The NCAA is investigating the Michigan football program for allegedly violating rules that prohibit teams from scouting, in person, future opponents, industry sources told Yahoo Sports.
The allegation pertains to NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1, which reads: “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited,” sources say.
The Big Ten Conference received notification from the NCAA that the organization is conducting an investigation into the Wolverines, a league spokesperson said. The spokesperson declined to confirm any more details.
"Late Wednesday afternoon, the Big Ten Conference and University of Michigan were notified by the NCAA that the NCAA was investigating allegations of sign stealing by the University of Michigan football program," the Big Ten said in a subsequent statement released Thursday. "The Big Ten Conference has notified Michigan State University and future opponents. The Big Ten Conference considers the integrity of competition to be of utmost importance and will continue to monitor the investigation. The Conference will have no further comment at this time."
Teams are normally provided extensive video footage to scout opponents. At issue, according to sources, is whether Michigan used unnamed individuals to attend games of both scheduled opponents and possible College Football Playoff opponents in an effort to gather information on the signs they use to call both offensive and defensive plays.
Sign stealing is not technically prohibited and has a long and colorful history as part of the game. Scouting opponents in person has been prohibited since 1994. Whether the NCAA believes Michigan was using staffers or others who may be loyal to the program is unknown. So, too, is whether information was detailed via video or some other means or if head coach Jim Harbaugh is involved.
Michigan is 7-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country heading into a rivalry game Saturday at Michigan State. The Spartans staff was notified of the situation earlier this week.
Two of Michigan's opponents this season told Yahoo Sports they became aware that Michigan knew their play signs. Sign stealing does not violate NCAA rules unless the team uses in-game, electronic equipment to relay the information to players on the field or amongst coaches. The 2023 NCAA football rule book addresses sign stealing in a general way under a section titled Prohibited Field Equipment. It states that “any attempt to record, either through audio or video means, any signals given by an opposing player, coach or other team personnel is prohibited.” No corresponding penalty is listed.
The rule book does express the need for coaches to follow the so-called “Football Code” and states that “only the highest standards of sportsmanship and conduct are expected of players, coaches and others associated with the game.” It further lists numerous examples of unethical and unsportsmanlike conduct but sign stealing is not among them.
Regardless, the extent of this operation apparently concerned the NCAA. In-person scouting was prohibited for almost all circumstances in 1994 as a cost-saving tool. Teams commonly use hand signals or visual pictures on signs held aloft on the sideline to tell the quarterback or defensive captain the play.
Stealing those signs has been a gray area in the past and teams routinely switch up their signals to guard against it.
Among college coaches, Clemson is believed to have been particularly adept at it in the past. Much of the speculation fell to former defensive coordinator Brent Venables, now the head coach at Oklahoma. At the 2021 Sugar Bowl, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields said he huddled to call plays more often in an effort to prevent Clemson from stealing signs. Other teams have used curtains, hard-to-read colors and other methods to try to disguise play calls.
Michigan is already under NCAA investigation for a series of Level II rule violations that include Harbaugh meeting with recruits during a COVID dead period, using too many coaches in practice and watching player workouts on Zoom. The school suspended Harbaugh for the first three games of the season after a negotiated resolution between the school and the NCAA for a four-game suspension collapsed. The case is expected to be heard after the 2023 season.