Reported by Austin Meek, Bruce Feldman and Nicole Auerbach
Michigan has informed the Big Ten and the NCAA that staff members at Ohio State, Rutgers and Purdue shared information about the Wolverines’ signals before the 2022 Big Ten Championship Game, a university source confirmed to The Athletic.
The disclosure comes after The Athletic and other media outlets obtained documents matching Michigan’s signals with specific plays. The documents list signals like “elbow slap” and “throat slash” with plays like outside zone and play-action passes.
Michigan first became aware of the documents after beating Purdue 43-22 in last year’s Big Ten Championship Game, the university source said, and has used them to argue that other schools were conspiring to steal and share the Wolverines’ signals. Michigan is facing potential discipline from the Big Ten over its own sign-stealing and scouting scandal.
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The person who sent the documents to Michigan worked for Purdue last season and told the Wolverines that the information came from Rutgers and Ohio State, the university source said. The person who sent the documents, who was granted anonymity to avoid potential repercussions in the profession, told The Athletic on Monday that sharing signals among friends at other programs was quite common.
He said it took him 10-12 hours per week to decode opponents’ signs off of TV copy and other film. He said he wanted to share the information to support those on Jim Harbaugh’s staff he had previously worked with and had an affinity for, believing the two sheets of information showed how pervasive the act of sign-stealing was and how other teams would have had similar intel to whatever former Michigan staffer Connor Stalions, the center of the NCAA investigation, had on Michigan’s opponents. The Wolverines have been singled out by their peers in the Big Ten in league-wide conversations over the past couple of weeks, as first-year commissioner Tony Petitti weighs whether to punish Michigan before the conclusion of the NCAA investigation. The person who sent the documents to Michigan is not currently working in college football.
A staffer at another Big Ten school who spends time decoding opponents’ signals said the existence of such documents isn’t incriminating, noting the difference between legal sign-stealing and the elaborate in-person scouting ring Michigan is accused of operating.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” the Big Ten staffer said. “Zero. They took it to another level. And they can’t hide it. They’re trying to divert it but they can’t hide it.”
The ongoing scandal will force Petitti to decide how deeply to wade into the shadowy world of sign-stealing. The league delivered formal notice of potential disciplinary action to Michigan on Saturday based on alleged violations of the league’s sportsmanship policy. A decision about penalties, including a possible suspension for head coach Jim Harbaugh, could come as early as Wednesday.
Michigan is arguing that Big Ten schools violated the sportsmanship policy by colluding to share information about the Wolverines’ signals. The league’s policy gives the commissioner latitude to determine whether an institution violated core principles of sportsmanship, including “integrity of the competition, civility toward all, and respect, particularly toward opponents and officials.”
It’s not clear that such information-sharing would constitute a violation of the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy, but it raises questions about the ethical gray areas involved in sign-stealing.
Officials at Ohio State did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Spokespeople at Rutgers and Purdue declined to comment.
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Trading information about other teams’ signals is common practice, three current and one former Big Ten staffers said. Like Stalions, the staffers involved in decoding signals are often young and ambitious, eager to acquire information that can help them move up the ranks. For some, it’s the best way to add value as a relative nobody who isn’t allowed to coach during the game. It’s typical for those staffers to communicate with friends on other staffs and assist each other in preparing for games, a former Big Ten staffer said.
Michigan informed the Big Ten and NCAA that staffers at Rutgers, Ohio State and Purdue shared the Wolverines’ signals in 2022. How information trading among sign-stealers fits into the Michigan scandal:
— Austin Meek (@byAustinMeek) November 7, 2023
If one team has an interest in the outcome of a particular game, a staff member might contact a counterpart at a different school to trade information, the former Big Ten staffer said. Through that underground system of information sharing, the former staffer said, it’s possible that some of the schools calling for penalties against Michigan benefited from information gathered by Stalions.
Michigan has argued that the sharing of documents containing the Wolverines’ signals was a coordinated effort by other schools. The staffer involved in decoding Michigan’s signals didn’t see the spreadsheets as evidence of anything nefarious.
“This is not like the Astros,” he said. “This was all obtained legitimately. We’ve been really good at it (stealing signals), getting stuff off of TV copy. People didn’t go to sites (to obtain intel). We did it legally, like stealing it from the third base coach.”
The person who sent the documents to Michigan also believed all of the information in them was obtained legally.
Big Ten schools have come forward with evidence that Stalions purchased tickets in his own name for games involving Michigan’s future opponents, and at least one says it has security footage of an individual in those seats recording the team’s signals on a smartphone. Central Michigan has said it is now collaborating with the NCAA to investigate whether Stalions was present on the CMU sideline in coaching attire for a game against Michigan State earlier this season.
The staffer involved in decoding the Wolverines signals said he doesn’t buy that the way Stalions and Michigan allegedly gathered their intel actually gave them much of an advantage over the way other teams usually do it. Or that they actually needed this.
“Michigan didn’t have to do it to win,” he said. “That’s the f—ed up thing. It’s still about blocking and tackling. That’s why they didn’t have to do it. They’re really talented. They are better than Penn State, and they are better than Ohio State. They can legitimately win it all.”
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(Top photo: Bob Kupbens / Icon Sportswire via Getty)