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Sign-stealing scandal steals Michigan’s thunder

Jimmy Myers
Sign-stealing scandal steals Michigan’s thunder
Game day at Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan. PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

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In a traditional college football game that has been played for over 100 years, the Wolverines of the University of Michigan and the Buckeyes of Ohio State University wage a gridiron war. 

Volumes can be found in a library on the subject, enough to make one think that the world, or at least the cities of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio, revolve around “The Game” played each year on the third weekend of November. Both cities gear up yearly for the pomp and pageantry that magnifies the event.

The teams first met in 1897. The rivalry had been played annually and uninterrupted from 1918 until 2020, when it was paused due to an independent decision by Michigan during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since 1918, the game’s site has alternated between Ann Arbor (in odd-numbered years) and Columbus (in even-numbered years).

Through 2010, the power and dominance of this rivalry has been clear, as Michigan and Ohio State have decided the Big Ten conference championship between themselves on 22 different occasions and affected the determination of the conference title an additional 27 times. It is often the most-viewed college football game of the regular season.

This year’s edition of “The Game” brought an extra measure of hypertension.

Both teams went into the contest undefeated (11-0 records), but there was much suspicion on the Michigan side of the ledger. 

Accusations abound that the Wolverines were sign-stealing over the last couple of years, which was believed to be the reason for their recent success (winners of the previous three matchups) against the Buckeyes. Ohio State fans back up this claim by citing the pure domination by their team for the previous eight years.

But the story gets deeper with the revelation that the Big Ten Conference, following complaints from several colleges, launched what it considers a thorough investigation into sign-stealing allegations against Michigan. 

The result of that investigation, which included other NCAA infractions, brought a searing spotlight on the Michigan football program. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh was suspended for three games at the start of this season for not cooperating with NCAA investigators looking into accusations about Michigan’s recruiting practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the lack of due process has given the team the excuse to present itself as the aggrieved underdog and Harbaugh as a kind of martyr, which he
is not.

All the while, the NCAA was investigating sign-stealing accusations from multiple Michigan opponents. An outside investigative first approached the NCAA with documents and videos the firm obtained from computer drives maintained and accessed by various Michigan coaches, according to two people familiar with the matter. 

While the NCAA rules do not explicitly prohibit sign-stealing, the organization does ban video-recording opposing coaches, as well as in-person scouting — two things that the investigative firm states that it has verifiable evidence (facial recognition photos as well as computer- and paper-documented evidence) of cheating by members of the Michigan coaching staff.

Coach Harbaugh claims innocence, while two members of his coaching staff, Connor Stalions, who resigned, and linebackers coach Chris Partridge, who was fired, are taking the weight for now. The silent, big-money booster in the shadows has yet to be identified.

Big Ten opponents of Michigan are lining up in the lawsuit procession, waiting for their day in court. Meanwhile, Michigan coaches and players are taking a united stand behind their beleaguered coach. They are holding to their current motto: “Michigan vs. Everybody.”

Suppose Michigan goes on to win the College Football National Championship amid all the controversy surrounding the shady behavior of its head coach. In that case, I expect the NCAA may be compelled to “vacate” the title as more information is brought to light on this affair.

I feel compassion for the Michigan players, though naive they may be. Their thirst for victory is like many who cheat to gain success, only to be exposed as “hollow victors.”

But I feel most sympathy for those cheated and robbed of the joy of honest victory. Stay tuned for future developments in this ongoing story. 

football, Ohio State University, sign-stealing, Sports, University of Michigan, Wolverines