Saturday, June 15

10 lessons of a college football signal stealer: What to watch for and how not to ‘get got’

The video evidence of Michigan’s signal stealing efforts was shared nonstop on Tuesday, surpassing 17 million views within 36 hours.

The footage, posted by Ohio TV reporter Adam King, shows Michigan analyst Connor Stalions standing next to defensive coordinator Jesse Minter before a play and staring down Ohio State’s sideline to see a signal. Once he spotted it, Stalions responded with his own signal to help the Wolverines’ defense during the opening drive of last year’s game.

The strong impression made on many: Gotcha! Here was the damning proof of Michigan’s in-game cheating.

A college football signal stealer watched the video on Tuesday, too. He didn’t get it.

Why are people freaking out about this clip?

The ongoing Michigan ordeal is being watched with fascination by coaches and staffers in the industry who’ve been stealing signals for years. Although the practice is legal and has been well-documented in the past, Stalions’ breaking NCAA rules by purchasing tickets to games and allegedly sending people to film future opponents has brought intense new attention.

This coach works at a Power 5 program that does not have Michigan on its schedule this season. In return for participating in this story, he requested no other identifying information be shared; he’s not trying to give up strategies that opponents could copy.

As he’s watched this story unfold over the past week, he’s seeing lots of misperceptions about the unique art of signal stealing and what is and isn’t allowed. If the allegations are true, Stalions crossing the line gives all signal stealers a bad name and makes it harder for them to do what they do best. But this coach is also surprised more than anything: How is it that people never noticed what they’re up to on Saturdays?

“The clip circulating, I’m like, shoot, that looks like every sideline I’ve been across in America,” he said. “I just think people don’t pay attention to it.”

While there are some secrets he must keep to himself, the staffer was granted anonymity in order to speak as freely as possible to The Athletic about how this game within the game actually works. Here are 10 lessons learned from a highly effective signal stealer.

1. It’s not illegal

Let’s start with the Ohio State video. To the uninitiated, it looks bad. But Michigan’s coaches were not breaking the rules. Our signal stealer thinks he knows exactly what happened on the play.

Michigan holds up a white sign with a Nike swoosh. That tells the defense to not jump offsides on the hard count because Ohio State is about to check to the sideline. The sign goes down. C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes offense look to their sideline for a call. Michigan’s staff reads it and points to the sky. A new sign with an image of Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young goes up.

“That’s probably their pass board when they think a pass is coming,” the signal stealer said. “By the way, everybody’s pointing to the sky now. That’s their sign for pass, another hand signal to alert people.

“If I’m at Ohio State, I see that right away and immediately I’m saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go to wristbands right now. They know it. I don’t know how they know it, but they know it.’”

How the now-suspended Stalions gathered that intel is the subject of the NCAA’s investigation. That’s the important distinction to remember. There’s nothing impermissible about Michigan utilizing the intel for pre-snap decisions and in-game adjustments.

What would be damning? Video evidence of someone filming a team’s sideline on their phone while sitting in a seat paid for by Stalions.

“That would get people in the industry to go, ‘Oh, they’re f—ed,’” he said.

GO DEEPER

Meek: Jim Harbaugh promised a ‘gold standard.’ Instead, Michigan got more trouble.

2. Your favorite team is probably doing it, too

The lack of awareness about this practice is what’s baffling to our signal stealer, especially given some of the extreme reactions he’s seen over the past week. Again, there’s a clear difference between what Michigan is alleged to have illegally done and what other coaching staffs traditionally do to steal signals. But those who are offended by signal stealing should pay a little attention to their own sideline.

“The average fans who are crying, ‘Oh my gosh, look at them cheat!’ Well, wait ’til you see your team do it,” he said. “Because I promise you they’re gonna do it this Saturday.”

During a game, it’s relatively easy to spot the staffer who has that particular set of skills if you’re looking for them. Some might be sitting up in the coaches’ box taking notes, but most are standing close to the action. It’s no secret what they’re trying to do.

For that reason, this coach is not too interested in some of the outrage coming from Big Ten coaches. He fully agrees that off-campus signal scouting is wrong. But he doesn’t want to hear rival coaches deriding standard signal stealing as improper or an integrity issue.

“They all do it to each other,” he said. “That’s what’s so silly to me about the whole thing.”

3. All you need is tape

The signal stealer has worked for a head coach who suspected rival schools might send people to his open practices or spring games to film signals. That type of paranoia is common. He does not believe Michigan’s alleged scheme is commonplace, calling it “next-level s—” that crosses the line.

“I hope I’m not naïve in thinking he’s the only one to do it,” he said. “I don’t know.”

In his experience, there’s no need to cross that line. If you spend enough time studying your opponents with a combination of TV broadcast tape and game tape, you’ll find patterns. The process of carefully watching signalers and logging everything he sees is time- and labor-intensive. It’s not easy to watch tape without sound and crack these codes. But it does tend to pay off.

Stalions has been described as a “savant” and wrote on his since-deleted LinkedIn page that he employed “Marine Corps philosophies and tactics” in his role. The signal stealer insists it’s not that difficult for others to pick up this skill.

“I promise you, within a day, I could take the average fan and watch three TV copies with them and they’ll know signals by the end of it,” he said. “We’re trying to signal in a play that a college kid has to comprehend. This isn’t rocket science. The signals are not ridiculously tough to figure out.”

4. Results not guaranteed

Let’s say you’re a signal stealer and you’ve put in the time and effort to decode your next opponent’s signals. You go into Saturday believing you know exactly what to expect. The game kicks off. You begin spying their sideline. You instantly realize you’ve never seen these signals before. They’re brand new.

For an experienced signal stealer, few things are more irritating.

“At the end of the day, if they get to your game and they change it all, then that was a whole waste of time,” he said.

When he watches tape, he’s always hoping to see repeated patterns of signals and plays over multiple games. But some games might require 10 signals, and others might only require five. He has to track week-to-week differences. Is it the same guy every game? Do they change it up for quarters or halves?

Another required talent for the role of signal stealer is the ability to see a signal live one time, instantly remember it and make a call. If you know Ohio State just signaled for a pass, that’s great. You still need to execute a simple signal that effectively conveys the intel to the defense as fast as possible.

Pointing to the sky and holding up a Trae Young sign does not give the secondary any tells on where Stroud is throwing the ball. All it does is alert the pass rushers to get after him. The viral clip doesn’t show what happened after the snap: Stroud threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Emeka Egbuka to put Ohio State up 7-0.

5. Don’t get got

A few years ago, the signal stealer’s team suffered a blowout loss in a conference game. What went wrong? They faced a team with a defensive assistant who’s an excellent signal stealer.

“They knew every single play,” he said.

Whether that’s actually true is always tough to say, but it sure felt like it. Our coach calls this “getting got.” The best indication that you’re getting got? When players come off the field and tell coaches that the opponent is calling out where the runs are going or identifying passes. An especially easy tell is when defenses know the signal for screen passes and easily stop them.

After that loss, the signal stealer spent a lot of time in the offseason studying what his counterpart was doing on the sideline in every game. The next time they played, his team used a different system for play calling. If they did signal in a play, they never used the same signal twice. They won the rematch.

6. If you get got, you better change

It’s really that simple. If a coaching staff is invested in stealing signs, it stands to reason they should also have a plan to prevent sign stealing. If they don’t want to get got, they should be open to making weekly changes. In the previous example, the signal stealer’s team opted to go to a wristband system for play calling.

“Teams that use wristbands don’t have anything to worry about,” he said.

There are more subtle ways to obfuscate and avoid asking players to learn new signals, like changing the order, pattern and delivery of the sideline signalers or introducing different dummy signals. Sharp signal stealers can still figure out how to crack the new codes, but it takes time and repetition to do that live.

“As a signal stealing person myself, if you don’t want me to get all your stuff off TV copy, change your signals,” he said. “If you’re not gonna change your signals, we’re gonna have your signals. Because I’ll put in the work to make sure we get your signals.”

7. If you don’t change, that’s on you

The signal stealer isn’t going to name names, but there are certain coaches he’s faced who did not change their signals even after he got them. He jokes that he can’t help but take that personally.

“It’s crazy that you would hurt your team that way,” he argues.

It sounds illogical that a head coach wouldn’t take signal stealing seriously and change their calls, but in his experience, some are brazen enough to believe they don’t need to change. When asked about Michigan on Tuesday, Colorado coach Deion Sanders told reporters he didn’t fully buy into the idea that sign stealing impacts the outcome of physical football games.

“You can have someone’s whole game plan. They could mail it to you. You’ve still got to stop it,” Sanders said.

The signal stealer’s response to that take?

“I hope we play Colorado,” he said. “Don’t ever change your signals or your signaler and let’s see if it’s just players beat players.”

Another factor to keep in mind: The coaching business is extremely gossipy. The signal stealer’s coaching staff heard the rumors about Michigan filming signals well before the initial Yahoo Sports story emerged. They don’t play Michigan. It doesn’t affect them. They still knew. If a Big Ten staff has any awareness of Michigan’s signal stealing practices and didn’t adjust accordingly, that’s inexcusable.

“To me, the burden is on these teams that knew about it and have to play them to change their stuff, too,” he said. “It’s on you to change your signals.”

8. Opponents know if you’re good at it

This brings us to our next lesson: You don’t want a reputation for being great at signal stealing. It’s not helpful. If your foes know that, they’ll make your task tougher. The good ones need to be careful.

Signal stealers study enough tape to know who the other signal stealers are. They see things and they definitely hear things about other programs’ sign-stealing operations. It took almost no time for Stalions to be publicly identified as Michigan’s “mastermind.”

Beyond the obvious issues Jim Harbaugh and his program are currently facing, our signal stealer raises another: No matter how this plays out, Michigan is going to have a very tough time stealing signals in the rest of its games this season.

The teams that still have to face the Wolverines should be making pregame changes to their signals. Michigan State tried an even safer approach against Michigan on Saturday: Their quarterback went to the sideline for the play call and delivered it in a huddle.

“We’ll play teams that will change up day-of from everything they’ve done that season,” the signal stealer said. “I guess you sort of take it as a compliment, but at the same time, that really sucks after all the work I put in.”

9. If done right, it does change games

The NCAA investigating Michigan’s signal-stealing operation prompts a question that may be impossible to answer: How many outcomes were impacted? How many losses became wins thanks to impermissibly obtained intel?

“It’s a really hard question,” the sign stealer said.

Because it’s truly incalculable. These investigations will focus on the extent to which Stalions or others arranged off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents and whether Harbaugh authorized or knew about the scheme. Beyond that, there’s no easy way to prove how those stolen signals changed Michigan’s games beyond anecdotal evidence from rival coaches.

Here’s how the signal stealer sees it: You can legally get all of this off tape. If you have good enough players and good enough information, you can do damage to the teams that don’t change signals. He agrees Michigan should be punished if the allegations are true. But it’s difficult for him to assess how significant Michigan’s advantage would’ve been.

“I guess the best way to say it is: sign stealing, if you have the material, can be very, very effective and win you a lot of games,” the coach said. “If you go to these (opponents’) games and do it, yeah, that’s obviously gonna have much more of an impact, because you’ll have more tape to go off. But who’s to say these teams that they went and got didn’t change the signals by that time?”

10. Rule changes? No thanks

One understandable reaction to the Michigan allegations is renewed interest in permitting in-game, coach-to-player communication technology.

The NFL has had it since 1994. The NCAA permitted electronic communication devices in college baseball in 2021. And later this year, it’s coming to college football. The Athletic reported on Monday that a trial run has been approved for non-College Football Playoff bowl games, an experiment that was already in the works prior to the Michigan revelations.

If a college football staff is gifted at stealing signals, they’re certainly not going to advocate for advancements that cost them their hard-earned edge going into games.

“The stuff Michigan was allegedly doing was wrong. But the rest of it? Shoot, everybody does that,” the signal stealer said. “So you’re gonna make everybody change how they do it?”

For these staffers, it’s not that they’re going to lose their jobs. They all perform other coaching or recruiting duties under their official job titles and capacities. Stealing signals is just their in-season side hustle. But getting good at it does make them more valuable.

Our signal stealer isn’t worried. He’s been doing this long enough to know how to adapt. The good ones will find a way to crack whatever comes next. He predicts that even if technology is introduced next season, offenses that want to go fast tempo will still have to use hand signals at some point.

And when they do, he’ll already know them.

(Top illustration: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic; Photos: Ronald Martinez, Rob Carr / Getty Images; Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)