May 22, 2024

BEFORE JAMIE GRANT entered the Florida House of Representatives, he was a former high school football player working on the equipment staff for the Auburn football team in the early 2000s. But his responsibilities extended beyond loading and unloading the bus.

He also assisted the coaches, helping run drills in practice. Somewhere along the way, a member of the staff approached him with an opportunity to be the third ball boy on the visiting side of the field during games.

Never mind that Grant didn’t know a single thing about the job. The staff was more interested in his knowledge of the game as a former player. The other two ball boys would handle the grunt work. He just needed to act the part, steer clear of the referees and keep his eyes and ears open.

“I was going to hold two footballs and my only job was to try and pick up intel,” he said.

When it comes to sign stealing in college football, a consensus among coaches about what is unequivocally wrong is hard to find. Grant said Auburn tried to decipher signs only in real time. Because of that he never felt like they were crossing the line.

But talk to enough coaches and you’ll find shades of gray when they search for a competitive advantage. Paranoia is rampant, rationalizing the kind of behavior American Football Coaches Association executive director Todd Berry said is, at the very least, unethical.

Ethics in college football. Imagine that.

“There’s honor amongst thieves,” a former SEC coach said. “Want to turn someone in? Fine. But you better make sure no one in your building is doing anything remotely resembling cheating.”

Last Thursday, the Big Ten confirmed that the NCAA is investigating Michigan for an alleged off-campus sign-stealing operation. Coach Jim Harbaugh denied any knowledge or involvement in plotting to steal opponents’ playcalling signals by sending representatives to their games. The supposed ringleader of the operation, an analyst named Connor Stalions with a military background, was suspended by Michigan with pay, pending the outcome of the investigation.

On Monday, ESPN reported that Stalions purchased more than 30 tickets to 11 different Big Ten venues over the past three years. Sources said the alleged sign-stealing operation includes both video evidence of electronics prohibited by the NCAA to steal signs and a significant paper trail.

Several Big Ten coaches noted to ESPN the difference between in-game signal scouting versus advance scouting, which ultimately launched the NCAA probe of Michigan. Coaches’ attitudes between the two are sharply different.

ESPN surveyed coaches in the aftermath of the news out of Michigan to see what they thought. Some were aghast at what Michigan is accused of doing. Others shrugged their shoulders. A Big Ten coach said, “If they were sending people to live-scout and film, that’s bulls—, then they should catch hell.”

But another coach with Big Ten and SEC experience asked what the big deal was in practical terms. Between the TV broadcast, coaches’ tape and what fans film with their phones and post online, the coach said there’s more than enough footage that’s accessible without ever leaving the office. “Anything that happens in the public eye hasn’t gone too far,” the coach said. “To be honest, I can watch TV copy [of] two to three games and get everything I need.”

Sign stealing, whether legal or illegal “is incredibly rampant in this business,” a longtime Power 5 assistant said. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles told ESPN in December that he estimates 75% of teams do it in some form. NCAA rules don’t directly ban stealing signals, but they prohibit using electronic equipment to record signals and ban off-campus scouting of future opponents.

Berry, whose organization includes more than 10,000 members, has lectured coaches about stealing signs. “Quite honestly,” he said, “I don’t think it’s OK.” But he acknowledged that improvements in technology have made it so much easier to access information than in the past.

“I’m going to admit to this,” said Berry, who was last a head coach at Louisiana Monroe in 2015, “I would have fans that would go to opponents’ games and film their sidelines and film just on their phones, their smartphones, and then send me that stuff.” But, he added, “I didn’t look at it because that was wrong.”

Berry said you can call coaches paranoid.

“But I will tell you this: Anybody that denies it and says, ‘Oh, nobody’s doing that,’ that is ridiculous. That’s silly to even think that.”

AP Photo/Paul Sancya
THE NCAA’S INVESTIGATION into Michigan did not generate much surprise around the Big Ten. Although signal stealing is somewhat common around the league, some coaches said Michigan had been pushing the limits.

“No one’s that good,” a Big Ten coordinator said.

Stalions also had appeared on other teams’ radars. Big Ten coaches said they had seen him on the Michigan sideline in their games, often positioned next to the defensive coaching staff. They suspected what he was doing.

Another Big Ten coach added of Stalions: “Everybody knows he’s the guy.” But he and other coaches, both within and outside the conference, said any scouting operation involves more than one person.

A Big Ten coach said he and the staff decided to hold back what they did in their annual spring game, mindful of who could be in the stands. Another Big Ten coach said his program has kept film off of its internal server because of a potential hack.

A coach said he “didn’t feel good” about playing any game near Michigan’s campus because of who could be filming his sideline.

“We knew about it,” he said. “We started changing our signals.”

Said one Big Ten coach: “The game day [signal stealing] is just part of it. That’s why everybody [tries] to hide it. It’s just part of the deal. But sending people to games and doing it that way is flat-out wrong, which is why this has caused a pretty big stir. It’s not supposed to be that way.”

Ken Ruinard/USATNSYNDICATION
HOW FAR ARE coaches willing to go, exactly? There have been accusations of employing lip-readers and taking advantage of sympathetic referees. Coaches worry that their headsets have been hacked. Everyone on the sideline is subject to scrutiny.

The teams that have a reputation for pushing the boundaries are well known, as are the individual coaches and staff members who are considered gurus. A source rattled off the name of a Group of 5 linebackers coach and Power 5 offensive line coach who are well-versed in the dark art of deciphering signals. Going into certain games, the source said he’ll warn coaches, “You need to be prepared for this.”

When LSU played Clemson in the 2020 College Football Playoff, sources said the staff suspected Clemson of sending people to scout them in the SEC championship game and Peach Bowl, an assertion a Clemson spokesperson said the program categorically denies. Brent Venables, then Clemson’s defensive coordinator, has long been the focal point of sign-stealing speculation, according to multiple sources, though no one has publicly accused him of anything illegal. After LSU’s first three offensive drives ended with three punts and one first down, sources said a frustrated coach Ed Orgeron told offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, “Change it up.” Upon changing signals, LSU scored touchdowns on five of its next six drives.

It was hardly the first championship game in which a team allegedly cracked an opponent’s code. During the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin was heard in the TV broadcast telling quarterback Jameis Winston that Auburn assistant Dameyune Craig, who was on the Seminoles’ staff the previous year, was “calling all the plays” FSU was running. Coaches brought out towels to shield the signalers in the second half and went on to outscore Auburn 24-10 to come from behind and win. A victorious coach Jimbo Fisher acknowledged their signals were stolen — and couldn’t have cared less. “That’s our fault,” he said. “You’ve got to change them. … That’s part of the game.” Fisher rehired Craig in 2017 and brought him to Texas A&M, where he remains on staff today.

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