The story that college football fans can’t seem to get enough of is one that coaches all around the country can’t stop talking about either. What happens next for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, as the NCAA investigates its signal-stealing operation and alleged in-person scouting led by suspended analyst Connor Stalions, is a topic of endless fascination among stunned coaches in the industry.
The Athletic surveyed 50 FBS coaches and asked them to assess the seriousness of Michigan’s alleged actions, where it rates on the wide spectrum of dubious behavior in the sport, how they now view the Wolverines’ recent success and much more. More than a dozen head coaches offered their takes, as well as coordinators, assistants, analysts, and staffers from all 10 FBS conferences. Coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for their candid responses.
Their answers provide something many have been in search of as the Michigan allegations continue to dominate the news cycle: context.
How serious are Michigan’s alleged actions?
Most in college football had never heard of anything quite like what has been reportedly going on at Michigan. The Athletic asked coaches how they would rate Michigan’s alleged scheme of attending future opponents’ games to film and steal signals on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being not a big deal and 5 being very serious.
Almost half of the coaches surveyed (46 percent) rated it a 5. The average score among the 50 coaches was 4.2. Only two ranked it below a 3.
“It’s easy to call plays when you know what the defense is,” said a Pac-12 head coach. “It’s a huge deal that someone went to another game and filmed all their signals. That’s Spygate stuff. They were flying around the country? It’s crazy.”
The Wolverines’ reported paper trail of tickets purchased in Stalions’ name has only added to the intrigue and outrage.
“In some ways, they should be held accountable for just sheer stupidity,” said a Sun Belt head coach. “They could’ve done this for years and years and never been caught if they’d just been smart about it.”
A Mountain West linebackers coach who rated the seriousness of the allegations as a 4 was just as baffled by the recklessness of the alleged scheme: “If you’re gonna do it like that, at least be subtle about it. They were so arrogant and brazen and didn’t hide it all. (It) just showed how much they didn’t care about the rules.”
“That’s one of the few rules that nobody is brave or stupid enough to just step over,” said one staffer at an SEC program. “My God, what idiots. Doing it is one thing. Getting caught is an entirely other thing.”
Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting responses came from coaches who have worked in the Big Ten and faced Michigan.
“We knew they had a signal guy, this Navy Seal or something,” said one former Big Ten analyst (Stalions is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a retired captain of the Marine Corps). “We were very concerned about it. Our head coach was super concerned about it. … In 2021, (Michigan pass rushers) Aidan Hutchinson and (David) Ojabo had these hand signals for run/pass, but we figured that was legit. It got us into the mindset that they were looking for tips and tells. That isn’t a coincidence. We never would’ve guessed it was this deep.”
One of the two coaches who ranked the seriousness 2 recently spent several years in the Big Ten as an assistant. He believes this type of advanced scouting goes on more than some might think, but probably not to the same degree.
“A lot of guys are coward-ing out, acting like they’re at places that haven’t done stuff that’s also crossed the line,” he said. “Michigan just got caught.”
One Big 12 head coach rated it 4 and took more of a big-picture view, lamenting how this situation is a byproduct of frustrating inaction in college football.
“We are wasting so much time and energy on this. We are employing individuals whose main jobs are to signal or steal signals,” he said. “The technology is available. All these guys with different-colored shirts and these guys that have these boards up? It’s just a bad look for our sport. We’re always reactive in this sport. This is something we should’ve handled on our own.”
What about repercussions?
It’s a complicated question but an easy answer for coaches. Ninety-four percent believe Michigan should be punished if there’s proof of off-campus opponent scouting to steal signals. Most agreed it’s a serious integrity issue for the Big Ten but struggled with determining a fitting punishment given a lack of recent precedent.
“I think you should be fired for that stuff,” one Conference USA head coach said. “Doing stuff like that where you violate all the ethics of sportsmanship, that’s horrible.”
Few coaches went that far, but several did say they believe a postseason ban should be on the table. “Everyone is watching this,” one Mountain West defensive coordinator said. “A slap on the wrist and everyone will be doing it.”
In their view, the nature of the offense is more problematic and deserving of faster sanctions than typical recruiting violations — especially if there’s proof that Stalions and his associates have attended and filmed games during the 2023 season.
“The coaches in the conference are going to try to use it and make an example of Michigan,” one recent Big Ten assistant said. “That’s the problem. It’s the Big Ten and the Big Ten coaches that are saying ‘eff that.’ They’re gonna plead to the Big Ten: ‘I thought we’re the conference of integrity, sportsmanship, class and academic excellence.’ That’s really what’s gonna get ‘em.”
Another longtime Big Ten staffer sees an immediate postseason ban as the only reasonable response. The staffer argued that, regardless of how the College Football Playoff committee treats this situation, new Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti needs to step in for the good of the conference.
“If you’re doing it — which they did — and you’re caught — which they were — and it’s explicitly against the rules — which it is — and everyone believes that to some degree it’s a competitive advantage, then they shouldn’t be able to play in the Big Ten title game,” he said. “The Big Ten owes 13 other programs the competitive balance and owes it to them to protect the sanctity of the conference. If that many programs have confirmed that he bought tickets specifically under his name, they can’t play in the Big Ten title game. There’s no gray area. It’s explicitly against the rules.”
Added one Power 5 head coach: “I’ll never understand how Jim Harbaugh does what he wants and nobody says anything. Michigan doesn’t care. No one holds him accountable. These guys haven’t held him accountable for anything.”
Other coaches are less enthusiastic about handing down severe penalties if the Wolverines are indeed guilty of the alleged scheme. As one Sun Belt head coach put it, it wouldn’t feel right to wreck the careers of everyone on staff based on “one young dumb guy’s decisions.”
Several coaches were skeptical that Harbaugh’s players deserved to endure a postseason ban.
“Do you punish the kids for it? What did they know?” one Group of 5 general manager asked. “I wouldn’t imagine they were aware of this, to the extent of what was going on. They were just playing ball. That’s why I always hate vacated games and bowl bans and punishing people that were not complicit. Why does J.J. McCarthy have to suffer for that?”
Does Jim Harbaugh have plausible deniability?
On the same day the Big Ten confirmed an NCAA investigation of Michigan was underway, Harbaugh issued a statement pledging full cooperation. He denied having any knowledge of illegal signal stealing and denied directing anyone to engage in off-campus scouting.
Are his coaching peers buying it?
Seventy percent of the coaches surveyed are not. Among the 13 head coaches polled, eight do not believe Harbaugh has plausible deniability. To them, a staffer whose official role is working in the recruiting department being so involved with Wolverines coordinators on the sidelines during the game is a red flag.
“I don’t believe (Harbaugh) organized or started it, but if some young guy comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve got all of their signals,’ well, I’m thinking, ‘I know you did something that you shouldn’t have,’” one Big Ten defensive coordinator said. “That’s on the coordinators. And if I’m the head coach…”