Michigan has become the biggest story in college football — not for the dominance it has displayed this season with arguably coach Jim Harbaugh’s best team, but possibly how it got there. Since news broke a week ago that the NCAA is investigating Michigan for off-campus signal stealing, information has been flowing fast and furiously.
As ESPN first reported, low-level staff member Connor Stalions is at the center of the NCAA probe. He purchased tickets to games involving other Big Ten teams and Michigan’s potential College Football Playoff opponents, and sources say he led an “elaborate” system of scouting and sign stealing.
Michigan on Friday suspended Stalions with pay, pending the outcome of the NCAA investigation. Harbaugh, already under NCAA investigation for recruiting violations during the COVID-19 dead period, has denied directing any staff member to conduct off-campus scouting and denied having any knowledge of illegal signal stealing within the program.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that an external investigative firm tipped off the NCAA with evidence of signal stealing it had obtained from computer drives accessed by Michigan coaches, setting off a new set of questions.
How elaborate was the scouting system? What will the NCAA and Big Ten ultimately do, and when? As the NCAA investigation continues and the Big Ten looks on, having the authority to act, Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg and Mark Schlabach look at what we know so far.
What details have emerged about how the alleged scheme worked?
ESPN reported Tuesday that Stalions purchased tickets to games at 12 of the other 13 Big Ten schools; the one that didn’t find his name in its records doesn’t have access to StubHub and other secondary markets. ESPN also found that Stalions purchased tickets for games at four schools outside of the Big Ten that were either in College Football Playoff contention or playing contenders.
There also are records of Stalions buying tickets to the 2021 and 2022 SEC title games, sources told ESPN. The tickets to the SEC title games were purchased on the secondary market. In total, ESPN found that Stalions purchased tickets to more than 35 games at 17 stadiums around the country. He has used a network of at least three people who lived in various parts of the country who were forwarded tickets to attend games.
The Washington Post reported that the investigative firm that discovered the scheme found records that indicated Michigan planned to send scouts to more than 40 games featuring 10 opponents this season at a cost of more than $15,000. The schedule included as many as eight games involving rival Ohio State and four or five in which two-time defending national champion Georgia was playing.
The firm didn’t present any evidence to the NCAA that showed Harbaugh was directly involved in the sign-stealing scheme, the Post reported, citing two people familiar with the investigation.
According to the Post, the firm provided NCAA officials with photographs of people it believed were scouts working for Michigan, including current students who were working as interns inside the football program. Videos the scouts purportedly took while attending games were then uploaded to a computer drive “maintained and accessed by Stalions as well as several other Michigan assistants and coaches,” according to the Post.
How the firm obtained access to computers being used by Michigan’s coaches — and who might have hired it to conduct the investigation — are among the most important unanswered questions.
“All I know is that no reputable private investigation firm is going to sit down with the NCAA and show them information without being able to explain how they acquired it,” a person familiar with the Michigan case told ESPN. — Mark Schlabach
What have we learned about Connor Stalions?
Stalions, a 28-year-old graduate of the Naval Academy and a die-hard Michigan fan, had been around the Wolverines program for years and officially joined the staff more than a year ago.
Stalions was hired as an off-field analyst at Michigan in May 2022, according to a bio on his LinkedIn account, which has since been deactivated. In the bio, Stalions wrote that he attempts to “employ Marine Corps philosophies and tactics into the sport of football regarding strategies in staffing, recruiting, scouting, intelligence, planning and more.”
Among the skills Stalions boasted about on LinkedIn were “identifying the opponent’s most likely course of action and most dangerous course of action” and “identifying and exploiting critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity in the opponent scouting process.”
The son of two Michigan grads, Stalions enrolled at the Naval Academy and was a student assistant for the Midshipmen from 2013 to 2016. After being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 2017, Stalions worked as a graduate assistant at Navy before beginning his military training, according to his LinkedIn account.
While he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, Stalions wrote, he served as a volunteer assistant coach at Michigan from May 2015 to May 2022.
On Wednesday, Sports Illustrated published text messages that it said Stalions exchanged with a student attending a Power 5 school who wanted to get into coaching. The text messages were reportedly sent between January 2021 and February 2021.
SI reported Stalions claimed to have a Google document of between 550 and 600 pages that was his blueprint for the future of the Michigan program. According to the report, he referred to the document as a “movement more than a plan” and called it the “Michigan Manifesto.” Stalions claimed to be working with other low-level staffers at Power 5 schools to come up with a long-term plan for Michigan’s future. — Schlabach
Where do things stand with the NCAA’s investigation? What is a realistic timeline in a case like this?
After receiving the information from the investigative firm, the NCAA enforcement staff notified Michigan officials and the Big Ten about the allegations Oct. 18. ESPN reported last week that the NCAA sought access to Stalions’ computer.
If further investigation is needed, the NCAA would issue a notice of inquiry to Michigan. According to the NCAA website, there are four potential resolution methods:
A negotiated resolution, in which enforcement staff and the school agree on the facts of the case, the level and classification of the violations, and appropriate penalties. According to the NCAA, this is the fastest track, yet it still took an average of 368 days to complete, according to the NCAA’s 2021-22 annual report on infractions.
A summary disposition, in which the NCAA and school agree on the facts but not on the level of violations and the punishment. The parties would submit a report to the committee on infractions (COI), which would reach a decision and decide punishment. The parties can request an expedited hearing, and the school can appeal the COI’s decision.
A written record hearing, which occurs when the parties have limited disputes about the facts or level of violations. A written report is submitted to a COI panel. The COI would focus on the disputed parts of the case and issue a ruling and penalties.
A full hearing would occur in major cases, and the parties would provide the allegations and written responses to the COI. Michigan would receive a notice of allegations and have 90 days to respond. The parties would argue their sides during a full hearing with the COI, which would issue a ruling and penalties.
The NCAA enforcement process has been notoriously slow despite the governing body’s efforts to speed up the process. For instance, Michigan received a notice of allegations involving recruiting violations allegedly committed during a COVID-19 dead period on Jan. 5 and still doesn’t have a resolution.
According to the NCAA’s most recent annual infractions report (2021-22), the enforcement staff spends an average of 10-12 months on a case, and the committee on infractions then spends an average of seven days to four months on it. A contested hearing track — the longest process — took an average of 921 days.
More than likely, the new case wouldn’t be fully adjudicated until sometime in the summer of 2024, if not later. — Schlabach
Could the Big Ten step in before an NCAA ruling?
Yes. The Big Ten can impose discipline before the NCAA investigation concludes, as long as the league determines there is enough concrete information to act. The league also could initiate its own investigation into potential violations of its sportsmanship policy, which states that “actions that are offensive to the integrity of the competition … are punishable.” Commissioner Tony Petitti has the exclusive authority to determine whether a sportsmanship violation has occurred and to impose discipline.
If discipline rises beyond the standard level, Petitti can propose more serious penalties to an executive committee filled with representatives from Big Ten schools. The committee must approve the discipline for it to be imposed; it can also deny or lessen it but cannot increase proposed penalties for a school or individuals.
Although the NCAA is the lead investigating body, the Big Ten has so much direct involvement because its members are impacted. Upon learning of the NCAA investigation, the league notified its members that are scheduled to face Michigan. There also has been no shortage of additional information coming out, through media reports or other channels, for the Big Ten to access and, possibly soon, act on.
“We obviously have an interest in this situation,” a Big Ten source told ESPN. “Included within that is getting as full a picture of the facts as we can. That’s where we’ll be interested in the outcome of the NCAA’s investigation. But we would not be required to wait until that process came to its conclusion if we deemed it appropriate for us to take action before that happened.”
If Petitti elects to initiate an investigation, Michigan would have the opportunity to present its position on the alleged infractions. But disciplinary decisions cannot be appealed. — Adam Rittenberg
What kind of violations and punishment could Michigan be looking at?
It’s difficult to say what potential penalties the Wolverines or Harbaugh could face, if any, because there’s never been a sign-stealing case of this magnitude brought before the enforcement staff.
Harbaugh already faces NCAA charges of failure to cooperate and head coach responsibility related to the COVID-19 recruiting violations case. The COI rejected a four-game negotiated suspension for Harbaugh in that case, and Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension. A violation by a member of his coaching staff in the new case could trigger another charge of head coach responsibility, which could be a Level I violation.
The Big Ten has two tiers of discipline under its sportsmanship policy. Standard actions can rise up to a $10,000 fine and a two-game suspension, but any action against Michigan likely would fall under “major disciplinary action,” which requires approval from an executive committee made up of representatives from around the league. — Schlabach
Could this affect Michigan’s CFP ranking?
Not yet, if the selection committee members follow the written protocol the committee chair reminds them of at the start of each meeting. CFP executive director Bill Hancock has told ESPN that as long as a team is eligible to participate in the postseason, it is eligible to be ranked by the committee. If the NCAA or the Big Ten levies a postseason ban, the Wolverines are out.
ESPN reached out to past committee members to understand how the topic will be handled in the room.
“Because these things take so long, I think the committee tries to do things based on their criteria, based on the letter of the law, and I really don’t believe this would come into discussions during our meetings,” one former committee member said, “and if it did, it would be shut down really quickly because it doesn’t go with our standards. If for some reason it was fast-tracked, and they vacated wins during the season, obviously that’s a different story.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that committee members won’t be talking about the allegations against Michigan outside the room.
There will likely be some “private disgust and conversations away from the table about how this is a kick in the gut to sportsmanship and, especially among coaches, kind of sacrilegious,” the same former committee member said.
There are several former coaches and players on the committee who might feel more strongly about it than the sitting athletic directors. Former Nevada coach Chris Ault is on the committee, along with former Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, Hall of Fame coach Joe Taylor, Hall of Famer Will Shields and former Notre Dame linebacker Rod West.
“I think this is totally against everything that is fair and ethical about college football,” another former committee member said.
Another former member said “it’s almost worse” if a committee member penalizes Michigan because he or she thinks the school might have done something.
“That’s not a metric, right?” the person said. “That could end up really adversely affecting the other rankings, and that’s not right, either.
“I would say at this stage the committee should rank them as they deem appropriate,” the same committee member said. “Keep an eye on their eligibility. But I think they’d have to rank the team based on what they see. There’s plenty to question outside of the alleged cheating. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to against the schedule they’re playing, but there’s not a lot of meat on the bone as far as their opponents yet. So that may be more of a discussion point.”
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel is on the committee and must recuse himself during any discussions about where his team is in the ranking.
“He’ll lean on the fact the NCAA says you’re not supposed to discuss it,” another former committee member said. “It’ll be awkward and uncomfortable.” — Heather Dinich
What are coaches at other schools saying?
Coaches in the Big Ten have long suspected Michigan is stealing signals; even acknowledging that the Wolverines are hardly the only team doing so, their proficiency stands out. Stalions also is a known figure around the league, often positioned right next to defensive coordinator Jesse Minter or other Michigan assistants during games.
“What people are [speculating] about is [Stalions] has got a whole group of people that they sent to games to get all the signals,” a Big Ten coach said. “That’s why, the last two years, they’ve been all over it. Some people try to steal signs in-game or take it off the TV copy, but to send people to games to get video, that’s pretty bad.”
A Big Ten coach who suspected Michigan of off-campus signal scouting raised a question echoed by others: “Did they need to?” While coaches acknowledge the advantage of knowing an opponent’s signals before games, their opinions vary on how much the intel helps. A Big Ten coach said Michigan has the best team he has seen and predicted Michigan would have 20 players selected in the NFL draft off of its current roster.
Coaches note how reliant some coaches and teams have become on knowing the opponent’s signals. A Big Ten coach noted that it appeared Michigan didn’t have TCU’s signals before facing the Horned Frogs in the CFP semifinals last year and that it became “desperate” during a 51-45 loss that didn’t resemble any other Wolverines game that season.
“There are a good number of staffs out there, offense and defense, that can’t call a game without knowing what the other team’s doing, a good percent,” an ACC coordinator said. “I am fired up that everybody’s going to have to coach football the same, hopefully, moving forward.” — Rittenberg