Michigan’s McCarthy says team’s hard work overshadowed by sign stealing saga

Published 7:06 pm Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Associated Press

The sign-stealing scandal that has hung over Michigan’s season has overshadowed the work the team has put in to go unbeaten and reach the College Football Playoff championship game, quarterback J.J. McCarthy said Wednesday.

Michigan plays Washington for the national title in Houston on Monday as the NCAA continues to investigate allegations that the Wolverines, over three years extending into this season, had a staff member do in-person advance scouting against NCAA rules and used video equipment to pick off future opponents’ play-call signs from the sideline.

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Asked during a CFP media teleconference about the possibility of the NCAA ordering Michigan to vacate wins, McCarthy said it would be unfortunate for the players not to be recognized for what they’ve achieved.

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “it’s not going to change the amount of accomplishment and the amount of pride for being on this football team and just everything that we accomplished because we know what we put in, we know the work that we’ve put in, and we know that we did things the right way as players.”

Coach Jim Harbaugh deflected a question about possible sanctions, saying he is focused on the game against Washington.

“I don’t know if you want to live in rumorville or speculation, but we just don’t really have any room to be doing that at this point,” he said. “That’s done elsewhere.”

The NCAA does not directly ban the stealing of signs, but there are rules against using electronic equipment to record an opponent’s signals and in-person, advanced scouting of future opponents in season. There are also rules against unsportsmanlike or unethical activities by coaches, and head coaches are generally considered to be responsible for violations that occur under them.

The Big Ten suspended Harbaugh for the final three regular-season games for violating the conference’s sportsmanship policy. Harbaugh has denied having knowledge of sign-stealing activities. Michigan suspended Harbaugh for the first three games of the season amid allegations of recruiting violations.

McCarthy estimated 80% of college football teams steal signs.

“It’s just a thing about football,” he said. “It’s been around for years. We actually had to adapt because in 2020 or 2019 when Ohio State was stealing our signs — which is legal and they were doing it — we had to get up to the level that they were at, and we had to make it an even playing field.”

McCarthy later clarified that comment to The Associated Press.

“When I said we need to level the playing field, I meant in terms of how we change our own signs, how we develop our signs and how and when we distribute those changes when we know signs are likely to have been stolen,” he said.

McCarthy and defensive lineman Mason Graham said they and their teammates put in significant time operating inside the rules to find clues about how opponents might react in different situations.

“We do watch so much film and look for those little tendencies and spend like 10, 15 minutes on one clip alone just looking at all the little details,” McCarthy said, referring to the posture of linebackers or defensive linemen and differences in where cornerbacks and safeties are lined up. “You could say it’s all sign stealing, but there’s a lot more that goes into play, and a lot of stuff that gets masked, a lot of work that gets masked just because of the outside perception of what sign stealing is all about.”