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A Central Michigan perspective on the Connor Stalions saga

The Chippewas were made aware of a potential interloper on Monday night, but questions linger about an incident from two months ago.

James H. Jimenez

[EDITOR’s NOTE: updated Nov. 3 at 8:40 p.m. Eastern to reflect the University of Michigan’s statement and clarification of Stalions’ job status, changing from fired to resigned.]

[EDITOR’S NOTE: updated Nov. 6 at 1:03 p.m. Eastern to add Central Michigan athletic director Amy Folan’s new statement regarding the Stalions investigation.]

Back on Sept. 1, 2023, the Central Michigan Chippewas visited the Michigan State Spartans for a season-opening tilt which ultimately ended with the homestanding Spartans out-talenting CMU 31-7 under a clear, Friday night sky.

The game had its moments in the first half, with Central putting up a great defensive effort to put themselves in position for an upset, but a few breakdowns at the end of the first half broke the dams open, turning the game into an otherwise forgettable pay game between a Power Five and Group of Five program.

That is, until Tuesday morning, when Tony Paul and Angelique S. Chengelis of The Detroit News reported that Connor Stalions was alleged to have been patrolling the Central Michigan sidelines on the night in question.

Central Michigan athletic director Amy Folan released a press statement shortly after, announcing the university was launching an investigation into the matter, turning the story from a curiosity into a matter of intrigue.

“We became aware of these photos late [Monday night] and we are in the process of determining the facts surrounding them,” Folan told the News on Tuesday morning. “As this process is ongoing, we have no further investigation at this time.

Now that once-forgotten game in East Lansing has a magnifying glass on it, with college football reporters and fans alike all trying to solve the mystery of who that man in the sunglasses could possibly be.

Nicole Auerbach and Chris Vannini of The Athletic confirmed the initial reports independently, and revealed additional details of the incident at around 2 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday in the form of photographs of the person alleged to be Connor Stalions.

The story continued to swirl going into Central Michigan’s weeknight contest, with the Chippewas hosting Northern Illinois on Tuesday night.

The broadcast mentioned the Stalions incident midway through the first quarter, shortly after the full College Football Playoff rankings were revealed. (Michigan was ranked #3 despite the allegations, which committee chairman Boo Corrigan called “an NCAA issue”).

CMU had to sweat out a home win in the snow, taking down NIU 37-31 at the end of regulation. But inquisitive minds in the media room were curious about that Friday in East Lansing, asking Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain, who was Michigan’s wide receivers coach in 2018, about the issue.

“We obviously are aware of a picture floating around with the sign-stealer guy,” McElwain told assembled media on Tuesday night. “Our people are doing everything they can to get to the bottom of it. We’re totally unaware of it. I certainly don’t condone it in any way, shape or form. I do know his name was on none of the passes that were let out. We keep tracing it back and tracing it back and try to figure it out. It’s in good hands with our people. Again, there’s no place in football for that.”

During Friday’s press availability leading up to the game, Hustle Belt asked McElwain about the sign-stealing controversy in a general light, as initial reports of the Stalions sign-stealing saga had been a topic of discussion over the last week-plus.

Here’s McElwain’s full, unedited answer from Friday’s presser:

“I mean, it’s part of the game. I mean, I think it’s been going on forever. And never really worried about it. We know guys have ours. You know, my message to the staff and to the players… You just got to go, ‘How can you execute what it is?’ And that’s reality. So, you know, having been, you know, briefly in the National Football League, and I realize the cost, I guess — I don’t even know what it does cost — but I’ve always been a proponent of coach-to-quarterback, coach-to-signal caller on defense. It’s possible, and I think it helped move the game along. But as far as the other piece, whatever. They know what we’re doing anyway. That’s why you work all week against schemes and try to go beat them.”

To understand the significance of the story, we need to step back a little bit.

Connor Stalions is a former graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, who officially joined the University of Michigan staff in 2022 as an assistant. However, it has since been revealed that Stalions had connections with the Michigan program dating back to at least 2015 as a volunteer contributor.

It is during that time as a volunteer where Stalions, in an effort to aid U of M coaches, is alleged to have started a complex and wide-ranging sign-stealing network, as well as creating a 500+ page “manifesto” regarding the future of the Michigan football program, a sort of living document which allegedly has dozens of current and former Michigan staffers included in its formation.

The biggest allegation, which is currently under investigation by both the NCAA and the Big Ten, is that Stalions is alleged to have paid for other Michigan staff members and even third-party stringers for the purpose of recording the sidelines of potential future opponents for as many as 40 games — both against conference opponents and hypothetical future opponents.

Stalions was initially suspended with pay by the University of Michigan on Oct. 20, but after refusing to cooperate with multiple authorities in the matter, resigned on Friday afternoon.

“Connor Stalions resigned his position with Michigan Athletics this afternoon. We are unable to comment further regarding this personnel matter,” the university said via press statement Friday night. The statement was released to “correct what was erroneously reported earlier,” per Aaron McMann of MLive Group.

Tuesday’s report was the first time there has been potential evidence of Stalions attending a game in person to scout teams in advance, a clear and flagrant violation of NCAA rules against in-person advance signal scouting. (Though it is legal to study signs from television and all-22 broadcasts).

In terms of the on-ground situation on Sept. 1, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde reported it is Michigan State policy to give opposing teams bench passes in bulk, with the university given full discretion as to how those passes are contributed. Prior to Folan’s announcement, an unnamed CMU spokesperson denied Stalion’s inclusion on their official sideline pass list, per the Detroit News.

Forde reported in the same piece that Stalions confirmed to one of the piece’s sources the presence of a “GA from Central” who had graduated from Michigan in the manifesto back in 2021. An independent investigation by Hustle Belt was not able to uncover any graduate assistants listing Michigan as their alma mater in 2021.

No current graduate or student assistants on the 2023 coaching staff page list Michigan as their alma mater.

Realistically, there is no reason for Stalions to have been on the Central Michigan sidelines that Friday night. But yet, the possibility remains he could well have been there. It’s a 66-minute drive from East Lansing to Ann Arbor, and Michigan had a noon game the next day against East Carolina.

Since publication on Nov. 3, Tony Paul of the Detroit News has reported that CMU is now cooperating with the NCAA in identifying who was along their sidelines in East Lansing.

CMU AD Amy Folan released a statement regarding the matter on Monday, Nov. 6, saying ”Central Michigan continues its review of the matter in cooperation with the NCAA. As this is an ongoing NCAA enforcement matter, we are unable to provide further comment at this time.”

This marks nearly a week since the start of the investigation, and we’re no closer to knowing if Stalions was indeed along the sidelines.

Until that happens, CMU will be at a quandary. Do they harbor a member (or members) of the staff who violated Central’s integrity to invite an interloper independently, or are they merely the victim of a lax gameday procedure?

Either implication is not flattering, and the longer it goes unanswered, the more scrutiny which will be invited.

As this is a developing story, we will update with any more information gathered as it happens.