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NCAA investigating Michigan football amid sign-stealing allegations

The NCAA is investigating the University of Michigan football program amid allegations of sign-stealing, the Big Ten announced Thursday.

“U-M Athletics will offer its complete cooperation to the NCAA in this matter,” athletic director Warde Manuel said in a statement Thursday. “At the University of Michigan, all of us are committed to the highest standards of ethics and integrity for all members of our community. This is the same expectation I have of all coaches, staff, and student-athletes.”

The Big Ten approached Michigan State on Wednesday, ahead of this weekend’s matchup between the rivals in East Lansing, with what the league described as “credible evidence” that the Wolverines have successfully stolen signs called by opposing teams’ coaches this season.

The NCAA is investigating Michigan “over possible rule-breaking around in-person scouting of opponents,” according to an industry source briefed on the matter. According to NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1, off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents (in the same season) is prohibited. An issue with the bylaw would mean a case that would likely proceed through the traditional infractions process.

Manuel spoke with conference commissioner Tony Petitti on Wednesday. According to a source with knowledge of the allegations, as of noon Thursday, Michigan had yet to be presented with evidence compiled by the conference.

The Big Ten claims that Michigan, as one source with knowledge of the allegation said, is using a “vast network” to steal opposing teams’ signs. The league told Michigan State it has reviewed film that indicates UM had knowledge of what play an opposing team was going to run before the play occurs.

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

Upon learning of the pending investigation, Michigan State initially warned the Big Ten it might consider not playing Saturday’s game out of concern for health and safety for its players, according to two sources briefed on those conversations. On Thursday morning, MSU confirmed it will play the game. Michigan’s upcoming opponents were notified of the allegations and games are expected to take place as planned, an industry source said Thursday.

“As we look forward to the football game this Saturday, we are chagrined by the news of the NCAA investigation and we echo the Big Ten Conference’s commitment to integrity. The allegations are concerning, but will be handled through the NCAA’s processes. MSU has no further comment on that matter. The university is focused on supporting our own team and preparing campus for a safe game-day environment,” read a statement from Michigan State interim president Teresa Woodruff.

Sign-stealing is not prohibited by the NCAA, unless a team intercepts in-game electronic communication. But it has a long history, with decades of accusations and allegations in college football.

Prominently, in 2020, Clemson was touted as the best sign-stealing program in college football. Prior to the 2020 Sugar Bowl, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables “seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing.”

Arizona State coach Todd Graham was accused by both Washington and Utah of signal-stealing in 2015. At halftime of a 2014 game, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder accused Auburn of sign-stealing. A year prior, Auburn was accused by Florida State of sign-stealing in the BCS championship game. The list goes on.

The question facing Michigan is if these recent allegations go beyond on-field sign-stealing.

Michigan is currently under NCAA investigation for a series of Level II rule violations relating to recruiting during a COVID dead period and statements to NCAA investigators. Coach Jim Harbaugh served a university-imposed three-game suspension.

— The Athletic‘s Nicole Auerbach and Austin Meek contributed to this report.

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(Photo of Jim Harbaugh: David Berding / Getty)

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