Unanswered questions about the NCAA's investigation into the alleged sign-stealing operation at Michigan

In terms of NCAA rules, what actually matters here?

On Wednesday, the NCAA informed Michigan and the Big Ten that it was investigating whether, industry sources say, the Wolverines were using illegal in-person scouting to steal the play signals of future opponents.

The Big Ten has already informed future Michigan opponents of the investigation so they can adjust accordingly, including Michigan State, which hosts the second-ranked Wolverines on Saturday.

In terms of NCAA rules, what actually matters here?

Here are some unanswered questions, theories and speculation about the still-fluid NCAA investigation into Michigan football over scouting/sign-stealing concerns.

In terms of NCAA rules, what actually matters here?

There’s a lot of smoke and screaming right now, but what is actually relevant when it comes to crime and punishment?

The NCAA has not publicly shared the details of the allegations, so it's a challenge to know anything. The NCAA may not have even told Michigan everything it knows. Or it may not know everything that it will know.

By acting quickly before the entire process was complete (a formal letter of allegations), the NCAA was able to eliminate any competitive advantage the Wolverines might have gained if the allegations are true. On the flip side, since such an action was 100 percent certain to reach the media and public, it cast head coach Jim Harbaugh as a cheater without giving him much of a chance to defend himself.

Whatever comes of the NCAA investigation, don’t expect a resolution to be quick. The NCAA's case against Kansas took six years after all.

That said, industry sources and NCAA process experts have told Yahoo Sports the case will boil down to seemingly three parts.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has denied allegations of illegal sign stealing, but the NCAA investigation leaves all kinds of unanswered questions. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has denied allegations of illegal sign stealing, but the NCAA investigation leaves all kinds of unanswered questions. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Did Michigan receive video, photographic or some other footage of future opponents signaling plays from someone in attendance at the opponent's stadium?

It is not against NCAA rules to steal signs and it is commonplace in the game of football. It is only against the rules if those signs are electronically conveyed to players or among coaches during a game. That doesn’t seem to be an issue here.

However, the NCAA does prohibit in-person scouting, and sources say that is a focus of this case. Did Michigan attain information, photographs, videos or anything else from an in-person scout of a future opponent?

If so, then it’s a violation of bylaw “11.6.1 Off-Campus, In-Person Scouting Prohibition.” First enacted in 1994, it states, “Off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited.” There are some exemptions for other sports in other circumstances, but nothing that would apply to football.

If so, who were the scouts?

This is where things get murky. No source has suggested that any Michigan staffers, assistants or athletic department employees were flying off to games to scout in person. Almost everyone, after all, has their own gameday duties. Plus, doing so would require a vast conspiracy including, almost assuredly, the athletic department accounting office reimbursing travel costs.

If that’s the case, Michigan is in a lot of trouble.

Yet, there is almost no way that many people — including senior athletic officials, compliance officers and bean counters — would be so brazen. It’s just not how these things tend to work.

Sources have said any information from in-person observation came from others. Who are they? It’s not known publicly, but perhaps friends, family, fans? Anyone willing — if you accept the allegations — to go to a game and acquire information.

In a legal sense — NCAA legal — would random people who knew a coach or Michigan staffer be considered representatives of Michigan’s athletic interests?

The bylaw against in-person scouting does not state who is prohibited from off-campus scouting. Could that mean everyone? Or only the coaching staff? Or athletic personnel also? When the rule was first enacted in 1994, no one could have envisioned cell phones filming sidelines. Or maybe no one could have considered anyone would have attempted to send some old friend to the game.

Or consider this: Every coaching staff in the country receives unsolicited emails from random fans offering free “advice” on how the team should play. If a coach opens an email from a fan — or runs into one at a coffee shop — who said he was at a previous game against this week’s opponent and notes they should exploit the Cover 2 defense, is that a violation?

If this gets into a heated NCAA case, expect the definition of who is and isn’t prohibited from scouting to be a big deal.

Connor Stalions is shown on the Michigan sideline. (Obtained by Yahoo Sports from a Big Ten school staff member)
Connor Stalions is shown on the Michigan sideline. (Obtained by Yahoo Sports from a Big Ten school staff member)

Can Connor Stalions — or someone like him — be linked to Jim Harbaugh?

ESPN first reported that the NCAA’s “person of interest” in the case is Connor Stalions, who is referred to as a “low-level staffer.” Stalions was suspended by Michigan with pay on Friday afternoon.

Stalions is a U.S. Naval Academy Graduate (Class of 2016) who joined the Michigan staff in 2022.

He’s officially a recruiting analyst for the team, but as Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger reported, he quickly developed the reputation both inside and outside the program for being able to decipher opponent’s play signals.

He has prominent placement on the Michigan sideline and appears in videos far more than might be expected of a simple recruiting analyst.

So, did Harbaugh bring in a very smart Marine Corps vet to steal signs? That would actually be fine — quite smart, actually — if it was done either through game film review or in-game observations. Better to bring in an expert like that with advanced military training than hoping your assistant offensive line coach has a knack for it.

However, if he was brought in to run an illegal scouting operation that gains an extra measure of insight, it would be bad news for Michigan and Harbaugh.

Under new stricter NCAA rules, head coaches are presumed to know what is happening inside their program. The burden of proof is now on the accused, not the NCAA. This runs counter to the United States legal system, but this is what was agreed to by member schools, including Michigan.

In a statement, Harbaugh denied any knowledge of “the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signs.” He further stated: “nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment.”

That’s what you’d expect him to say, of course. The words are carefully chosen here, though. There is no “illegally stealing signs” since stealing signs isn’t illegal. After all, how much presumption of privacy does a coach expect when he is flashing signs in front of 100,000 people and dozens of television cameras?

Harbaugh also specifically states he didn’t direct “any staff member or others” to scout and later added, “I have no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.”

It’s impossible to prove a negative, they say, but in this case, can Harbaugh?

What if the following is actually what happened?

The initial reaction when the NCAA launched an investigation like this — one that was assuredly going to reach the public — is that Harbaugh is overseeing a massive cheating operation. It’s fun speculation, especially for non-Michigan fans.

Occam’s razor, though, could be as simple as this:

What if a young assistant coach with an impressive educational and training background took on the role of trying to steal signals. Basically every team in the country wants someone like that.

Maybe he was good at it. That could've earned him, in his very first year, an important role inside the program — and on the sideline. It could've made the other assistants, coordinators and Harbaugh himself believe they had hired a very valuable guy with a very bright future. When they wondered just how he got so good at figuring out the signs, they reminded themselves he went to Annapolis and was a Marine officer.

What if, seeking to continue to impress, that staffer directed his friends to go to the games of future Michigan opponents to get additional information and help him do the job even better and earn more recognition? And what if he did this without telling anyone at Michigan because that would undermine the belief that it was all him?

If you could put your thumb on the scale of your career advancement, would you?

If you are a Michigan fan, that might be the speculative scenario you want. A rogue low-level assistant and a web of buddies willing to “scout” opponents. It might still be a violation, but it is a best-case scenario.

Is that what happened? That’s impossible to say right now, but small conspiracies are always more likely than big ones.

Can Michigan or Harbaugh prove the above — or something similar — is true?

That might turn out to be the biggest question of them all.