Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Senior WriterNov 4, 2023, 05:08 AM
- College football reporter.
- Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
- Graduate of Northwestern University.
Connor Stalions, the Michigan football analyst at the center of the NCAA’s investigation into illegal off-campus scouting and signal stealing, resigned from his position Friday, the school announced.
Stalions, who officially joined Michigan’s staff in 2022 but had been around the program for several years, was suspended with pay by the school Oct. 20, pending the outcome of the investigation.
A source initially told ESPN that Stalions had been fired, before Michigan later announced Friday that he had resigned. In a statement, the university said it was “unable to comment further regarding this personnel matter.”
Both Stalions and his attorney issued statements to The Athletic on Friday night, saying in part that his decision to resign was to keep from being a distraction to the team, which is unbeaten (8-0) and hosts Purdue on Saturday.
“I love the University of Michigan and its football program,” Stalions told The Athletic. “And I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to work with the incredible student athletes, coach [Jim] Harbaugh and the other coaches that have been a part of the Michigan football family during my tenure. I do not want to be a distraction from what I hope to be a championship run for the team, and I will continue to cheer them on.”
His attorney, Brad Beckworth, added, in part: “Connor also wants to make it clear that, to his knowledge, neither Coach Harbaugh, nor any other coach or staff member, told anyone to break any rules or were aware of improper conduct regarding the recent allegations of advanced scouting.”
According to a source, Stalions did not attend a meeting Friday with Michigan officials, possibly on advice of counsel. Sources are unsure whether he will cooperate with the NCAA investigation, which is examining whether Stalions and Michigan orchestrated in-person scouting of Michigan’s future opponents, violating a rule established in 1994.
A graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a longtime Michigan fan, Stalions earned a salary of $55,000 and spent games on the Michigan sideline, often consulting with defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and other coaches. According to a LinkedIn page he recently deleted, Stalions is a former officer in the Marine Corps and worked with Michigan as a volunteer for several years before joining the staff in 2022.
According to ESPN sources, Stalions purchased tickets to more than 35 games at 17 stadiums around the country involving Michigan opponents in the Big Ten and potential College Football Playoff opponents. A former Division III player and coach told ESPN’s Dan Murphy that Stalions had paid him several hundred dollars to attend three Big Ten games involving future Michigan opponents and record their sidelines on his smartphone.
ESPN first reported Stalions’ involvement in the NCAA probe, and sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel and Mark Schlabach that the NCAA enforcement staff sought access to Stalions’ computer as part of its investigation.
Central Michigan said Tuesday it is investigating a man who resembled Stalions who appeared in its bench area for the Sept. 1 opener at Michigan State, after learning of images of the man late Monday. The man wore team-issued gear and sunglasses for a night game as well as one of the 50 bench passes given to non-players for games. Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said following Tuesday’s game against Northern Illinois that school officials are “aware of a picture floating around with the sign-stealer guy,” and “doing everything they can to get to the bottom of it.” CMU had not concluded its investigation as of Friday, an official told ESPN.
Anil Jain, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State and a nationally recognized facial recognition expert, believes it’s “highly likely” that the images of the man wearing sunglasses and a hat on the Central Michigan sideline and a photo of Stalions on the Michigan sideline are the same person.
At ESPN’s request, Jain and Steven Grosz, a Ph.D. student, used state-of-the-art commercial face recognition system to compare the two photographs. The system compared the images based on several facial characteristics — Jain said they are trade secrets — to provide a similarity score in the range of zero to one. The higher the similarity score, the more likely it is the two faces being compared are the same person.
Jain said the system produced a similarity score of 0.6 when comparing the two photographs. To validate that score, Jain and Grosz compared Stalions’ photo to a database of more than 4,500 photos of white males.
“The reason why it’s 0.6 is because there’s a disguise,” Jain told ESPN. “If I take an identical photo, it would be one. Even changes in the pose, illumination, expression, sunglasses, the match will never be perfect. Based on this analysis, the two images are of the same person with high confidence.”
Harbaugh, in a statement Oct. 19, denied any knowledge of illegal scouting or signal stealing, and said he never directed anyone on his staff to engage in off-campus scouting. Harbaugh said he and his staff would cooperate with the investigation.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, attending the league’s field hockey tournament Friday at Michigan, met with university president Santa Ono, according to sources. The Big Ten’s sportsmanship policy gives Petitti the authority to investigate and discipline Michigan before the lengthy NCAA investigative and infractions process would conclude. Big Ten coaches and athletic directors on recent calls have urged Petitti to discipline Michigan, but thus far no action has been taken.