Sources: U-M staffer bought non-Big Ten tickets

NCAAF

The scope of the alleged illicit scouting ring being orchestrated by suspended Michigan analyst Connor Stalions continues to grow, as sources told ESPN on Tuesday that he bought tickets for games at four schools outside of the Big Ten that were either in College Football Playoff contention or playing contenders.

There also is record of Stalions buying tickets to the 2021 and 2022 SEC title games, sources told ESPN. The tickets to the SEC title games were purchased on the secondary market, according to sources.

ESPN also learned that Stalions, who is at the center of an NCAA investigation into Michigan’s alleged sign-stealing operation, bought tickets to a 12th Big Ten school, as sources at 12 of the 13 possible Big Ten schools have a record of Stalions buying a ticket there. ESPN reported on Monday there were 11 schools.

According to four sources, all of the tickets for games outside the Big Ten involved CFP contenders and were purchased either toward the middle or end of the 2022 season, as Michigan was headed to the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season.

The Big Ten announced last week that Michigan (8-0, 5-0) is under NCAA investigation for the alleged sign-stealing operation. The Wolverines are the No. 2 team in the country and the current betting favorite to win the national title.

Soon after ESPN reported that Stalions had emerged as a centerpiece of the NCAA’s investigation into Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme on Friday, the school suspended him with pay. Since that time, schools around the country have been checking their ticket data — which includes the secondary market in most cases — to see if Stalions purchased tickets to their games.

So far, ESPN has confirmed that Stalions has purchased tickets to more than 35 games at 17 stadiums around the country. He has used a network of at least three people, who were forwarded the tickets to attend games.

A source told ESPN on Tuesday that the NCAA has been sent at least an hour of video evidence that shows a person sitting in a seat appearing to tape the home sideline with a smartphone. Stalions purchased the ticket for that seat. The video is expected to be used as part of the investigation to show that electronics were used in the signal-stealing ring, according to sources.

“Unless something happens right now, it’s irrelevant,” said a source on a Big Ten campus, underscoring the frustration around the league. “Everyone is mad. This is not right. But what is the NCAA going to do about it?”

Although the NCAA is leading the investigation into Michigan, the Big Ten could take action against the school before the probe is complete, sources told ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg on Tuesday. The Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy states that commissioner Tony Petitti has the “exclusive authority to determine whether offensive actions have occurred,” and to impose discipline for members.

The policy lists “integrity of the competition” as a fundamental element that all Big Ten schools are expected to uphold. Institutions are responsible for “the actions of its employees” and for cooperating with the league during an investigation.

The Big Ten has two categories for discipline. The first includes fines that don’t exceed $10,000 and suspensions of no more than two contests. The second, for major disciplinary action, requires approval from an executive committee made up of representatives of different schools, which can deny proposed penalties or reduce them but not add to them. The Big Ten’s penalties for Michigan State from the fight with Michigan in the Michigan Stadium tunnel in 2022 were an example of major disciplinary action.

A source told ESPN that the Big Ten would want to have “as full of a picture of what the facts actually are if we were to act” before the NCAA completes its investigation, which likely would not occur until sometime in 2024.

In a statement last week, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh denied “illegally stealing signs” and said he had never “directed any staff member or others to participate in an off-campus scouting assignment.”

NCAA enforcement timelines are notoriously slow. Michigan is still under investigation for recruiting violations tied to allegations that emerged during the COVID-19 mandated recruiting dead period. (Harbaugh served a school-imposed three-game suspension for those violations earlier this year, but the case remains unfinished.)

The emergence of Stalions purchasing tickets at three College Football Playoff contenders outside the Big Ten reflects the potential breadth of the operation, which sources told ESPN last week was “elaborate.”

After ESPN reported on Monday that sources at 11 of the possible 13 Big Ten schools had confirmed Stalions bought a ticket in his name at their stadium, another source at a 12th Big Ten school found a record of Stalions purchasing a ticket at their stadium. The school that didn’t find Stalions in their records does not have access to search names in secondary markets.

According to the source, the ticket was purchased across from the visiting sideline for a game against Ohio State. It’s the fourth Ohio State-related game that ESPN has confirmed, three of which were in opposing stadiums where the tickets were purchased across from the visitor’s sideline. The fourth was OSU’s game against Penn State on Saturday, for which Stalions had purchased tickets across from both sidelines, according to sources. Michigan still must play both of those teams this season.

Those tickets were not used after Stalions’ name emerged in an ESPN story on Friday.

On Tuesday, a Michigan spokesman reiterated that the school is “unable to comment further due to this being an ongoing investigation.”

A Big Ten official also declined further comment. On Monday, the league told ESPN that the league “considers the integrity of competition to be of the utmost importance. Due to the ongoing nature of the NCAA investigation, the conference has no comment at this time.”

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.

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