Ex-coaches: Sign stealing ‘a terrible example for the young men that play’

By Chicago 9 Min Read

Jim Harbaugh

Michigan is 8-0 and ranked No. 2 nationally but the top storylines this season have had more to do with coach Jim Harbaugh’s future.

While a little on the shady side, there’s nothing in the NCAA rule book specifically prohibiting college football coaches from stealing opponents’ signals in hope of gaining an edge on game day.

What is strictly prohibited, and has been since NCAA Bylaw 11.6.1 took effect in 1994, is all “off-campus, in-person scouting of future opponents,” which an underling of Jim Harbaugh’s stands accused of doing in an elaborate sign-stealing operation that’s been the buzz of college football for going on two weeks.

Harbaugh isn’t talking about it, the embattled coach reiterated during a Monday news conference in Ann Arbor.

So Editor JEFF D’ALESSIO turned to former college coaches, asking six College Football Hall of Famers, conference champions and award winners for their takes on the sport’s hottest topic.

Lou Tepper

Lou Tepper

The News-Gazette


Three bowl trips in six years as Illini coach (1991-96)

“In the early 1970s, while at William and Mary, I legally scouted Virginia Tech’s spring game. They used some very obvious signals, and I was able to decode them. We knew about 70 percent of the plays before they ran them and it led to a huge upset.

“At one point, we signaled in a wide receiver reverse and one of our excited defenders yelled out ‘reverse’ before the snap. Virginia Tech’s quarterback looked to our sideline, called time out and said: ‘That’s ridiculous.’

“Later, live scouting was eliminated, probably for financial reasons more than anything else. In fact, you may remember that we caught Wisconsin illegally scouting us and looking through our game materials in our press box in Champaign. I believe their offensive line coach was banned from coaching for a week during that season because of the violation.

“At Buffalo, I did use a volunteer former coach to decipher signals from our normal exchange films. With the advent of the high-tempo spread offenses, quarterbacks very often signal checks to the wide receivers because they can’t hear the QB’s change of calls with crowd noise.

“From film, my volunteer could often decode the quarterback hand signals by viewing the routes run by the wide receivers. Then he would put together a video, showing the signal followed with the accompanying routes. There was nothing illegal about the process, and it probably made a big difference in two or three games during each season.

“Decoding those signals were all within the rules of the game. I do, however , have a major issue with a staff that would intentionally break the rules by attending games illegally and photographing signals to decipher. It is not only illegal, but a terrible example for the young men that play.”

Tom Osborne

Tom Osborne

File photo


College Football Hall of Famer-turned-congressman led Nebraska to three national titles

“I called every play by sending a player into the huddle with the play so we did not deal with signal stealing.

“It is ridiculous that major college football teams can’t call plays through a headset in the quarterback’s helmet like the NFL does.”


Former Iowa lineman coached Iowa State from 1996-2006

“I was fortunate to get 45 years in Division I as a player and coach. I never witnessed anyone stealing signals. Never talked about it in any staff meetings, either.

Dan McCarney

Dan McCarney

“There were two main reasons for not trying to. We laughed about it a few times and I remember saying by the time we tried to get a signal, then get our personnel on the field, then signal the play we thought it might be, then signal the defense we wanted, we would surely screw it up. The ones that tried it must have been a lot smarter than us.

“Second, out of respect for the game and respect for the integrity of the game. I didn’t learn to cheat or cut corners or break rules as a player and I sure as hell am not going to do it as a coach.”

R.C. Slocum

R.C. Slocum

Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT


Texas A&M’s winningest football coach went 123–47–2 from 1989-2002

“There has been concern about the stealing of signals for a long time. I once had a coach call and warn me about a school where he formerly worked. We were preparing to play that school.

“He told me that they filmed opposing teams’ signal callers and then went back and spliced the signals and game-tape plays back to back. This way, they could match signals to plays for future use against that team.

“He also told me the visitors’ locker room and coaches’ dressing were bugged. Any halftime adjustments would be heard by the home-team coaches. Scary stuff, for sure.

“From that time forward, we had a complicated signal system to protect our calls. We would make wrist bands with our calls. Each wristband had two panels with different calls. We could change those panels between quarters and at halftime.

“We had multiple signalers on the sideline and only one was live on each series. This could be changed at any time. We would tell the quarterback or defensive signal caller who was live and which panel to use on the wrist band.

“When I was the defensive coordinator, I had a similar system but I gave the signals. I would have a live signal to indicate that I was giving the signal or a signal to go off the wristband. Again, we would change the wrist band panels during the game. I think we had a good system and as far as I know, never had a problem.”

Gary Barnett

Gary Barnett

File photo


Two-time Big Ten coach of the year for resuscitating Northwestern football in the ’90s

“College football is a victim of dinosaur rules. For example, no audio-visual aids can be used on the sideline or in the locker room at halftime.

“High school and professional football both have access legally to this technology. Pro football uses a helmet speaker system that rids the need of signals — and actually, colleges are going to experiment with that system in the bowl games this year.

“As we know, college football’s thinking is way out of date. By using technology that is easily available, we can speed up the game, gather more information and not have to be overly concerned about ‘sign stealing.’

Chuck Long

Chuck Long


Iowa Sports Foundation CEO gained more fame as a player (Hawkeyes’ three-time all-Big Ten quarterback) than coach (9-27 at San Diego State)

“As an offensive coach, we always assumed the opponent would try and steal our signs during the game so we hid them by having multiple signal callers, using wristbands (with plays on them) and substituting players who bring in the play to the quarterback.

“It’s a huge advantage for a team to scout upcoming opponents and get the signals ahead of time. That is why Michigan did it — they knew of the advantage they would get.”

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