM
  • Michigan sign stealing has dominated college football news in recent weeks.
  • Michigan assistant Connor Stalions illegally recorded opponents’ signs for plays. He has now resigned.
  • Michigan football was already under investigation for other NCAA violations.

Over the last few weeks, the college football world has been rocked by the Michigan sign-stealing scandal.

Fortunately, there are no clear ties to the world of online sports betting. Nevertheless, bettors and non-bettors alike are keen to read up on all the details of the unfolding story, since the growing distraction has a chance to derail many of the great achievements (like Michigan 2023 Heisman odds) that could be on the table for the Wolverines. 

Michigan Football Scandal

Michigan has been accused of proactively stealing signs by traveling to opponents’ games to observe their sideline codes for play-calling. 

Stealing signs isn’t strictly illegal in and of itself, but it can turn into an illegal act depending on how you go about it. 

Michigan’s alleged actions here are clearly over the line according to NCAA rules, which specify that, “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited.”

For more on the nuts and bolts of sign stealing, you can check out my other explainer: What Is Sign Stealing In Football?

Michigan Sign Stealing Timeline

Here’s what we know so far about the timeline of Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal:

  • On Oct. 17, an external investigative firm brought evidence of alleged sign stealing to the NCAA. The NCAA begins preparing for a priority investigation into the Michigan sign-stealing scandal.
  • On Oct. 20, Michigan assistant coach Connor Stalions was suspended with pay, pending the outcome of an NCAA investigation.
  • On Oct. 24, ESPN reported that Stalions had purchased tickets to road games at nearly every Big Ten conference opponent, plus four other schools that were not Big Ten programs, but were known College Football Playoff contenders. 
  • On Oct. 27, a former Division III player and coach told ESPN on the record that he had been compensated with both cash and Michigan football tickets for recording the Wolverines’ upcoming opponents. 

Michigan Sign Stealing Scandal: What Did Jim Harbaugh Know?

Jim Harbaugh, the head coach at Michigan, claimed not to know anything about the sign-stealing scandal in a statement first released on Oct. 19:

“I want to make it clear that I, and my staff, will fully cooperate with the investigation into this matter,” Harbaugh said.

“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. I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.

I do not condone or tolerate anyone doing anything illegal or against NCAA rules.

No matter what program or organization that I have led throughout my career, my instructions and awareness of how we scout opponents have always been firmly within the rules.”

Other Michigan Football NCAA Issues

Regardless of what Harbaugh did or didn’t know about the sign stealing, it’s impossible to argue that things are rosy right now in Ann Arbor. 

That’s because Harbaugh and Michigan are already beset by other rules & compliance issues, including an FBI investigation into a former assistant. Harbaugh was also forced to miss the first three games of the season after a self-imposed punishment tied to a minor recruiting violation.

In September, after returning from suspension, Harbaugh rededicated his program to the rules, commenting that, “We’re going to set a gold standard for rules compliance. We’ve done an incredible job. We’ve gone to the nth degree to follow every rule.”

So either Harbaugh truly didn’t know anything about the sign stealing that was happening on his staff, or he has lied pretty brazenly to the public. 

Who Is Connor Stalions?

Connor Stalions is a Michigan Athletics administrative specialist who started working with the football program in 2022. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 2017 and is a captain in the Marine Corps. 

Stalions first became associated with Michigan football as a volunteer assistant in 2015. At the time, he openly bragged about his ability to steal opponents’ signals simply by paying close attention during the television broadcast, which, ironically, is not illegal. 

But Stalions appears to have radically evolved his operation since 2015, and social media has been quick to dive into the receipts. Take, for example, this discovery of Stalions’ Venmo account from the day before last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal games:

Or this well-circulated video of Stalions reacting to Ohio State’s signs during last year’s rivalry game:

There are plausible explanations for this behavior, but it’s just as likely that this is Stalions’ sign-stealing work, unhidden and in plain view. 

If so, it’s hard to imagine his job status surviving this scandal. 

Connor Stalions, Michigan Football Part Ways

On Nov. 3, Connor Stalions resigned from his assistant position at Michigan.

Michigan Sign Stealing Scandal: What Did Other College Football Teams Know?

While rank-and-file college football fans didn’t really know much about the Michigan sign-stealing scandal, it appears that it was a known secret among college football coaches.

TCU, which played Michigan in last year’s CFP semifinal, reportedly got a number of calls from Big Ten coaches (and others) who cued them into what’s been happening at Michigan.

As a result, TCU prepared countermeasures. For example, the Horned Frogs would lock in a play call, then simulate a new, fake play call using their regular sign schemes. This interfered with Michigan’s ability to anticipate the coming play calls.

TCU defeated Michigan, 51-45.

Michigan Sign Stealing Scandal: Potential Punishment

Michigan is arguably the best team in college football this year, which means any potential punishments could hypothetically interfere with the Wolverines’ ability to finally seize that elusive national championship. 

That assumes the famously slow-moving NCAA can actually mount and conclude an investigation into Michigan’s sign stealing across the next 60 days. 

Suppose Michigan beats Ohio State and Penn State. In that case, it’s very hard to imagine the Big Ten doing anything to jeopardize its own rooting interests ahead of this year’s College Football Playoff. 

In the weeks since the story broke, the conference has warned that it may punish the Michigan football program.

But the reality is it’s unlikely the Big Ten would do anything to interfere with its chance for a national championship while Michigan remains relevant in the title picture. 

If Michigan fails to position itself as the top team in the conference, though, the Big Ten and the NCAA may be in greater alignment about how to punish Michigan. That could include bowl bans and deeper, more painful lack-of-control suspensions for Harbaugh.

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About the Author

Chase Kiddy

Read More @chaseakiddy

Chase Kiddy is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of The Lion's Edge, an NFL and college football podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else. He has also written for a number of print and online outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Daily News-Record, and HERO Sports. His first novel, Cave Paintings, is in development.

Chase Kiddy is a writer for BetMGM and co-host of The Lion's Edge, an NFL and college football podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and everywhere else. He has also written for a number of print and online outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, Daily News-Record, and HERO Sports. His first novel, Cave Paintings, is in development.