Stealing signs using the naked eye is perfectly legal. Seldom has it been done to the level of success mastered by Northwestern, writes Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.
The Wildcats went 30 years without beating Michigan, but suddenly had a two-game winning streak in the series entering an Oct. 11, 1997 game at Ann Arbor. Sure enough, undefeated and No. 6-ranked Michigan found itself in a struggle against 2-4 Northwestern.
Then Michigan ballboys Jonathan Datz and Mike Youtan, who worked the opponents' sidelines at home games, noticed something.
"There was a guy on their sideline that day, and he had our signals down pat," Datz said. "Every time, he would scream into the defense what we're going to do — pass or run — and he was almost always right. ... They were blowing up draws, calling our counters and destroying our screen passes — all a big part of our plays that year. I was just screaming mad. Youtan and I are thinking to ourselves, 'This guy has us.' "
Early in the third quarter, Youtan ran around the field and got word to Michigan's coaches. On a third-and-25 play late in the third quarter, the Wolverines made an unusual call, a sweep. Northwestern swarmed the play, throwing running back Clarence Williams for a loss. Michigan coaches knew they had been had.
Adjustments were made and the Wolverines took control with a 12-play, 70-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Michigan won, 23-6, finished undefeated and ended up with a share of the national title.
Only recently did David Hansburg, a Northwestern graduate assistant back then, acknowledge he was stealing signals.
"That was what I would do," he said. "If I could see them signal in plays, I'd watch. This was no Spygate, and there was no video of anybody. I equated it to being like baseball when you've got a runner on second base; it's part of the game."
Hansburg also had a hand in Northwestern's victories in 1995 and '96. It was easy then, he said. All he had to do was watch Michigan center Rod Payne, a one-handed snapper who apparently put his opposite hand on the ground for a running play and on his thigh for a passing play.
Northwestern coaches pointed at the ground or the sky, and linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, who declined to be interviewed for the story, spread word to his teammates.