How would college football react to Michigan as champ after sign-stealing scandal? 'It's not good for the game'

HOUSTON — On Saturday morning, Michigan’s football team paraded into the George R. Brown Convention Center for its turn at the annual College Football Playoff media day.

From raised platforms and aluminum benches, the Wolverines spoke to a hoard of reporters for an hour before exiting out of a backdoor, loading onto charter buses and returning to the team hotel where they, invariably, passed a massive structure in downtown Houston: Minute Maid Park.

Just steps away from the convention center stands the home of the Houston Astros, a team that in the recent past was at the center of the most infamous sign-stealing scandal in sports history while chasing a championship.

There is more than just a puff of irony here.

The Wolverines, 14-0 and the No. 1 seed in the CFP, meet No. 2 Washington (14-0) on Monday night while under NCAA investigation for an alleged sign-stealing scandal that rocked the college football world this season and left many angry, frustrated and even miffed that Michigan is eligible for the title at all.

“That’s a good football team. They are a very good football team,” said one Power Five athletic director, “but this shows my concern with the NCAA process. This is our system and it’s unfortunate. The system allows it, which is why we’ve got to change so much.”

“It’s ridiculous that they are there parading around,” said one Power Five head coach. “It’s not good for the game.”

Jim Harbaugh and Michigan have been on a roller coaster this year that included multiple three-game suspensions.  (Keith Birmingham/Getty Images)
Jim Harbaugh and Michigan have been on a roller coaster this year that included multiple three-game suspensions for the head coach. (Keith Birmingham/Getty Images)

While Michigan gears up to meet the Huskies for all the college football marbles, many stakeholders within the industry are viewing this CFP title game as a mockery, a sham, a game that history may notch with an asterisk. It is, perhaps, the most public indictment of the NCAA’s slow-moving enforcement process, they say, another embarrassing failure of college athletics.

And yet, it has produced a masterful script, a made-for-TV drama that the best Hollywood writers couldn’t create: a football blue blood, the country’s all-time leader in wins, competing for its first national title in a quarter of a century while shadowed in a cheating scandal that produced a lawsuit against its own conference; a brash and bullish team and school hailing their victors in the wake of mounting evidence that indeed, at some point, will generate significant penalties.

Those with intimate knowledge of the investigation believe the evidence indicts the program enough for CFP leaders, independent of the NCAA, to have ruled Michigan ineligible. And they point to an event in November for such a stance, when, hours before a court hearing, the school dropped its lawsuit against the Big Ten after the league revealed a portion of that evidence to the university’s leadership.

“There will be a robust conversation about it being Level I violations,” said a former NCAA investigator who spoke to Yahoo Sports based only on public evidence in the case. “Without a lot of precedent, it’s tough to say, but you’ve got a competition advantage and it would be significant here.”

Vacated wins? Head coach suspension? Scholarship reductions? Future postseason bans? All are possibilities, the investigator said.

But, if the Wolverines claim the title to complete a 15-0 season, will it matter in retrospect?

“There ought to be a damn asterisk next to it,” said one longtime college football assistant coach. “It’s not fair. It ain’t right.”

Not everyone is in that camp.

The sign-stealing saga has, in some ways, divided the country over its significance: Did it really help the Wolverines?

Two administrators from the SEC who spoke to Yahoo Sports under condition of anonymity shrug at the scandal.

“If they win, it doesn’t diminish anything,” said one.

“I don’t have a problem with them being there,” said the other. “There are much more egregious things going on right now in college football.”

At Saturday’s media day, the focus was more on the big game and coach Jim Harbaugh’s future. Can the Wolverines slow Washington QB Michael Penix? Is this Harbaugh’s last game as Michigan’s coach?

But off to the side, away from the podium, Michigan offensive lineman Trevor Keegan provided a passionate defense of his team in light of the scandal.

“We’ve proved these allegations wrong,” Keegan told Yahoo Sports. “Ever since the thing blew up, we beat our in-state rival 49-0. We beat Penn State basically just running the football without our head coach after finding out the day before. We beat our biggest rival in Ohio State. We beat Iowa. And we beat Alabama.

“What else do we have to do?”

The accusations “disrespect” the Wolverines players and coaches, Keegan said. The allegations are an assault, he said, on their preparation and abilities. On Twitter, he’s seen the videos of specific plays from Michigan’s past games that suggest Wolverines’ players identified an opponent’s playcall before the snap.

“My whole Twitter was flooded with Ohio State and Michigan State doubting our program and being like, ‘We only won the last two seasons because of cheating,’” he said. “I really do think this was blown out of proportion.”

Keegan says players and coaches were not aware of an elaborate in-person scouting scheme carried out by a former low-level staff member, Connor Stalions.

“I can damn sure say that our coaches and players had no idea. It’s us doing film work,” he said.

The allegations have only added fuel for such a run, said defensive coordinator Jesse Minter.

“We’re human,” Minter said. “When people assume that a reason you are good is for something along those lines, it’s certainly motivation. Guys have gone out and proved that we have really good players that play really well together and they are the reason we are here.”

Parker Brailsford, Washington’s starting center, says he isn’t “worried” about Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme in preparation for the game. He does not believe the Huskies have changed or altered anything schematically based on the possibility that Michigan has any of their signals.

“Our coach talked to us about it. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll have taken care of it,’” Brailsford said.

Meanwhile, the college football world watches another potential champion on a run to a title while under investigation — not such an uncommon event. Less than two years ago, Kansas basketball marched to a championship while under NCAA investigation. LSU won the 2019 football championship while under NCAA investigation for recruiting violations that occurred under the previous coaching staff.

The investigation into Michigan, however, is somewhat unusual. While many NCAA investigations focus on a school offering impermissible recruiting benefits, the Wolverines are charged — or at least will be charged — with allegations that impact game play.

There is very little precedent. Years ago, a Baylor assistant attended the game of an upcoming opponent. Though he was not recording, the assistant was recognized and the school self-reported the violation. The coach was given a half-game suspension.

However, the scope of this in-person scouting is the largest in college sports history.

So, when will the Wolverines be charged? The NCAA, which began its inquiry in the fall and is just fourth months in, is only in the investigation stage. The entire process to completion can range from six to 18 months, according to former NCAA investigators who spoke to Yahoo Sports.

In order to complete the investigation, interviews with coaches are likely necessary. Those have not happened as the Wolverines’ season has continued.

The NCAA enforcement process is a labyrinth that even the association’s new president, Charlie Baker, has publicly criticized. The investigation itself is the first of many steps. Enforcement staff will present investigative findings to the association’s allegation review board. Communication is often then made with schools over a potential negotiated resolution. If a resolution is rejected, a full hearing is then had along with a lengthy exchange of communication between the NCAA and the school.

For instance, a school is granted 90 days to respond to an NCAA notice of allegations, which jumpstarts the back and forth — a stretch that could span more than a year in appeals and hearings.

“Michigan still playing speaks to how the NCAA chooses when to take action and when not to take action,” said another Power Five athletic director. “As an industry, we need to be better at it and quicker. President Baker says he wants to speed things up. Well, when is that starting?”

Perhaps soon enough. In October, the NCAA announced changes to the infractions process “intended to bring about more timely outcomes in infractions cases,” it said.

Until then, the Wolverines march forward somewhat unscathed. While Big Ten officials saw enough evidence to suspend Harbaugh three games, no other penalties have been levied. Tony Petitti, the Big Ten commissioner, is the one who handed down that three-game suspension.

In another twist of irony, Petitti worked as an executive with Major League Baseball for 12 years and as deputy commissioner in 2019 was, as it turns out, significantly involved in the investigation into the Astros' garbage can-banging, sign-stealing scheme — an inquiry that produced the most severe sanctions levied in MLB history.

What comes of the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan is months, if not years, away. But on Monday night here in Houston, the Wolverines will take the field with a national championship on the line — asterisk or not.

“If they win it,” said another Power Five athletic director, “it’s going to be tainted in a lot of people’s eyes.”