Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines enter the week ranked No. 2 in the country, trailing top-ranked Georgia. And while all seems well on the Michigan field, discipline by the NCAA, Big Ten, or both, looms large for Harbaugh and the university.
If reports are to be believed, the NCAA has revealed the results of its investigation into the theft of other team’s signs by former Michigan employee Connor Stallions, who… He quit school last week. The Stallions have been accused of using dozens of accomplices to scout other teams (and their marks) personally, in violation of NCAA rules, which is as bizarre as it sounds. It’s not sign stealing that the NCAA explicitly prohibits, it’s personal scouting.
“Everyone in college football engages in sign stealing to some degree, but you’re not supposed to do it in person,” college sports law attorney Mitt Winter told Deadspin, noting that while many schools watch film of their opponents in an attempt to “. To pick up signals, sending a dedicated staff member to watch the opponent in person could give Michigan a competitive advantage. “Michigan was doing something it wasn’t supposed to do, which is what a lot of other schools probably wanted to do,” Winter added. “They feel like it gave Michigan a competitive advantage.”
Sure, the NCAA could impose its own sanctions, but NCAA investigations are not known for their brevity or elegance. Any discipline on this front can take years. That leaves the Big Ten as the disciplinary chief, at least for now, for those demanding that Harbaugh and his team face some sort of punishment. this season. The problem is that 1) The Big Ten doesn’t have a specific rule against scouting an opponent in person. Any discipline for Harbaugh and Michigan would have to fall under Big Ten Sportsmanship Policy, which only allows for standard and major disciplinary actions. Standard disciplinary actions can include “reprimands, reprimands, fines not to exceed $10,000, and suspension from not more than two competitions.” It’s hard to imagine any of these choices making anyone involved happy, except Michigan.
Major disciplinary action is essentially defined as anything worse than standard disciplinary action, and must be approved by the Joint Group’s Executive Committee, made up of the rectors of the member universities, who can either approve or reduce the penalty, but cannot increase it.
Second, while NCAA regulations state that head coaches are responsible for the actions of assistant coaches and staff, the Big Ten has no such rule. That means the Big Ten would have to find evidence that Harbaugh was directing the Stallions’ actions, or at least, was aware of them and did nothing. This is proof that neither the NCAA nor the Big Ten seem to have it yet. Suspending a head coach over something no one can prove they knew about is a slippery slope, even if other Big Ten coaches don’t see it that way in this case. And with the Stallions refusing to cooperate with the Big Ten or NCAA investigations, there’s not much that can be done about it.
Complicating matters is a Sports Illustrated story that broke late last night, which reported that Michigan was also on the receiving end of sign stealing by rival Big Ten schools. Yes:
“A former Big Ten coach at a rival school in recent days sent the Wolverines copies of two one-page documents listing decoded Michigan signals, three sources familiar with the situation confirmed to Sports Illustrated. The former Big Ten coach was a member of the staff who said last season he received many detailed breakdowns of signals that go along with play calls. He told Michigan, according to sources, that the information originally came from other Big Ten schools.
“The former coach shared the documents with Michigan in an effort to show that sign stealing is rampant in the sport and to support embattled head coach Jim Harbaugh,” according to the report.
That certainly adds a fly to the ointment, doesn’t it?
At this point, no one’s talking about vacating wins, although the NCAA has certainly done that for less serious offenses — USC having to vacate a national championship because of Reggie Bush, anyone? Winter believes the most likely outcome is for Harbaugh to be suspended for a few games and for him and the university to be fined, but we have yet to see how Michigan’s aggressive defense plays out for Harbaugh and the team, especially if evidence of more sign stealing by other Big Ten teams comes to light. But it’s the blatant and methodical nature of Michigan’s behavior that seems to get everyone hot under the collar. After all, Stallions was accused of showing up on the Central Michigan sideline in Chippewas gear during a recent game.
As my colleague Sean Beckwith pointed out, it’s a lot like the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal — where everyone in baseball is trying to steal signs, but using video equipment on the scoreboard in center field and then banging on a trash can to relay the scores was just a hoax. The bridge is too far.
And now, at a time when everyone should be excited about the first set of CFP rankings and potential bowl eligibility, the college football world is instead in an uproar about one of the best teams in the country stealing the tag. What is the best defense for this team? “Everyone does it. We didn’t know about it anyway.”
They won’t do that, but the Big Ten could make it easier for everyone and announce that no one is allowed to steal signs from anyone else, except what can be gleaned from watching film, starting with . . . now.