NCAA probe began after firm obtained evidence from Michigan computers

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The sign-stealing investigation threatening to disrupt the University of Michigan’s football season began after an outside investigative firm approached the NCAA with documents and videos the firm said it had obtained from computer drives maintained and accessed by multiple Michigan coaches, according to two people familiar with the matter—evidence that suggests the scandal’s impact could broaden beyond the suspension of one low-level assistant.

These people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about an ongoing NCAA investigation. They did not disclose who hired the outside firm that approached the Indianapolis-based NCAA.

The NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and Michigan declined to comment.

Last week, the Big Ten confirmed published reports that the NCAA was investigating allegations that Michigan had sent people connected to its football program to attend the games of opponents and videotape coaches as they signaled in plays, in violation of the rules that govern college football.

Michigan suspended Connor Stalions, a football assistant ESPN reported was suspected of overseeing the alleged sign-stealing operation. Coach Jim Harbaugh, in a statement, denied any knowledge of or involvement in any such scheme.

Harbaugh, 59, has coached Michigan since 2015. He played quarterback at the school from 1982-1986 before starting a 14-season NFL career that included four seasons as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts (1994-1997).

While NCAA rules do not explicitly prohibit sign-stealing—the practice of decoding signals opposing coaches use to send in play calls to players on the field—the organization does ban video-recording opposing coaches, as well as in-person scouting of upcoming opponents. And according to the investigation conducted by this outside firm, Michigan football has been utilizing a sign-stealing operation involving both in-person scouting as well as video-recording coaches, these people said, since at least last season, when the team went 13-1, winning a second consecutive Big Ten title before losing in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

The outside firm’s investigation began this season, these people said, and involved interviews with people knowledgeable about Michigan football’s scouting operations, as well as reviewing documents and videos related to sign-stealing efforts. Last week, these people said, this firm presented its evidence to top NCAA officials. The next day, the Big Ten later confirmed, the NCAA informed both the conference and Michigan that it had opened an investigation.

Stalions played a major role in overseeing and coordinating sign-stealing efforts, the outside investigation found, but the firm’s evidence suggested he wasn’t acting alone. The outside firm did not present any evidence directly linking Harbaugh to the sign-stealing operation, according to the people with knowledge. In the days since Stalions’ name circulated as a key figure in the investigation, videos and photos circulated on social media taken during Michigan games showing him standing near coaches, including the team’s defensive and co-offensive coordinators.

Among the pieces of evidence the firm presented, these people said, was a detailed schedule of Michigan’s planned sign-stealing travel for the rest of this season, listing opponents’ schedules, which games Michigan scouts would attend, and how much money was budgeted for travel and tickets to scout each team.

The opponents targeted the most on this schedule, these people said, were not surprising. Atop the list was Ohio State University, Michigan’s top rival in the Big Ten, and scouts planned to attend as many as eight games, costing more than $3,000 in travel and tickets. Next on the list was Georgia, a potential Michigan opponent in the College Football Playoff, with four or five games scheduled for in-person scouting and video-recording, also costing more than $3,000 in travel and tickets.

In total, these people said, Michigan’s sign-stealing operation expected to spend more than $15,000 this season sending scouts to more than 40 games played by 10 opponents. According to the university’s public salary disclosure records, Stalions, listed as an administrative specialist in the athletics department, made $55,000 in 2022.

Stalions did not reply to a message left at a phone number listed to him seeking comment. Stalions is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps who started working as an analyst for Michigan football last season, according to a profile from January 2022 published on the website Soldiers To Sidelines.

The outside firm also presented to NCAA officials photographs of people investigators believed to be Michigan scouts in action —including current students interning with the football team. The photos showed these people seated at games of Michigan opponents this season, aiming their cellphones at the sidelines. Days later, the outside firm told the NCAA, cellphone videos depicting the coaching staffs from these games were uploaded to a computer drive maintained and accessed by Stalions as well as several other Michigan assistants and coaches.

No timeline has been disclosed for when the NCAA could conclude its investigation. Harbaugh, in his statement, said he and his staff will “fully cooperate” with the NCAA investigation. The news came just months after an earlier NCAA investigation of Michigan concluded with a finding that Harbaugh violated recruiting rules and failed to cooperate with investigators. The university suspended Harbaugh for three games at the beginning of this season as a result.

On the field, Michigan again is competing for a national title under Harbaugh, with an 8-0 record. Last Saturday, the team’s first game since allegations of sign-stealing emerged, Michigan thrashed Michigan State, 49-0. Currently on a bye week, the Wolverines’ next game is at home against Purdue on Nov. 4.

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One thought on “NCAA probe began after firm obtained evidence from Michigan computers

  1. There is no way to truly enforce this from happening with thousands of people in the stands. They should make it legal and put the onus on the teams to protect their own play calling.

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