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Controversy Surrounds the Wolverines: Sign Stealing, Jim Harbaugh, and Everything In Between

AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File from The Hill

It has been quite an eventful year for the University of Michigan’s football team. Long before the infamous and well-known cheating allegations started, the team was already being encircled by controversy. 

It started mere days into the new year when Michigan and head coach Jim Harbaugh received an NCAA notice of allegations regarding multiple recruiting violations. The University and its athletics then put out a statement that Jim Harbaugh, despite his countless NFL overtures, would be staying with Michigan in Ann Arbor for 2023. Due to this, Harbaugh served a self-imposed penalty, missing three games, related to the recruiting violations. 

Following this self-imposed suspension, things only got more odd. There was the assistant fired for "computer access crimes" and another staffer, who happened to be the son of legendary coach Bo Schembechler, resigning three days after being hired because of his social media activity.

Despite all of this, the University of Michigan’s football team has continued to thrive and dominate on the field. Finding themselves undefeated, celebrating 1000 wins (the first college football team to ever do this), and ranking in the top five of the NCAA Football rankings, it’s clear that Michigan continues to power through the chaos. 

With the new sign-stealing allegations surrounding the team, more and more drama has followed. We know it can be hard to keep up, so here’s a timeline of all the allegations, notices, and investigations from the beginning of the season up until now.

Courtesy of Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (File from ClickOnDetroit)

July 2023

On July 25, ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported that Michigan and the NCAA were working together toward a negotiated resolution in the infractions case. This infractions case began on January 5, when Michigan received a draft of an NCAA notice of allegations, which alleged violations of “impermissible contact with recruits during NCAA-mandated dead periods,” as well as an off-field analyst being involved in on-field coaching activities, which is a violation of NCAA rules. It was reported that Harbaugh allegedly met recruits and bought them hamburgers at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

At the time, sources told ESPN that Harbaugh's lack of cooperation with NCAA enforcement staff during the investigation led to a delay. According to a source, “the draft of the notice of allegations includes a Level I violation, the most serious under NCAA rules, because Harbaugh didn't cooperate or misled NCAA investigators.” Sources indicated that Harbaugh might face a multi-game suspension. In a statement, Warde Manuel said the school has "cooperated and will continue to cooperate with this investigation."

ESPN reported that, on Jan. 19, Harbaugh told investigators that he did not remember the recruiting incident in question in the investigation. This led to a standstill in the investigation. If Harbaugh had admitted he lied or wasn't forthcoming, he would have most likely faced a multi-game suspension.

The resolution being negotiated would include a four-game suspension for Harbaugh at the start of the 2023 season.

Courtesy of Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

August 2023

On Aug. 12, reports had surfaced that this negotiated resolution between Harbaugh and the NCAA was not approved by the NCAA committee on infractions.

Derrick Crawford, the NCAA vice president of Hearing Operations, said in a rare statement to the public, “The Michigan infractions case is related to impermissible on and off-campus recruiting during the COVID-19 dead period and impermissible coaching activities -- not a cheeseburger. It is not uncommon for the COI to seek clarification on key facts prior to accepting."

Then, on Aug. 21, Michigan self-imposed a three-game suspension on head coach Jim Harbaugh at the start of the 2023 season after failing to come to terms on a negotiated resolution with the NCAA. This meant that Harbaugh would miss the first three (non-conference) games of the season. These were against East Carolina, UNLV, and Bowling Green.

Warde Manuel released a statement saying, "While the ongoing NCAA matter continues through the NCAA process, today's announcement is our way of addressing mistakes that our department has agreed to in an attempt to further that process. We will continue to support coach Harbaugh, his staff, and our outstanding student-athletes. Per the NCAA's guidelines, we cannot comment further until the matter is resolved."

In a statement released by the University of Michigan, Harbaugh said, "I will continue to do what I always tell our players and my kids at home, 'Don't get bitter, get better.'"

September 2023

On Sept. 23, Harbaugh returned to the Michigan sideline, just in time for their 31-7 victory against Rutgers at the Big House in Ann Arbor, MI. This also happened to be Michigan’s 19th consecutive home victory, which was their longest streak since winning 21 in a row from 1998 to 2001.

October 2023

On Oct. 18, the NCAA notified the Big Ten, as well as Michigan, that it had received allegations that the University of Michigan’s football team had been involved in a sign-stealing scheme, and had allegedly sent representatives to games to scout future opponents. This had been strictly prohibited in the NCAA rules since 1994. The Big Ten stated that it had notified Michigan’s future opponents of these allegations.

The Big Ten said in a statement, “The Big Ten Conference considers the integrity of competition to be of utmost importance and will continue to monitor the investigation.”

Then, following a statement from Harbaugh, knowledge and involvement in the scheme had been denied. Harbaugh said, “I do not have any knowledge or information regarding the University of Michigan football program illegally stealing signals, nor have I directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment.”

On Oct. 19, ESPN reported that the Wolverine’s off-field analyst (and retired captain in the U.S. Marine Corps), Connor Stalions, was at the center of the NCAA’s investigation into the alleged sign stealing. Sources told ESPN that NCAA enforcement staff sought access to Stalions’ computer. ESPN was also told that Michigan used an “elaborate” scouting system to steal signals from future opponents. According to these sources, this system had been used since at least 2021.

The following day, the university announced that it had suspended Stalions with pay pending the conclusion of the investigation.

On Oct. 23, ESPN reported that Stalions purchased tickets in his own name for more than 30 games at 11 Big Ten schools over the past three seasons. A 12th school later added that Stalions purchased tickets at its stadium, as well. It has been noted that in many cases, Stalions forwarded the tickets he bought to at least three people throughout different parts of the country. 

The sign-stealing investigation grew, as video evidence of electronics prohibited by the NCAA being used to steal signs, as well as a significant paper trail, were released. An opposing Big Ten school accessed their in-stadium surveillance video from a game earlier this year, and sources said the person in the seat of the ticket purchased by Stalions “held his smartphone up and appeared to film the home team's sideline the entire game.”

The following day, ESPN reported that Stalions bought tickets for games at four non-Big Ten schools that were in College Football Playoff contention or were playing contenders. He also had purchased tickets to the 2021 and 2022 SEC championship games.

On Oct. 26, the University of Michigan Deputy Chief, Melissa Overton, confirmed that the FBI had joined the department’s investigation into Weiss and his alleged “unauthorized access into others’ computer accounts.” Overton called the investigation “extensive, ongoing and ... of the utmost priority." Police confirmed that this investigation had nothing to do with the sign-stealing allegations.

A day later, a former Division III player and assistant coach told ESPN’s Dan Murphy that Stalions paid him “a couple hundred dollars” and provided him with a ticket to a UMich home game to record future Wolverines opponents. 

The man in question said he attended three Big Ten games during the last two seasons to record the sideline of a future Michigan opponent. He admitted to uploading the videos to his personal iPhone in a shared photo album, though he does not know who else (besides Stalion) has access to said album.

On Oct. 31, Central Michigan University announced that it had begun to investigate photos of a man who resembled Connor Stalions who was standing on their sideline during their Sept. 1 opener at Michigan State University. The man resembling Stalion, dressed in Central Michigan gear and standing with several of the team's coaches, was wearing a bench credential. Photos obtained by ESPN showed a man wearing sunglasses, during a night game, and holding a possible play sheet. 

Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said, “We obviously are aware of a picture floating around with the sign-stealer guy. Our people are doing everything they can to get to the bottom of it. We were totally unaware of it. I certainly don’t condone it in any way, shape or form. I do know that his name was on none of the passes that were [given] out. Now we just keep tracing it back and tracing it back and try to figure it out. … But it’s in good hands with our people, and again, there’s no place in football for that.”

November 2023

On Nov. 1, during a 90-minute video call with Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, a vast majority of Big Ten coaches expressed their frustrations with the ongoing sign-stealing investigation at Michigan. Harbaugh was on the call, but proceeded to hang up once coaches started discussing the allegations involving his program.

Sources told ESPN that many of the coaches in the meeting urged Petitti to take immediate action. The league's sportsmanship policy did give Petitti the authority to investigate and discipline Michigan while the lengthy NCAA investigation was still going on. "Collectively, the coaches want the Big Ten to act -- right now," said a source familiar with the call. "What are we waiting on? We know what happened."

Petitti had a video call with Big Ten athletic directors the next day. Warde Manuel did not attend.

On Nov. 2, president of the University of Michigan Santa Ono sent an email to Petitti pleading to him to respect due process and the ongoing NCAA investigation into the UMich football program. In this email, Ono noted that no program would ever want to be in Michigan's position, and he is "deeply concerned" about the allegations. He then added that the school is "committed to ethics, integrity, and fair play." But, Ono strongly encouraged Petitti to let the NCAA's investigative process play out before imposing discipline, despite other Big Ten coaches and athletic directors encouraging him to impose discipline sooner.

On Nov. 3, Connor Stalions resigned from his position at the University of Michigan, which happened to be the same day that Tony Petitti met with Santa Ono on campus. In a statement provided to The Athletic, Stalions said, "I love the University of Michigan and its football program. And I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I've had to work with the incredible student athletes, coach Harbaugh and the other coaches that have been a part of the Michigan football family during my tenure. I do not want to be a distraction from what I hope to be a championship run for the team, and I will continue to cheer them on."

Stalions' attorney, Brad Beckworth, also said in a statement, “Connor also wants to make it clear that, to his knowledge, neither Coach Harbaugh, nor any other coach or staff member, told anyone to break any rules or were aware of improper conduct regarding the recent allegations of advanced scouting."

On Nov. 6, the Big Ten sent a letter to the University of Michigan, formally notifying it that it could be facing disciplinary action from the league. The letter that was sent draws back to the Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy, which requires a notice of disciplinary action “in the event it becomes clear that an institution is likely to be subjected to disciplinary action." This letter points to evidence of the illegal sign stealing, which therefore compromised competitive integrity and other principles of the sportsmanship policy.

On Nov. 10, the Big Ten suspended Jim Harbaugh for the rest of the regular season due to violations of the league’s sportsmanship policy by “conducting an impermissible, in-person scouting operation over multiple years, resulting in an unfair competitive advantage that compromised the integrity of competition." Though Harbaugh was allowed to coach the team during the week, as well as be present at all activities besides the games, he was absent from the sideline during these final games. He did not coach against Penn State, Maryland, nor “The Game” against Ohio State.

On Nov. 16, despite threatening to take serious legal action against the Big Ten, Michigan and Jim Harbaugh reached an agreement with the Big Ten. Coming just a day before the scheduled hearing to appeal the suspension, the conference agreed to drop its investigation, while Harbaugh would accept his three-game suspension.

Courtesy of Isaiah Hole / Wolverines Wire

Staying Strong

Despite all adversity, the University of Michigan’s football team has managed to stay undefeated, winning games against Penn State (24-15) and Maryland (31-24), winning “The Game” against Ohio State (30-24), and beating Iowa (26-0) in the Big Ten Championship game. 

Not only have they remained undefeated throughout the 2023 season, but they also reached a Big Ten milestone on Nov. 18. After beating Maryland, they celebrated their 1000th win in program history, being the first in the Big Ten to ever do so. 

And, on Dec. 3, Michigan made the 2023 College Football Playoff, coming in at No. 1 in the top four teams selected by the 2023 College Football Playoff committee. Among them are No. 2 Washington, No. 3 Texas, and No. 4 Alabama. 

Whether you support Michigan football, or you don’t, it’s easy to see that they’re powering through the controversy, the investigations, the hate, and the drama. They’ve made it clear that they’re dedicated, committed, and not going down without a fight. They are the “leaders and best.”


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