Monday, March 4

Big Ten football coaches frustrated with conference stance on Michigan: ‘We want something done now’: Sources

For the past two weeks, coaches across college football have been riveted by the alleged Michigan sign-stealing scheme, but inside the Big Ten, the topic has been more than just a curiosity. On Wednesday’s Big Ten coaches video call with commissioner Tony Petitti, and after Jim Harbaugh left the call, that frustration was voiced loud and clear, according to conference coaches, who said they don’t feel like the new Big Ten commissioner is “motivated” to do anything about the Wolverines.

“There is just a ton of frustration,” a Big Ten coach told The Athletic on Thursday morning. “Look at Jim Harbaugh’s record before this started. The guy was on the hot seat before 2021, and now he’s like the king of college football. … No doubt this all has had a profound effect.

“This guy’s being investigated for three different things now between the (alleged) illegal signal stealing, the (alleged) illegal recruiting during COVID and that investigation into the offensive coordinator and alleged computer hacking. There are guys (on that call) who could lose jobs, and then there’s this guy over here (Harbaugh) who is gonna get a new, bigger contract now, and they won’t do anything about him.”

Asked to describe the tone of the coaches’ sentiment expressed to Petitti, another Big Ten coach called it “angry” — particularly at the Big Ten’s lack of action, or even apparent interest in taking any.

“Everybody’s upset,” that coach told The Athletic. “Why is nothing being done? We want to know, what else do you need to know to take action? We (the Big Ten head coaches) want something done now. I don’t think people understand the advantage that what they’re (allegedly) doing gives you. People think, ‘OK, now that everybody knows, we all can just move on.’ Like, ‘now, it’s fair.’ Well, no, it isn’t. Not at all. This changes the way you operate. A lot of teams have been doing things a certain way for years. Now, it’s forcing you to teach your players a whole new way to communicate just for them. People think that this is just advanced scouting. This was damn near espionage.”

A third Big Ten head coach told The Athletic that this is “one of the most egregious breaches in the spirit of the game” he’s ever heard of.

“They (Michigan) have been manipulating the game and cheating the game for two-and-a-half years. To know exactly what the other team is doing, Michigan might as well have been playing with 15 guys on the field,” he said. “What’s the message the Big Ten is sending now by doing nothing? Win now, pay later? We might as well just send people to (scout) their practices and their games. It doesn’t encourage anybody to follow the rules. It’s just telling them to do the opposite and say, f— it.”

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The NCAA is investigating Michigan’s football program amid allegations that the Wolverines used illegal in-person scouting and the recording of signals to steal signs this season. Ahead of the Michigan-Michigan State game on Oct. 21, the Big Ten approached MSU and said it was made aware of “credible evidence” regarding the sign-stealing allegations. The Big Ten said it would monitor the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan.

“The Big Ten is so much more powerful than the NCAA,” that third Big Ten coach said. “Why are you just sitting back and doing nothing about this? The Big Ten can’t pound its chest for the last 30 years about how it does the right thing ethically (when other conferences like the SEC won’t) and then have this go on. If this were a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten, would this be handled in the same way?

“When a running back gets hurt against Michigan because they knew exactly what play was coming, will that kid and his family have the ability to sue the Big Ten?”

The NCAA investigation is ongoing, a process that typically moves slowly, which makes it difficult to imagine it will reach a resolution by the time the postseason begins. The Big Ten does have the ability to act under its sportsmanship policy, but that doesn’t mean that it would want to act quickly or decisively before the NCAA completes its entire investigation and allows Michigan a chance to respond to its findings.

This is an unprecedented situation; whatever Petitti decides to do (or not do) will set a precedent. The Big Ten itself doesn’t have investigators, so it needs to rely upon the NCAA to do that part — and to determine who else was involved in the alleged scouting scheme. It’s not clear exactly what the coaches would want the league to do to punish Michigan; banning the team from competing in the Big Ten championship, for example, would harm players who had nothing to do with the sign-stealing apparatus.

A source briefed on the coaches’ call said Big Ten coaches are concerned about whether Michigan “should represent the Big Ten.”

“No matter what happens, if Michigan continues to move forward, the clouds will follow,” the source said. “They’re reading the tea leaves and wondering why the Big Ten hasn’t done anything yet. Every week and every day that goes by, people are like, ‘Something’s gotta give.’ It’s getting a little bit out of hand when you see him (allegedly) on the Central Michigan sideline. The playing field is not level right now. How can you have a team that you know has a competitive advantage over you still being allowed to play? That’s what the coaches are grappling with.”

“It feels like (former commissioner) Kevin (Warren) taking over and then COVID,” the source continued. “Tony’s walking into this situation, and people are calling for the league to make a statement before they have all the facts.”

Despite frustration from all corners of the conference, sources at four different Big Ten schools said they do not expect the conference to levy any sort of punishment against Michigan before the season ends.

Earlier this week, Central Michigan said it is investigating whether suspended Michigan staffer Connor Stalions was on the CMU sideline during the Chippewas’ Sept. 1 game at Michigan State. Screenshots of a person who looks similar to Stalions began circulating online Monday night, and The Athletic obtained more photos of the person on the sideline Tuesday.

Stalions, who was suspended with pay by Michigan on Oct. 20, is at the center of the NCAA’s investigation into the alleged scouting and sign-stealing scheme. Stalions bought tickets to games in at least seven Big Ten stadiums before those teams played the Wolverines over the past three seasons, including the 2023 season, sources told The Athletic last month. Purchasing the tickets is not a violation of NCAA rules, but using them to scout and record other teams would violate the rules, prohibiting in-person, on-campus scouting and the audio or video recording of signals.

“They aren’t allegations. It happened,” Purdue coach Ryan Walters said Thursday night on his radio show ahead of Saturday’s game against the Wolverines. “There’s video evidence. There’s ticket purchases and sales you can track back. We know for a fact they were at a number of our games. We’ve had to teach our guys a new language.”

On Monday, coach Jim Harbaugh met with reporters and said “the people that know us the most think the most of us” as Michigan faces the NCAA investigation. He has denied knowledge of the alleged scouting.

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(Photo: David Berding / Getty Images)