Stealing Offensive Signals is Very Common and a Widely Accepted Practice, Coaches Say

NEW ORLEANS – The Sugar Bowl is now two days away and because there has been so much fan interest in recent days regarding the offensive signal-stealing issue, and how it is done, I reached out to some friends in the coaching business for more details of how it is attempted — and how it can be accomplished.

One coach is from the SEC and one from the ACC and they talked to me on Tuesday, on the condition they would not be named, of course.

The issue became a widely discussed topic this week after Ohio State Coach Ryan Day complimented Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables Monday for always seemingly knowing what play is coming next. Sports Illustrated and have been two national media outlets which have recently published stories stating that Venables and Clemson have been very effective in cracking opposing offense’s signals over the years.

And while taking the time to huddle has become as obsolete as the wishbone these days in college football, using signals and signs on the sidelines is all the rage for today’s high-flying, fast-paced, high-scoring offenses.

So defensive staffs take the time and effort to try to crack those codes. And that in itself has become a science, or an art form, if you will.

“I did it for more than 10 years for our defensive coordinator,” one of them told me. “And what most fans don’t know is that most teams do it, or at least try to do it, and it is considered fair game. None of us ever consider it cheating.”

With one exception.

“Using video cameras to tape a team’s sideline is crossing the line,” he said. “That is a big no-no … and most staffs I know honor that code, although we always knew that there was one team from the old Big East which did it in their home stadium.”

I was not allowed to name that team since the head coach is still active in coaching.

“That’s what the New England Patriots did a few years ago and got fined so heavily by the NFL for,” the coach said. “They were taping the opponent’s signals and then charting them, knowing they would face them again. But we don’t suspect anybody in college of doing that right now.”

Here’s how the sign-stealing system works:

As background, NCAA coaching staffs in the Football Bowl Subdivision (major college) are allowed a limit of 10 full-time assistants and two unpaid graduate assistant coaches. There also is a limit of 10 “paid” quality-control coaches or analysts, but some schools employ many more who are unpaid.

“The Alabamas, Clemsons, Ohio States and Texas A&M’s of the world can afford all of them,” one coach said. “The more analysts they have, the better, while the lesser programs cannot keep up. As staffs add more people, they are adding more sets of eyes to both watch opposing team’s tapes and also to work from somewhere in the stadium on gameday.”

As Sports Illustrated detailed a month ago, Clemson is known for requesting “up to 40 extra passes” per game, of which many go to analysts or quality-control staffers.

“That is true,” one coach said. “They always seem to request more than any other team.”

While in preparation, all teams receive a “coach’s” version of tape of their upcoming opponent’s games in a film exchange, including an end-zone view and a side view of each play taken from the press box view area. But on their own, most also have taped the TV copy of those games.

“The problem with the coach’s tape is that you often cannot see the sideline and the signals being sent in,” one coach said. “You can pick them up usually from the TV copy, but you never get every play. Most all of this is done in preparation, the week leading up to the game. Very little of it is actually done as the game is being played, but you still try, hoping you can pick up on something as the game goes on … ”

Offensive staffs usually use either several large placards – you often see them with symbols like SpongeBob or famous faces or just about anything really – or hand signals similar to what a third-base coach uses in baseball, which is what Ohio State does.

Defensive staffs then try to match whatever signals they can see from all these tapes with the subsequent play that was called and match that to the personnel groupings on the field, which are recorded in a numerical system according to the number of backs and tight ends on the field. For example, “11 personnel” is one back and one tight end, “21” is two backs and one tight end, etc.

During the game, charts are laid out on the table in the press box where defensive analysts and assistant coaches sit. They are connected to the defensive coordinator via headsets.

“That is the key to the whole thing,” one coach said. “We have charts that has all those personnel groupings, matched with the down-and-distance and where they are on the field. But the first thing you are calling out to your defensive coordinator before every play is the personnel. You are immediately telling him, ”Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one!” or “Twelve, twelve twelve!” and from that he usually knows what to call according to the personnel and that team’s tendencies regarding the down and distance … We have broken that down to a science before the game ever kicks off.”

As the game is being played, certain assistants and quality control staffers are assigned to study that offense’s signal-callers, using binoculars. One assistant is assigned to each particular signal- caller and each offense usually employs three – two are fake or “dummies” and one is the person signaling in the actual play. They often wear different-colored hats or shirts than the other coaches on the sideline, so the offensive players on the field can easily see them in between plays.

As many teams, like Ohio State for example, no longer huddle, each player – not just the quarterback — is looking at the sideline for the play. Then the quarterback still calls out the signal to ensure all 11 players know their responsibilities before the ball is snapped.

All the while, defensive assistants in the press box write down the signal they see and each subsequent play that is called on the field and continue to review those combinations to hopefully distinguish which one is real and which two are fake as the game proceeds.

“That is why you see some teams with managers holding a big sheet or banner behind the guys signaling into the offense,” one coach said. “They are trying to shield the view from the press box. But in all my years of doing it, I have been blocked only once and that was by Florida State. They were very good under Bobby Bowden at shielding their play-callers.

“But now all the staffs know it is being done and they try to shield their guys as much as they can.”

Also, most head coaches or offensive coordinators change which signal-caller is “real” from series to series or quarter to quarter, as a way to prevent defenses from cracking their signals.

One more thing, one coach pointed out, is how much information coaching staffs share in preparing for any particular opponent.

“That is so common,” the coach said. “Even teams within a conference will sell out a team they do not like but still have to play every year. Clemson has assistants that know assistants on Penn State or Indiana, for example, and they may tell them what they know about Ohio State’s signals. And Ohio State assistants may know guys on Notre Dame’s staff or Miami’s staff and they are cross-referencing with them about Clemson.

“It’s like the wild, wild west … a free-for-all for information and it’s widely accepted. Any piece of information during preparation may help you in the game, but In the end, it all comes down to who executes on the field and that is the team which usually wins the game.”

[Editor’s Note: Jeff Snook, a 1982 graduate from the Ohio State School of Journalism, has written 14 books about college football.]