ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Five weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh stood in front of reporters and talked about setting a “gold standard” for rules compliance.
Harbaugh had just returned from a three-game suspension Michigan self-imposed tied to alleged NCAA violations that occurred on his watch. Though he considered Michigan’s compliance to be exemplary, he talked about implementing new policies to “make sure I don’t ever get sidelined again.”
“We’ve done an incredible job,” Harbaugh said then. “We’ve gone to the nth degree to follow every rule.”
That rings hollow now, doesn’t it? A little more than a month later, Michigan is facing another NCAA investigation, this one for alleged violations of the in-person scouting rule. Michigan suspended staffer Connor Stalions with pay after he was identified as a central figure in the NCAA investigation. Monday, The Athletic reported that Stalions purchased tickets under his own name for games involving at least five of Michigan’s opponents during the past three seasons.
A staffer buying tickets to Big Ten football games isn’t a violation of NCAA rules. Forwarding those tickets to other people isn’t, either. It’s possible Stalions, a former student volunteer who joined Michigan’s recruiting department in 2022, is just a college football superfan who is used to digging into his own pockets to buy and sell tickets on the secondary market.
But using those tickets to scout other teams would be a violation.
Looking at Stalions’ purchases, people around the Big Ten noticed a troubling pattern: seats near midfield, clear view of the sideline, sometimes on both sides of the stadium. The Athletic and other outlets reported one school has security footage of an individual sitting in a seat purchased by Stalions filming the team’s sideline with a smartphone.
Whatever that is, it’s not a gold standard of rules compliance. The NCAA forbids “off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents” and the NCAA football playing rules prohibit taping signals. Technical arguments can be made about what constitutes scouting and who, exactly, falls under the jurisdiction of these rules. But the spirit is clear: Schools aren’t supposed to be sending people to other stadiums and taping other teams’ signals.
If that’s what was happening here, Michigan has a problem on its hands. How big or small depends on many factors, chief among them: Did Harbaugh or any members of his coaching staff know this was going on?
Harbaugh released a statement last week saying he didn’t direct anyone to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment and had “no awareness of anyone on our staff having done that or having directed that action.” No evidence has emerged to contradict that statement. But the investigation is just getting started, and the NCAA will be keen to determine if Stalions paid for the tickets out of his own pocket or had help from other sources.
The evidence presented so far isn’t conclusive, but it’s certainly suspicious. Other Big Ten schools saw what Stalions was doing and realized it could be a problem for Michigan. Why didn’t Michigan see that?
The least charitable interpretation is that Harbaugh knew about and sanctioned Stalions’ alleged actions. In the most charitable interpretation, Harbaugh had bigger things to worry about. A Big Ten football program is a sprawling operation, and the head coach can’t possibly police the actions of 100 players, 10 assistant coaches and every low-level staffer in the building.
But that’s all the more reason to have people looking out for potential problems. Michigan, of all programs, should know that. If Michigan had done what Harbaugh said it would, the Wolverines might not be in this position.
Michigan had every reason to examine its policies and procedures after landing in hot water with the NCAA over alleged violations that occurred during the COVID-19 dead period, including impermissible contact with recruits and analysts performing coach duties in practice. Everyone should have been on their best behavior after Harbaugh’s three-game suspension, knowing how it would look if the program slipped up again.
Even if the facts are less damning than they appear, somebody — Harbaugh, his coordinators, Michigan’s compliance department or Stalions’ supervisor — should have been looking out for red flags. It’s unclear when these tickets were purchased, but they involve games played this season, including Saturday’s clash between Penn State and Ohio State, according to ESPN. That’s brazen stuff for a program already under the microscope.
Stalions didn’t play college football but gained a reputation around the Michigan program for his ability to decode other teams’ signals. As a former U.S. Marine and Naval Academy graduate, he seemed eager to apply his military background by “identifying and exploiting critical vulnerabilities,” as he wrote in a now-deleted LinkedIn bio.
The shame of it all is that Michigan is good enough to win without any of this. Of Michigan’s 20 consecutive Big Ten victories, only three have been decided by single digits. The Wolverines owe their success to Aidan Hutchinson, Blake Corum, J.J. McCarthy and a bunch of other talented players, not to a staffer who may have been good at decoding signs.
This isn’t the first time Harbaugh’s program has run into controversy. In addition to the previous NCAA investigation, Michigan fired co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss in January amid a police investigation of suspicious computer activity at Schembechler Hall. That investigation remains open, and university police have refused to discuss it.
A program that cares about following the rules to the nth degree would want to make sure a sign-deciphering operation is fully legal, especially in light of past missteps. Even if Harbaugh had no idea what was going on, NCAA rules hold head coaches accountable for what happens in their programs. Harbaugh seemed to acknowledge as much when he talked about implementing policies to protect himself and his staff after returning from his suspension.
Asked for details of those policies, Harbaugh offered very few. It sounded more like a spur-of-the-moment proclamation than a coordinated directive. Harbaugh or someone close to him should have taken those words to heart and made sure Michigan got its house in order, knowing the NCAA would be looking for any excuse to add to Harbaugh’s three-game school-imposed suspension.
The investigation still has to play out, but on the surface, this is exactly the kind of thing that could compound Michigan’s NCAA troubles and land Harbaugh on the sideline again. Anyone who looked hard at what Stalions was doing could have seen the potential for scandal and controversy, the last thing Michigan needs as it chases a national championship.
In trying so hard to spot an opponent’s vulnerabilities, Michigan missed a big one of its own.
(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)