Big Ten that prides itself on integrity has hands full with Michigan

The Michigan signal-stealing scandal saw the light of day two weeks ago. It percolated with several juicy details last week. And now, it has reached the point where it can be asked: Will the Big Ten actually do something about it?

ESPN's Pete Thamel reported that during a conference call Wednesday, Big Ten coaches voiced their frustration over the alleged signal stealing in coach Jim Harbaugh's Michigan program and implored conference Commissioner Tony Petitti to act immediately against the Wolverines.

On Thursday, Petitti was expected to meet with Big Ten athletic directors via video call. A follow-up call with coaches could come Sunday, The Associated Press reported.

Last month, the NCAA opened an investigation into the Michigan program and specifically staff analyst Connor Stalions, the alleged mastermind of an operation in which he lined up scouts to attend games involving Wolverines opponents and videotape the sideline in hopes of deciphering that teams' signals. Michigan quickly suspended Stalions with pay.

Under NCAA rules, it is a violation to scout games against future opponents in-person, as is acquiring the information in-person by use of video devices. Teams can and do steal signals by observation during their own games, which is permissible under NCAA rules.

Stalions reportedly bought tickets over a three-year period for more than 30 games involving 12 of the other 13 Big Ten teams — including the Gophers' 2021 opener against Ohio State — and contenders for the College Football Playoff.

This week, a former Division III coach, requesting anonymity, told ESPN that Stalions hired him to film the sideline during games of future Michigan opponents. And in a bizarre twist, Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said the Chippewas were investigating photos of "the sign-stealer guy'' that purportedly showed Stalions on the CMU sideline — and wearing Chippewas garb — during a game against Michigan State.

Last week, Harbaugh, who served a Michigan-imposed three-game suspension for a different NCAA matter this season, denied any knowledge of or involvement in scouting by his staff that violates NCAA rules.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck did not address the Michigan allegations, but he did speak in general terms about the legal kind of signal stealing that's common in college football.

"In game you're always, guarding against [signal stealing] with multiple signalers, multiple signs, switching signalers, switching signals,'' Fleck said. "You're always doing that because I think that's just part of the game.

"From game day to what's on the legal video you have, you're always looking for an advantage,'' he added. "I think everybody's doing that in the country.''

Fleck mentioned use of wristbands with plays listed on them and the offense huddling more often as ways to thwart the signal-stealers. Mixing things up can be an ounce of prevention.

"You do everything you can as a coach to protect what you have, assuming that people are trying to get ahold of your signals,'' Fleck said. "And as a coach, you're always protecting against that. … We're pretty paranoid people as it is.''

Concern among Big Ten coaches has ramped up with each new allegation involving Michigan. According to the ESPN report, as a group they are angry and want to see punishment doled out.

The Big Ten is not in an easy position. Michigan is the two-time defending conference champion that's seeking its third consecutive playoff berth. Only one team, the Gophers, has scored in double figures against the Wolverines, who are 8-0 and have won by an average score of 37-6. They have the look of a national champion.

Still, Petitti must balance that dominance with the following:

Would the Big Ten want the controversy hanging over, 1) the Michigan-Ohio State game on Nov. 25, a contest that last year drew 17 million viewers; 2) the Big Ten Championship Game, should the Wolverines win the East; and 3) the College Football Playoff should Michigan advance? Millions of eyeballs will be watching those games, and millions of people will be wondering if the Wolverines cheated and if their success is tainted.

The Big Ten prides itself on being a conference that is more than just a football factory. Integrity matters, too. Petitti has a chance to show just how much.