The sign-stealing investigation threatening to disrupt Michigan’s football season began after an outside investigative firm approached the NCAA with documents and videos the firm said it had obtained from computer drives maintained and accessed by multiple Michigan coaches, according to two people familiar with the matter, evidence that suggests the scandal’s impact could broaden beyond the suspension of one low-level assistant.

Those people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about an ongoing NCAA investigation. They did not disclose who hired the outside firm that approached the NCAA. The NCAA, the Big Ten and Michigan declined to comment Wednesday.

Last week, the Big Ten confirmed published reports that the NCAA was investigating allegations that Michigan had sent people connected to its football program to attend games of opponents and videotape coaches as they signaled in plays, in violation of the rules that govern college football. Michigan suspended Connor Stalions, a football assistant ESPN reported was suspected of overseeing the alleged sign-stealing operation. Coach Jim Harbaugh, in a statement, denied any knowledge of or involvement in any such scheme.

While NCAA rules do not explicitly prohibit sign-stealing — the practice of decoding signals that opposing coaches use to send in play calls to players on the field — the organization does ban video-recording opposing coaches as well as in-person scouting of upcoming opponents. And according to the investigation conducted by this outside firm, Michigan football has been using a sign-stealing operation involving both in-person scouting as well as video-recording coaches, those people said, since at least last season, when the team went 13-1, winning a second consecutive Big Ten title before losing in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

The outside firm’s investigation began this season, those people said, and involved interviews with people knowledgeable about Michigan’s scouting operations as well as reviewing documents and videos related to sign-stealing efforts. On Oct. 17, those people said, the firm presented its evidence to top NCAA officials. The next day, the Big Ten later confirmed, the NCAA informed the conference and Michigan that it had opened an investigation.

Perspective: Michigan’s sign-stealing operation is a college football scandal to savor

Stalions played a major role in overseeing and coordinating sign-stealing efforts, the outside investigation found, but the firm’s evidence suggested he wasn’t acting alone. The outside firm did not present any evidence directly linking Harbaugh to the sign-stealing operation, according to the people with knowledge. In the days since Stalions’s name circulated as a key figure in the investigation, videos and photos circulated on social media taken during Michigan games showing him standing near coaches, including the team’s defensive and co-offensive coordinators.

Among the pieces of evidence the firm presented, those people said, was a detailed schedule of Michigan’s planned sign-stealing travel for the rest of this season, listing opponents’ schedules, which games Michigan scouts would attend and how much money was budgeted for travel and tickets to scout each team.

The opponents targeted the most on this schedule, these people said, were not surprising. Atop the list was Ohio State, Michigan’s top rival in the Big Ten, and scouts planned to attend as many as eight games, costing more than $3,000 in travel and tickets. Next on the list was Georgia, a potential opponent in the College Football Playoff, with four or five games scheduled for in-person scouting and video-recording, also costing more than $3,000 in travel and tickets.

In total, those people said, Michigan’s sign-stealing operation expected to spend more than $15,000 this season sending scouts to more than 40 games played by 10 opponents. According to the university’s public salary disclosure records, Stalions, listed as an administrative specialist in the athletic department, made $55,000 in 2022.

Stalions did not reply to a message left at a phone number listed to him seeking comment. Stalions is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a captain in the Marine Corps who started working as an analyst for Michigan football last season, according to a profile from January 2022 published on the website Soldiers to Sidelines.

The outside firm also presented to NCAA officials photographs of people investigators believed to be Michigan scouts in action — including current students interning with the football team. The photos showed these people seated at games of Michigan opponents this season, aiming their cellphones at the sidelines. Days later, the outside firm told the NCAA, cellphone videos depicting the coaching staffs from these games were uploaded to a computer drive maintained and accessed by Stalions as well as several other Michigan assistants and coaches.

No timeline has been disclosed for when the NCAA could conclude its investigation. Harbaugh, in his statement, said he and his staff will “fully cooperate” with the NCAA probe. The news came just months after an earlier NCAA investigation concluded with a finding that Harbaugh violated recruiting rules and failed to cooperate with investigators. The university suspended Harbaugh for three games at the start of this season as a result.

Michigan again is competing for a national title under Harbaugh, having started the season 8-0. On Saturday, the Wolverines’ first game since the allegations of sign-stealing emerged, they thrashed rival Michigan State, 49-0. Michigan’s next game is against visiting Purdue on Nov. 4.

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