Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal, explained

The Michigan Wolverines are back in hot water less than two months after head coach Jim Harbaugh accepted a three-game penalty from the university for violating the NCAA protocols during the COVID-19 dead period. Now the No. 2 ranked Wolverines are the center of a sign-stealing investigation which allegedly began in 2021, according to a report Thursday from Yahoo Sports.

Harbaugh vehemently denied any knowledge of sign-stealing in a statement released on Thursday, but new information continues to emerge that makes difficult to imagine that Harbaugh wasn’t aware, if sign-stealing was occurring inside the program. Today we break down every aspect of this saga to try and understand exactly what’s happening.

What did Michigan allegedly do?

Little is known about the scope of the NCAA investigation at this time. Sign-stealing has always been a gray area more about honor than true enforcement. However, stealing signs is permissible so long as it happens in-person, and during the game itself.

The investigation is into whether Michigan used employees and third-party proxies to attend home games of future opponents to gather information on their play calling. It’s believed this process may have began in 2021. In addition, it is a violation if schools use any recording equipment in an attempt to steal signs — rather than just record on-field play for the purposes of scouting.

Two of Michigan’s 2023 opponents told Yahoo! Sports that they were made aware that the Wolverines knew their play signs. It’s unclear at this time who these opponents were, though there’s been rampant speculation that Rutgers could be one of these teams. In that game the Scarlet Knights were beaten 31-7 in a contest where Rutgers running back Kyle Monangai struggled to carry the ball 11 times for 27 yards (2.5 YPA), despite having a season average against non-Michigan opponents of 5.6 yards-per-carry.

It’s important to note that right now we’re at the investigatory stage, and no direct evidence has been revealed behind the NCAA allegations.

One staffer is now at the center of the scandal

Late Thursday night ESPN learned more details about the alleged Michigan sign-stealing, this time centering on a low-level staffer. Connor Stalions was hired by the Wolverines in 2022 as a “football analyst” after spending seven years working as a volunteer. The former marine detailed his role on the team as an entry on his LinkedIn page.

“On top of my daily duties as a Logistics Officer leading [40-plus] at a time, I volunteered for the Michigan football staff, flying back [and] forth on my own dime, assisting the defensive staff,” Stalions wrote.

Additional posts by Stalions on LinkedIn offer more information about his role for the team.

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.”

Stalions added that he wanted to “employ Marine Corps philosophies and tactics into the sport of football regarding strategies in staffing, recruiting, scouting, intelligence, planning and more.”

NCAA enforcement is allegedly seeking access to Stalions’ computer and electronic devices, presumably to see if there is any evidence of recorded sign-stealing — though sources speaking to ESPN have not yet confirmed the scope of the NCAA’s interest into the staffer.

If Stalions and others were indeed traveling to games to film the signals of opponents it would be the most widespread sign-stealing scandal in modern U.S. sports. Both the Astros and Patriots had their own scandals, however both centered on using recording equipment in their own facilities to gather information on their opponents. Where the Michigan allegations differ is having employees travel to away games and potentially film inside their stadiums, which is far beyond the scope of that the Astros and Patriots did.

The timing of the alleged sign-stealing is quite curious

Both the Yahoo and ESPN reports peg 2021 as the start of this potential scheme. This coincides with Harbaugh having success inside the program. In the six seasons prior under Harbaugh the Wolverines had a combined record of 49-22, since the scheme allegedly began the team has seen a tremendous jump in play, posting a 29-3 record.

This notably comes predominantly on the defensive side of the ball, where the alleged sign-stealing take place.

Michigan defense, 2015-present

Year Opponent Points Per Game National Rank
Year Opponent Points Per Game National Rank
2015 31.4 49
2016 14.1 2
2017 18.8 13
2018 19.4 16
2019 20.7 25
2020 34.5 95
2021 17.4 8
2022 16.7 7
2023 6.7 1

Prior to the alleged sign-stealing in 2021 Michigan had an average rank of 31 in points allowed under Harbaugh. Since the alleged scheme began that has risen to an average rank of 5th.

Correlation doesn’t equal causality, but the timing of Michigan’s rapid defensive rise is a little suspect. Outside of their 2016 season the team was middling defensively, and now they are one of the most dominant units in FBS.

In addition, 2021 was when Michigan signed Harbaugh to a massive four-year extension that paid him $7.3M per year — and came after a woeful COVID-shortened 2020 in which rumors began that the coach might be looking to return to the NFL. This was furthered in 2022 when Harbaugh interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings over their head coaching vacancy, and was linked to the Las Vegas Raiders job, before ultimately deciding to return to Michigan.

So as a total package we have a coach who was under a lot of pressure to win to justify his new contract, with a history of breaching NCAA rules, and at least flirtations with the NFL to potentially return. It’s far from a smoking gun, but it is a breeding ground where sign-stealing could have become a viable option to meet these goals.

What happens next?

We are very early in the NCAA investigation process, one that will likely take over a year to rectify. Harbaugh is still facing an official penalty from the NCAA for his COVID breaches, which aren’t expected until 2024 — which means possible penalties from this new scandal may not occur until 2025 at the earliest.

If a violation is found to have occurred by a staffer under Harbaugh’s watch it would likely result in another Level 1 violation.

We will have more on this story as it develops.

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