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Blue is Cheatin’ Pawwwwwl: Alabama and others were a target of Harbaugh Spygate buffoonery

If you can’t beat ‘em, steal from them!

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NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Press Conference Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Recall back in the summer of 2021, fresh off a 2-4 season, when the hot takes were flying fast and furious about the Michigan Wolverines: Harbaugh in trouble! Harbaugh on Hot Seat! Harbaugh Faces Win-Or-Else Season! It’s Now or Never for Harbaugh!

It was incumbent upon a man making $11 million to finally have something to show for all the capital investment and resources given to him. Sure, the results had been a bit more competitive in Big 10 play, but they were nothing to write home about. In half a dozen seasons he had never won the conference, and had just one division crown (2018) to show for it.

And, when it came to standing mano e mano against the sport’s big boys, Meat Chicken was out of their depth — a 1-4 record in bowl games, winless vs. the SEC with a 20-point average margin of defeat, no playoff appearances. Perhaps more unforgivably, Jim was winless against the Buckeyes and had rarely been competitive: the last time the teams met, UM limped home following another bludgeoning: 56-27...and this after losing 62-29 the year before.

But, what a difference a year makes. That year, the Wolverines would be reborn in fire. They vaulted all the way to a No. 2 CFP Ranking, and broke the Buckeyes dozen year series winning streak in the ‘Shoe. They laid claim to the program’s first Big Ten title in over a decade, and then made the playoffs for the first time in program history. Sure, they got blasted by UGA, but there was no shame in losing to the CFP Champions. Besides, it was the Wolverines first appearance. There is something to be said for institutional memory.

The real test would be whether UM could do it again. And, wouldn’t you know it, they did!

Wolvie followed up their 12-2 season with an even better version, as the 2022 Wolverines raced through the schedule undefeated, blasted Ohio State, claimed another Big 10 title, and were all-but assured of a natty appearance vs. UGA when the unthinkable happened: despite outplaying TCU for much of the game, JJ McCarthy’s pick-sixes and a once-stout defense allowed 5.7 YPC on the ground and doomed them — 51-45 Frogs.

But, the writing was on the wall.
Michigan wasn’t going anywhere. Onward and upward to bigger things in 2023.

That again has borne itself out. Michigan is currently 8-0, sits at No. 2 in the polls, and is favored in every contest down the stretch.

So, how did Michigan go from a team that was 11-6 its prior two years, with no big game victories, no rings, and barely even being competitive against other big boys, to a Rust Belt juggernaut that sits at 33-3 its last 2+ years?

Turns out they were cheating.
In fact, still are cheating.
In fact, were planning on cheating all the way to up Saturday, when the allegations were revealed and UM staffers canceled their OSU/PSU tickets.

“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 statement released Thursday afternoon. “The Big Ten Conference has notified Michigan State University (which plays Michigan Saturday) 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.”

Sign-stealing, in and of itself, is not against NCAA rules. But there is a prohibition on in-person scouting of opponents and on using video or audio methods for recording signals. There are no firm details of what has been alleged against the Wolverines beyond personnel of some kind conducting in-person scouting and sign-stealing. (A story in The Athletic cited a source saying Michigan allegedly used a “vast network” of people to steal opponents’ signs.)

The Big 10 opened a probe, and — wouldn’t you know it — it turns out that Michigan’s elaborate sign-stealing scheme had set up shop against 11 of the other 13 teams in the Big 10...and there is more than enough evidence of Connor Stalions working with UM staff in-game, presumably to help decode that information for the Wolverines in real-time.

Were that Harbaugh’s cheating just a few Big 10 games. It’s not. For over two years, Wolverine confederates have been snatching up tickets and recording sidelines of even prospective opponents.

Yes, that includes Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama.

Ironically, we may owe this discovery to the Tide’s biggest rival. The first one to really bring it to light was a poster on Vols Quest:

But, for almost a year now, fans have been busting Michigan Man stealing signs and recording sidelines throughout the country.

It was so bad that the Big 10 warned Michigan opponents of it before they told the Wolverines themselves.

It’s clear that what was, at first, just laughable chicanery — good ole’ fashioned conference subterfuge and hyper-competitive fuckery, has instead unearthed something that truly casts a pall over Michigan in toto, and the legitimacy of almost every quality Michigan win the past two-plus seasons.

That’s not hyperbole. And, that’s also what makes what comes next very thorny.

Traditionally, attempts at spying are handled under the table, coach-to-coach, conference-to-coach, within the family (so to speak). Quietly, and without public shame. But when it becomes public, when the dirty laundry is aired (as Greg Schiano did earlier this year), when the accusations are so pervasive, then we are beyond a gamesmanship issue, into a compliance and violation issue. And that is where Michigan can (and likely will) find itself very soon:

The source familiar with conference disputes about espionage said that if it’s categorized as a playing-rules issue, Michigan itself might be expected to enact its own discipline as it sees fit. However, the Big Ten Conference office also could involve itself—especially since other league members likely have been among those who allegedly were spied upon.

The determination of where this case lands is in the hands of NCAA Enforcement, which is doing the initial investigation of a potential violation of Bylaw 11.6.1: “off-campus, in-person scouting prohibition.” As with countless other cases, Enforcement is tasked with looking into allegations of impropriety and determining whether violations of association bylaws occurred and can be charged. If Enforcement officials decide they lack sufficient reason to pursue the case, it would be processed as a playing-rules case and most likely sent to the Big Ten office. Or Enforcement can proceed with a formal investigation. At this stage, a formal investigation seems to be a likelihood but not a certainty. According to an ESPN story, NCAA investigators have requested access to the computer belonging to Michigan staffer Connor Stalions. The Naval Academy graduate and former Marine Corps captain is listed as a recruiting analyst with the Wolverines’ football program, but sources tell Sports Illustrated that his primary role with the program was stealing play signals from opponents. Stalions maintained a prominent sideline presence during Michigan games, which sources say was to facilitate his role deciphering signals.

The simple fact is, we can’t just paper over this either. Gamesmanship is one thing. Teams cheat in many ways, of course, and some offenders are worse than others (for instance, Clemson is notorious for doing something similar). Why? Because besides competitive integrity yadda yadda, there is just so much damn money at stake.

Beyond the bookies raking in billions each year, the B1G has directly received $12 million dollars for UM’s selection in the last two CFP. Michigan received $2.74 million per semi final selection alone. And Harbaugh’s incentive-laden contract personally benefited him by millions of dollars over the past two seasons.

After his surprising 12-2 season, Harbaugh was rewarded with a lucrative new deal. Then, again, after last season’s 13-1 season and this year’s hot start, Jim’s agents are beating on Michigan admins for another extension and raise.

This isn’t negligible. It’s arguably theft of services from the state, as are most instances of fraudulent behavior used to induce others into a contractual relationship: Are they paying for an 8-4 Harbaugh at a 13-1 premium? It’s absolutely an NCAA violation. And it’s a stain on a sport that can ill-afford many more PR hits.

The myth of the Warrior-Poet Michigan Man has also been laid bare for all to see: You’re just as venal, as corrupt, and perhaps even moreso, than that School Down South whose behavior you proclaim to be above.

There are unspoken rules in all sports, and some of these are heeded far more than the written rules. A certain amount of cheating has always been with us, and always will. But, I think UM’s situation here is much closer to the Wakeyleaks scandal than that of a random GA trying to record an opponent’s practice from a local rooftop. This cuts to the unspoken rule that you can steal signs, you can manipulate opponents, you can pick other coaches’ brains for information, but at the end of the day, an Astros-style videography unit, one that extended across the entire country, is a bridge way, way too far.

This is more akin to Wakeyleaks, where gamesmanship had crossed a line that was so indefensible that it has both gone public and brings the results of contests into question.

It was the strangest sensation, he says. The Demon Deacons would call a play at the line and Virginia Tech’s defense would counter with the perfect check or the perfect blitz, seemingly always one step ahead. After another stalled drive, Hayworth walked off the field in frustration.

“They know what the hell we’re doing!” he said on the sideline. “They know everything we’re doing as we’re doing it!”

Other players echoed Hayworth during the game. Receivers came back to the sideline, saying, “Hey, Coach, they’re calling out our routes before the play. They know what we’re running!”

But Wake’s coaches dismissed the complaints.

“We were like, ‘Yeah, whatever, that’s definitely not the case,’” a former Wake staffer says.

But the eerie sensation remained for Hayworth and his teammates. Over the next two years, in conversations among themselves, players would joke about it: the feeling that defenses knew what they were going to do before they did it. Even Ruggiero was known around the football office to say it felt like certain teams knew his plays.

“Do people think I’m crazy?” he would ask.

“We might have been skunked.”

That’s what a coach told Anderson and the offensive line in 2016, less than 30 minutes before kickoff at Louisville.

In a moment of chaos, coaches huddled in the back of the locker room. Anderson and players waited in full pads, having finished their pregame routine. The black binder had been brought to the coaching staff’s attention. Inside were play cards diagrammed with Wake’s new trick plays. The assistant coach told Anderson and the offensive line they might not run the trick play they had practiced all week.

“I was devastated,” Anderson says.

Wake’s coaches changed everything: who signaled in signs, what those signs meant — something that never happens so close to kickoff. Clawson wanted to test the binder’s authenticity, so with 12:19 left in the first quarter, he called a tight end double-pass to Cam Serigne, which had appeared on one of the binder’s play cards, scribbled in silver Sharpie, with Serigne’s No. 85 written next to it.

Serigne was supposed to block for two or three seconds, then break out and catch a pass. Right when he was about to slip out, he lifted his head.

“The entire defense is literally all staring at me,” Serigne says. “It was crazy.”

On the Wake radio broadcast, play-by-play man Stan Cotten described the play for listeners: “Wake to the line, second down-and-8 at the Louisville 13. From the pistol, rolling right with the ball is Wolford. Wants to throw, being pursued from behind, throws the ball downfield and out of bounds…”

“Yeah, that’s the tight end delay play,” color analyst Tommy Elrod interjected. “They actually took Cam Serigne, had him delay on the line of scrimmage. Louisville was all over it.”

Receiver Cortez Lewis couldn’t comprehend any of it. Every time he ran a route, it seemed as if a defensive back was waiting for him. “Exactly where I was supposed to stop at,” Lewis says, “you’ve got a corner or safety sitting right there.” Defensive lineman Josh Banks says players asked Clawson: “Are we playing against your big brother or something? Because they’re calling perfect calls — like perfect calls — for everything we’re doing.”

And that is where we find ourselves, with farce become tragedy become scandal.

It is a farce in that Michigan can out-talent 90% of the teams on its roster, and need never do this against its non-conference cripples or the Big 10 Sisters of the Poor.

It is a tragedy because when one of the sports’ luminaries takes a hit, it emanates outward on all the blue bloods. It raises serious questions: Have college football’s all-time winningest programs gotten there after a century of banging on rhetorical garbage cans? Do they just cheat better (to some extent, that’s probably true...but don’t say it aloud).

And it is a scandal that no one cares about the institutional damage being done here: to the sport, to Harbaugh’s once-sterling legacy, to one of the nation’s Public Ivies, to one of its most esteemed conferences, and to a sport that allegedly still cares about Winning The Right Way and changing young men’s lives for the better.

There are no winners here, none whatsoever...just as there are no legitimate Michigan wins since the 2020 season.


Is this really a big deal at the end of the day?

This poll is closed

  • 65%
    Yes, and it’s even bigger than it’s being made out to be
    (484 votes)
  • 13%
    Yes, but it really just affects Michigan and the Big 10
    (102 votes)
  • 4%
    No, the whole thing is silly and overblown
    (35 votes)
  • 9%
    It’s somewhere in between.
    (71 votes)
  • 5%
    I just don’t know yet.
    (43 votes)
735 votes total Vote Now