The University of Michigan's football program is making a lot of news these days, and none of it is good. In October, an elaborate scheme for in-person scouting was revealed, and the school is under intense scrutiny both by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference. In addition, the FBI is already investigating other crimes which may or may not be related.
For those who don't follow sports, the core of the issue is that a yet unknown number of Michigan staff participated in a what was effectively a spying operation designed to capture the signals and plays of opposing teams. The goal was to allow Michigan coaches to know exactly what plays were being called and have the perfect response ready at hand.
Depending on who one asks, this is either only marginally useful, or decisive. I'm in the latter camp. From a military perspective, knowing exactly where, when and how an opponent is going to strike is a huge advantage. Yes, one must still execute, but that's a lot easier if you know what is supposed to happen.
Sending individuals to observe or record these signals has been prohibited since 1994, and for good reason. At that time, an arms race was breaking out across college football, and everyone was losing. The wealthy programs chafed at the expense of paying people to go and obtain intelligence; the poor schools lamented their inability to compete, which compounded their competitive disadvantages.
As a result, the practice was banned, and all teams were provided with game film to review. Some coaches continued to try to monitor play signals during the game, but this was far more difficult.
I mention this because three years ago I talked about All or Nothing, an Amazon documentary about the University of Michigan football program in 2017. That year Michigan was expected to contend for the national title, but ended up losing to both rivals, and the sense of disappointment was crushing. By 2020, the situation was even worse, with Head Coach Jim Harbaugh now winless against traditional rival Ohio State and having a losing record against arch-rival Michigan State. Indeed, Harbaugh chose to hide behind Covid protocols to avoid a sixth consecutive defeat by the Buckeyes.
He was forced to take a major pay cut in order to keep his job.
What I did not know was that one of Harbaugh's responses was turn to a former Marine captain (and Annapolis graduate) for strategic insight - which included the illegal practice of scouting mentioned above.
As noted in the previous post, Harbaugh regularly spoke of "dark side energy," and using anger and aggression to get ahead. This is clearly what happened, and the scandal is likely to bring long-term damage to both his reputation and that of the university.
There are also criminal implications. Sports gambling is a billion-dollar industry, and vast sums change hands based on point spreads. Over the past two and a half year, Michigan consistently defied this, leading to a considerable swing in who got what. It is not unlikely that someone affiliated with the program knew and profited from this scheme, which stands next to the 1919 World Series in terms of corruption.
How it will play out is anyone's guess, but for those who paid attention, the roots of it were visible as far back as 2017.