June 18, 2024

The story that college football fans can’t seem to get enough of is one that coaches all around the country can’t stop talking about either. What happens next for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, as the NCAA investigates its signal-stealing operation and alleged in-person scouting led by suspended analyst Connor Stalions, is a topic of endless fascination among stunned coaches in the industry.

The Athletic surveyed 50 FBS coaches and asked them to assess the seriousness of Michigan’s alleged actions, where it rates on the wide spectrum of dubious behavior in the sport, how they now view the Wolverines’ recent success and much more. More than a dozen head coaches offered their takes, as well as coordinators, assistants, analysts and staffers from all 10 FBS conferences. Coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for their candid responses.

Their answers provide something many have been in search of as the Michigan allegations continue to dominate the news cycle: context.

How serious are Michigan’s alleged actions?

Most in college football had never heard of anything quite like what has been reportedly going on at Michigan. The Athletic asked coaches how they would rate Michigan’s alleged scheme of attending future opponents’ games to film and steal signals on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being not a big deal and 5 being very serious.

Almost half of the coaches surveyed (46 percent) rated it a 5. The average score among the 50 coaches was 4.2. Only two ranked it below a 3.

“It’s easy to call plays when you know what the defense is,” said a Pac-12 head coach. “It’s a huge deal that someone went to another game and filmed all their signals. That’s Spygate stuff. They were flying around the country? It’s crazy.”

The Wolverines’ reported paper trail of tickets purchased in Stalions’ name has only added to the intrigue and outrage.

“In some ways, they should be held accountable for just sheer stupidity,” said a Sun Belt head coach. “They could’ve done this for years and years and never been caught if they’d just been smart about it.”

A Mountain West linebackers coach who rated the seriousness of the allegations as a 4 was just as baffled by the recklessness of the alleged scheme: “If you’re gonna do it like that, at least be subtle about it. They were so arrogant and brazen and didn’t hide it all. (It) just showed how much they didn’t care about the rules.”

“That’s one of the few rules that nobody is brave or stupid enough to just step over,” said one staffer at an SEC program. “My God, what idiots. Doing it is one thing. Getting caught is an entirely other thing.”

Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting responses came from coaches who have worked in the Big Ten and faced Michigan.

“We knew they had a signal guy, this Navy Seal or something,” said one former Big Ten analyst (Stalions is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a retired captain of the Marine Corps). “We were very concerned about it. Our head coach was super concerned about it. … In 2021, (Michigan pass rushers) Aidan Hutchinson and (David) Ojabo had these hand signals for run/pass, but we figured that was legit. It got us into the mindset that they were looking for tips and tells. That isn’t a coincidence. We never would’ve guessed it was this deep.”

One of the two coaches who ranked the seriousness 2 recently spent several years in the Big Ten as an assistant. He believes this type of advanced scouting goes on more than some might think, but probably not to the same degree.

“A lot of guys are coward-ing out, acting like they’re at places that haven’t done stuff that’s also crossed the line,” he said. “Michigan just got caught.”

One Big 12 head coach rated it 4 and took more of a big-picture view, lamenting how this situation is a byproduct of frustrating inaction in college football.

“We are wasting so much time and energy on this. We are employing individuals whose main jobs are to signal or steal signals,” he said. “The technology is available. All these guys with different-colored shirts and these guys that have these boards up? It’s just a bad look for our sport. We’re always reactive in this sport. This is something we should’ve handled on our own.”

What about repercussions?

It’s a complicated question but an easy answer for coaches. Ninety-four percent believe Michigan should be punished if there’s proof of off-campus opponent scouting to steal signals. Most agreed it’s a serious integrity issue for the Big Ten but struggled with determining a fitting punishment given a lack of recent precedent.

“I think you should be fired for that stuff,” one Conference USA head coach said. “Doing stuff like that where you violate all the ethics of sportsmanship, that’s horrible.”

Few coaches went that far, but several did say they believe a postseason ban should be on the table. “Everyone is watching this,” one Mountain West defensive coordinator said. “A slap on the wrist and everyone will be doing it.”

In their view, the nature of the offense is more problematic and deserving of faster sanctions than typical recruiting violations — especially if there’s proof that Stalions and his associates have attended and filmed games during the 2023 season.

“The coaches in the conference are going to try to use it and make an example of Michigan,” one recent Big Ten assistant said. “That’s the problem. It’s the Big Ten and the Big Ten coaches that are saying ‘eff that.’ They’re gonna plead to the Big Ten: ‘I thought we’re the conference of integrity, sportsmanship, class and academic excellence.’ That’s really what’s gonna get ‘em.”

Another longtime Big Ten staffer sees an immediate postseason ban as the only reasonable response. The staffer argued that, regardless of how the College Football Playoff committee treats this situation, new Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti needs to step in for the good of the conference.

“If you’re doing it — which they did — and you’re caught — which they were — and it’s explicitly against the rules — which it is — and everyone believes that to some degree it’s a competitive advantage, then they shouldn’t be able to play in the Big Ten title game,” he said. “The Big Ten owes 13 other programs the competitive balance and owes it to them to protect the sanctity of the conference. If that many programs have confirmed that he bought tickets specifically under his name, they can’t play in the Big Ten title game. There’s no gray area. It’s explicitly against the rules.”

Added one Power 5 head coach: “I’ll never understand how Jim Harbaugh does what he wants and nobody says anything. Michigan doesn’t care. No one holds him accountable. These guys haven’t held him accountable for anything.”

Other coaches are less enthusiastic about handing down severe penalties if the Wolverines are indeed guilty of the alleged scheme. As one Sun Belt head coach put it, it wouldn’t feel right to wreck the careers of everyone on staff based on “one young dumb guy’s decisions.”

Several coaches were skeptical that Harbaugh’s players deserved to endure a postseason ban.

“Do you punish the kids for it? What did they know?” one Group of 5 general manager asked. “I wouldn’t imagine they were aware of this, to the extent of what was going on. They were just playing ball. That’s why I always hate vacated games and bowl bans and punishing people that were not complicit. Why does J.J. McCarthy have to suffer for that?”

Does Jim Harbaugh have plausible deniability?

On the same day the Big Ten confirmed an NCAA investigation of Michigan was underway, Harbaugh issued a statement pledging full cooperation. He denied having any knowledge of illegal signal stealing and denied directing anyone to engage in off-campus scouting.

Are his coaching peers buying it?

Seventy percent of the coaches surveyed are not. Among the 13 head coaches polled, eight do not believe Harbaugh has plausible deniability. To them, a staffer whose official role is working in the recruiting department being so involved with Wolverines coordinators on the sidelines during the game is a red flag.

“I don’t believe (Harbaugh) organized or started it, but if some young guy comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve got all of their signals,’ well, I’m thinking, ‘I know you did something that you shouldn’t have,’” one Big Ten defensive coordinator said. “That’s on the coordinators. And if I’m the head coach and I’m watching one of my recruiting analysts have a constant flow of information with my coordinators during a game, I’m wondering what is going on there or I’m an idiot.”

A Pac-12 quarterbacks coach agreed about the suspect optics. “It doesn’t look good. He’s next to Jim Harbaugh and then the defensive coordinator (Jesse Minter) and then the offensive coordinator (Sherrone Moore). (For analysts) there are rules about what they can and can’t do. They’re just supposed to be charting and bringing energy.”

“Hell no,” said an analyst in the ACC. “Who gets that close to a head coach who doesn’t have access?”

Beyond that, these coaches understand the NCAA rules. Head coaches are presumed to be responsible for the actions and violations of all institutional staff members. “That’s NCAA manual 101,” one SEC assistant said. Harbaugh has already served a three-game self-imposed suspension this season for alleged recruiting violations, a factor in any argument that he promoted an atmosphere of compliance.

The fact that Stalions is making $55,000 annually also adds to coaches’ skepticism.

“Who paid for this?” wondered a Pac-12 head coach. “There’s no way this kid paid for it out of his own pocket. You can’t tell me Jim didn’t know. This is the same guy whose answers to the recruiting thing (allegations stemming from the COVID-19 dead period) was to say, ‘I don’t remember.’”

One head coach in the Sun Belt conceded that it’s conceivable that Harbaugh could’ve been in the dark on the extent of Stalions’ actions: “There’s some stuff that goes on in my building that I’m sure I don’t know about. There are guys that I take information from where I don’t know where they get all their information.”

A Group of 5 offensive coordinator added, “A lot of head coaches are clueless, and most of the time it’s on purpose. But there is a very, very slim chance he didn’t know. He’s on the headset. You would be asking, ‘So, how the hell does this guy know all this stuff?’”

Is Michigan’s success since 2021 owed in part to illegal signal stealing?

Michigan went 2-4 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Since then, the Wolverines have made a remarkable turnaround in going 30-3, thumping Ohio State twice after losing eight in a row to their rival and winning two Big Ten titles to earn CFP bids.

The details of Michigan’s alleged signal-stealing scheme have a lot of people in the coaching world questioning whether it played a key role in that startling 180. Within the Big Ten, the Wolverines’ knack for getting great intel on opponents was already on the radar of rival coaching staffs.

“I think Michigan is really good at stealing your signals,” a Big Ten running backs coach told The Athletic in 2022 on the eve of the Michigan-Ohio State game. “They got our stuff early and they got us on both sides.”

Seventy-four percent believe illegal signal stealing has played a role in Michigan’s rise. One coach pointed out that the Wolverines utilizing that intel to turn into a powerhouse again has also enabled them to recruit better, both with blue-chip high school recruits and transfers, now that the program is atop the Big Ten.

“If this is all factually true, look at how their record changed since they started doing this,” said an AAC head coach.

“It’s a hell of a coincidence, isn’t it?” said a Pac-12 quarterbacks coach with a chuckle.

A Pac-12 head coach agreed and referenced Michigan’s struggles in 2020, when the program endured losses to Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State. “They had to beat Rutgers in overtime!” he added. Since that season, the Wolverines are 24-1 in Big Ten play.

A Sun Belt head coach believes the scheme was a “total difference-maker” and was a strong voice among the 74 percent. (Worth noting: In the Wolverines’ past two games against the Buckeyes, they’ve allowed an average of 25 points. In the previous two before 2021, they surrendered an average of 59 points per game.)

“They have the answers to the test,” he said. “Defense is all about anticipation, and then you take two steps in that direction. It’s a way bigger benefit for a defense than an offense.”

Among the 26 percent who gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt, many gave credit to their personnel, their physical style of play and their recent run of NFL Draft picks, with a combined 14 picks in the past two years, including three first-rounders and five defensive players selected in the first two rounds.

“You still have to have your 18- to 22-year-olds go out there and block people,” said one Big 12 offensive assistant. “Aidan Hutchinson still ran right through the chest of that left tackle and murdered him.”

How many points would Michigan’s alleged signal-stealing operation be worth in an average game?

If Michigan’s staff went into games with impeccable but impermissibly gathered information on its opponents’ signals, just how valuable would that edge be? How can you quantify it? We asked coaches to attempt to put a number on it. Of those who ventured a guess, roughly half felt that the Wolverines’ edge was somewhere in the range of 3 to 7 points. The other half believed calling it a one-score difference wasn’t nearly enough.

One Sun Belt head coach didn’t hesitate to say it could easily be a 20-point difference. A Big 12 analyst thinks it’s closer to a touchdown for the offense and another for the defense. It’s easy for them to let their imagination run wild about how many perfect calls for either side turned into easy points. More explosive plays and efficiency on offense. More tackles for loss and third-down stops on defense. In Michigan’s toughest games, it may have made a serious difference.

“You can probably attribute that to a few points here and there in some big ones,” one SEC assistant said.

Perhaps the right people to ask, though, are those who are experienced signal stealers. One defensive assistant at a Big 12 school who specialized in legal signal stealing at a previous job insists the difference between hunting for hints in TV copy and having a full game of footage you’ve filmed is massive. The coach believes it’s worth several touchdowns on both offense and defense if Michigan had a reliable system in place to relay the intel to coordinators during games.

“I mean, you’re shooting fish in a barrel,” the defensive coach said. “If I was able to do what Michigan was doing, that would be the difference between big-time winning and losing. If you filmed all the signals from a game, you’d take that and put it into the film system and match up the play-by-play with what the opponent is running. And then, I mean, it’s over. Having a steady film of the signals during a game would be mind-blowing.

“To me, it would be the same as going and filming somebody’s practice. If I was on the Michigan staff and was part of that operation, I would be very uncomfortable using that info. To me, that’s a big moral line in the sand that was crossed.”

Others were more skeptical. One former Big Ten assistant said he’s coached in games where his staff had every signal and blitz call for an opponent and still lost. Some point to the likelihood that opponents — especially Big Ten foes who may have had suspicions about Michigan’s tactics — made in-game adjustments to limit their exposure.

The Wolverines’ last loss, in the CFP semifinal against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, came against an opponent that had been warned ahead of time and knew to switch up its signals, sources said. Early in the game, the Horned Frogs used false “dummy” signals when calling plays. Quarterback Max Duggan would check to the sideline for signals that TCU was changing its play call. Except they weren’t. The original call was still on. The TCU’s staff’s rationale: If Michigan got burned by its intel two or three times, Harbaugh and his coaches might stop listening to their signal stealer.

Whether or not that worked, TCU went on to score 51 against a team allowing 13.4 points per game.

Rank in-person scouting on a scale of 1 to 10

In the past, the act of paying recruits and players was considered among the worst rule-breaking in college football. Now that we’ve entered the NIL era, what violations do coaches consider worse than in-person scouting? The average score was 7.4. It’s no surprise, though, that this rates highly for many coaches who were genuinely shocked by the details of the Wolverines’ scheme.

“I’m trying to think of what else could be worse,” another Conference USA coach said. “It’s as low as you can go other than tampering (with players).”

For several coaches, that was the first offense that came to mind. Another Group of 5 head coach said he considers Michigan’s allegations a 6 relative to the far worse crime of tampering. “That’s rampant,” he said. “Calling players on your roster and offering ’em deals to transfer? That’s a 10.”

Other violations that coaches and staff members suggested would be worse than off-campus signal stealing include the mistreatment of players, hacking opponents’ computer systems and point shaving and gambling on games.

Two coaches interviewed offered a more specific allegation: coaches going into the locker room at halftime and watching film of the first half. That’s not a gray area. The NCAA prohibits the use of any game film, TV footage or computers for coaching purposes during games.

“I know for a fact there are some head coaches that watch the film of the first half at halftime,” one SEC staffer said. “I would say it’s honestly on the same level, if not worse.” Both agreed that reviewing the tape provides a significant advantage for head coaches who call plays on offense.

“What front are they playing vs. this protection? How wide is the leverage? This guy has been cheating for the whole half, so we’re gonna get a double move on him,” another Group of 5 head coach said. “They know what they’re looking for. That’s a 10.”

One Power 5 head coach said he isn’t shocked to hear coaches watching tape at halftime occurs. As alleged details continue to emerge about the Wolverines’ scouting scheme under Stalions, this coach can’t help but wonder what else they were up to. In his experience, if you’re willing to cross that line and go to those risky lengths to compete for a national championship, there’s not much else you’d consider off-limits.

“If you’re doing that to win games, you’re probably doing anything else to win games,” he said. “Think about that. There’s a lot of other ways to live in the gray or break the rules to win games. If that’s one you’re doing, you know there’s other stuff that’s gonna come out.”

In the opinion of one MAC head coach, it’s not that serious. He called it a 5 based on his experience in the coaching business, saying, “College football has a pretty sordid history.”

Does your program have a staffer responsible for legal signal stealing?

Since the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan began, one claim many have made is signal stealing is a common practice that everybody is doing. Perhaps that’s true, but only 17 coaches surveyed said their program has a staff member leading an effort to legally steal opponents’ signals.

Many more acknowledged they’ll have graduate assistants or other low-level staffers watch TV copy during the week but said they are not seriously invested in the practice. Several head coaches surveyed said they view signal-stealing efforts as a waste of time and energy, with one adding that it would “f— me up” as a play caller if he tried to factor in that information.

One AAC head coach believes most coaches are “fanatical” about breaking down TV copy, especially for changing their own signals that were on broadcasts. During his tenure, he has had two different signal-stealing experts on staff.

“Every school I’ve been at, it’s the same kind of guy,” the coach said. “They’re just extremely sharp. Photographic memories. Pretty much any offensive coordinator has done that at some point in their life, or they wouldn’t have the IQ to be an OC.”

Multiple assistant coaches surveyed acknowledge they have been tasked with signal stealing in the past and recognize that developing that skill helped them move up in the coaching business.

“It’s the best way to add value for a nobody who doesn’t coach,” said one former signal stealer. “I didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle of off-field people. I wanted to provide a role and make myself valuable for coaching. You’re trying to make yourself irreplaceable and build loyalty and trust with the people there to the point of finding a way to help your team win games.”

The Big 12 defensive assistant with a background in signal stealing said combing through TV copy for hours often felt like detective work. He and five other quality control coaches and GAs would spend the week on it and meet on Fridays to put together a plan.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Lincoln Riley was the biggest puzzle I ever figured out. It took two years. He has so many signals, and he does it so fast. But once we got enough data on him, it all came together in an ‘a ha!’ moment.”

Offensive signals were typically more difficult to decode, he said, but some offenses were easier if only one person — specifically the head coach or coordinator — did the signaling. The coach learned that legal signal stealing can provide an “unbelievable” advantage if a staff gets the right system in place and knows how to steal them live during games.

“There were a couple games defensively where it absolutely won us a game,” he said.

Do you want coach-to-player communication technology?

The Michigan investigation is occurring at the same time that coach-to-player communication technology is in the works for college football. A trial run is expected for non-CFP bowl games at the end of the season, though few details are known on whether coaches can expect NFL-style in-helmet communication or wristband technology similar to what’s used in college baseball.

Among the coaches surveyed, 84 percent said they’d be in favor of that innovation. Some said they’ve been advocating for it for years. They’re tired of having to create and maintain these complex systems of signalers, signs, boards and curtains for play calling. Even the former signal stealers surveyed said they’d welcome change.

“I think in-helmet communication would level the playing field and save a lot of time,” the Big 12 defensive assistant said.

“Why haven’t we done this? There are obviously some powerful programs out there that don’t want it,” an ACC offensive coordinator said. “If you put earpieces in the helmets, you’ve gotta coach football and you’ve gotta coach technique. You don’t know the screen is coming. You don’t know what run is coming.”

Among the Group of 5 coaches, 14 of 19 surveyed supported coach-to-player communication technology while acknowledging that change could present challenges. One head coach questioned whether his conference peers would be willing to pay for it. Another anticipated it would be a budgetary strain if the communication systems require stadium infrastructure upgrades.

Offensive coaches who voted no are concerned about whether these systems would actually help. If you’re running a fast-tempo offense and don’t huddle, the play would still need to be signaled to the rest of the offensive players. Defensive coaches who voted no prefer having the ability to make last-second, pre-snap changes. For both sides, rolling out this technology next season would prompt some interesting adjustments.

“With how fast we play, the headset can get kinda crazy at times,” one SEC offensive coach said. “How much do you expose the quarterback to that? I feel like our last quarterback would’ve been like, ‘Shut up and let me think.’”

Coaches generally agreed that an effective communication system would help solve some of the problems presented by Michigan’s signal-stealing operation. But they’re not naïve enough to believe it’s going to provide a perfect cure for cheating. Not in this sport.

“A good signal-stealing operation is just an adaptation to the rules,” an SEC staffer said. “As the rules change, there will be further adaptation. They’ll find ways to just push it out of bounds again. People who are committed to toeing the line or crossing it, they’re gonna do it no matter what the rules are.”

More on the Michigan investigation

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Gregory Shamus, Jamie Squire /Getty /iStock)