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Today's Tidbit... A History of Signal Stealing in College Football
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Stalions rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine.
OK, I lifted part of that passage from Grantland Rice, but it wasn't cheating. It just so happens that my writing style resembles that of ol' Grantland. Anyway, the rest of this story is my work, written without plagiarizing or using Chat GPT. Where appropriate, I appropriately cite the work of others.
Let's go back to football as played before 1921 when Illinois coach Bob Zuppke first instructed his team to huddle before plays, allowing the quarterback to communicate the upcoming play without the opposing team listening in. (There were other reasons for huddling, but we'll ignore those for now.) Until then, every team called their plays at the line. Offenses did not change formations from one play to the other. Instead, they lined up and played football. The offense lined up. The quarterback yelled a series of coded words or numbers, telling his teammates the coming play and snap count, and the teams played on. The string of words or numbers was called “signals.”
To keep the opposing team from understanding the signals, the string was encoded. For example, a team's signals might be a string of five or six numbers, but the offensive team knew the called play (each play had an assigned number) was the fourth in the sequence or the first number after a two-digit number ending in a 3. Of course, if an opponent deciphered the code, they gained an advantage despite doing so being considered poor sportsmanship.
Eddie Casey, a College Football Hall of Fame member who played at Harvard in the WWI era, considered signal stealing so contemptuous that no real football coach would consider doing it.
I can hardly think any coach would countenance a team's stealing the other fellow's signals. If a football mentor cannot win games on the merits of his own players, then he would rather take a drubbing than go so low as the larceny of signals.
Casey acknowledged that Harvard and Yale scouted every game the other played, so signal stealing was not challenging if that was your thing:
One of these scouts could easily catch the signals of the Yale quarterback throughout the course of the game, marking exactly where the play went following each string of signals. With a mass of figures and consequent players to study, a wise football man could doubtless pick out the code without much trouble. But I know just what a reception any scout would get if he offered to give Harvard's signals to the Yale coaching staff, or if he offered Yale's signals to the Harvard men.
Casey, Eddie. 'Stealing Signals,' Charlotte News, November 1, 1920.
Despite Casey's belief that stealing signs was beneath the behavior of honorable men, teams were accused of stealing signals from time to time, and those instances were often reported in newspapers across the land.
The following are a handful of such accounts, none of which I have information indicating whether or not the accusations were true.
After the turn of the previous century, students and faculty often watched football practice, cheering for their toiling classmates and students. On one occasion in 1906, a professor named Anderson, a faculty member at Missouri, was seen writing down plays and signals while observing Iowa's football practice during the week leading up to their game. After being spotted, Anderson was in the process of being thrown into the river when Iowa's coach Chalmers intervened and sent Anderson packing.
The federal government nationalized the country's universities in 1918, with all able-bodied male students required to join the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), with the Army paying their tuition, room, and board. The week before the Wittenberg game, two newcomers joined Ohio Northern's SATC and went out for football the same day, practicing on Tuesday and Wednesday before disappearing. On Saturday, the two were spotted entering the stadium with the Wittenberg rooters. After being confronted, they admitted to their deception and having used the same trick versus Denison earlier in the year. Ohio Northern won 19-0 anyway, while Wittenberg’s coach told the press the accusations were preposterous.
Benny Boynton, Williams captain, was accused by RPI's coach of enrolling at RPI for several days to steal RPI signals. Williams acknowledged visiting RPI and watching practice since the gate was open and indicated that other observers knew who he was and had not objected to his presence.
A Colgate graduate and man of the cloth, Rev. Royden Nelson Rand, was accused by the students of St. John's Military School in Manlius, NY, of stealing their signals in advance of their game versus Colgate's freshman team. Rand branded the accusation an "infamous lie," saying he had scouted a St. John's game in only the customary manner.
Niagara University's president charged Canisius with attempting to steal their signals in 1926 after several spies were spotted hiding in an orchard next to Niagara’s practice field. Aware the gig was up, the spies fled, but not before Niagara students threw rocks at the getaway car and wrote down its license plate number, which they later learned was registered to the Canisius head coach, Luke Urban. Urban denied any knowledge of the incident, and an inspection of his car showed no broken windows or dents, suggesting it was either a mistaken identity or Niagara students were not accurate rock throwers.
As the 1920s continued on, almost everyone followed Zuppke’s lead and switched to huddling before each play. Since teams no longer called signals at the line, the opportunity to steal signals disappeared.
However, when the rules changed in the 1960s to allow coaching during the game, coaches took over the playcalling duties from their quarterbacks. First, they did so by substituting messenger guards or receivers who relayed the play to the quarterback, who then called it in the huddle. In the late 1960s, coaches began using baseball-style hand signals to relay plays to quarterbacks, and they continued calling plays in the huddle until the no-huddle offenses hit the scene.
No-huddle offenses are now the norm, so there are many opportunities to steal signals or signs, which most consider acceptable if the process used to steal them is legal. Whether and how a particular school stole signs from upcoming opponents using processes that are unethical and illegal are questions I will not address since I do not have definitive proof. So, we’ll leave it at that.
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