Inside the sideline paranoia of a college football coach

Brandon Loving

COACHES TEND TO clam up when asked about paranoia among their ranks. Without fail, they'll start by saying they're too focused on the task at hand to worry about anyone pulling a fast one on them. Maybe they'll laugh and say they're naive. But eventually they'll admit to hearing cautionary tales through the years -- lip readers in the coaches box, parabolic microphones pointed where they shouldn't be, wild stuff that one Power 5 assistant says "would make [Bill] Belichick seem like a saint."

Everyone's a gossip, especially in the small world of college football. Share enough stories, and don't be surprised when those previously buttoned-up coaches start divulging experiences of their own -- accounts of malfunctioning headsets and former players who went turncoat.

Former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he never paid much attention to things like sign stealing until a few years ago, when television producers moved their cameras to the opposite side of the field. The reason was innocent enough; Niumatalolo said they wanted to get a shot of the Navy sideline with the brigade in the background. But then an assistant warned, "That's bad." Niumatalolo asked why and the assistant, whom he had recently hired, explained how the school he came from had spent three hours watching TV copy of Navy's games to match their signals to their plays. "We're the most paranoid people," Niumatalolo said. "And a lot of it there's good reason for."

North Carolina coach Mack Brown sees a healthy level of mistrust as being an essential requirement for the job. "It's why my hair is really gray, I look old and I haven't slept well for 30 years," he said.

The threat of subterfuge is so prevalent there's a shorthand for when it's believed to have happened: getting skunked. While stealing signals is as old as the sport itself, a source said it has become a "cottage industry" of late. Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles estimates 75% of teams steal signals. "It's bigger than most people know," he said. Technological advancements and expanding support staffs are fueling concerns. But analog methods aren't to be discounted, either. Just last week, Georgia coach Kirby Smart had to respond to an unsubstantiated rumor that his team had filmed Ohio State's practice. Smart brushed it off, calling it "ludicrous." Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops once said that he regretted practicing in the Superdome prior to the 2003 Sugar Bowl because there were too many prying eyes.

No place is safe, and no one is above suspicion. It turns out not even ball boys can be trusted to move freely on the opposing team's sideline over fears that they might hear (or record) sensitive information. The same goes for the seemingly innocuous members of the chain gang -- the crew that marks the line of scrimmage and line to gain, and holds the marker displaying what down it is.

A longtime head coach and coordinator warned, "Think about all the money, dude," before ruling out any theory as being too far-fetched.

"Think about it, and that's where it's at," he said. "When you got assistant coaches making $2 million a year -- assistant coaches! -- and you got position coaches making $600,000-800,000 a year, I mean, everybody gets used to a standard of living they want to maintain."

LOGAN BLANKENSHIP GREW up playing football in North Carolina. His dad was a high school coach, and when he left for college at NC State, he wanted to get involved with the team. The pay was peanuts, but he figured being an equipment manager would be fun.

He started the job during Dave Doeren's first season in 2013. Equipment managers do a little bit of everything, Blankenship explained, and as with a lot of thankless jobs, they're noticed only when something goes wrong.

Eventually, he put in enough time to land what he said is the most sought-after position: ball boy. While you have to pay careful attention, he said, "It's the best seat in the house."

The No. 1 rule, he said, is to be aware of your surroundings on the opposing sideline. Stay out of the way as much as possible, and whatever you do, don't cheer. He made that mistake during his first game, pumping his fist and yelping "Let's go!" after an official replay went NC State's way. "And I got told to shut the you-know-what up," he recalled.

Surrounded by the opposing team -- wearing your team's colors and working on its behalf -- is exactly as awkward as it sounds. "You definitely feel like everyone is looking at you -- not just the players but the opposing coaches are kind of eyeing you," Blankenship said. "I guess there's a little bit of that paranoia going around."

Every so often a coach would give him the cold shoulder, but there was one in particular who took it a step further. He "thought me and the other ball boys were stealing signals off the offense. And he made a big scene."

He said the coach in question told him, "Get away from me!" At one point, the coach even went to the referees, gesturing toward Blankenship.

Blankenship said it was bizarre. The game was close. You could feel the intensity in the stadium. Maybe that's why the coach was so wound up? Honestly, he said, he had to stop himself from laughing; it felt like such an out-of-body experience. He wondered, "Is this guy for real?"

Later, he and his fellow equipment managers talked about the incident. "We were like, 'How would we even tell our guys what they were doing?'" he recalled. "I don't know. Some people have really good imaginations."

Blankenship took a breath. And then a reporter asked, "Am I correct in assuming this was Bobby Petrino?" There were a few local reports around that time of the then-Louisville coach accusing NC State's ball boys of malfeasance. Blankenship wasn't named -- equipment managers don't show up in staff directories by and large -- but Google is a helluva thing.

Blankenship sheepishly answered, "Yes." And then he burst out laughing.

It was the most cringeworthy thing, he said. Remember, his goal was to do his job and go completely unnoticed. And there he was drawing the ire of a well-known coach in the middle of a football game. Thankfully, Blankenship said, his identity was never revealed -- until now. There were no threatening emails from Louisville fans in the days and weeks that followed. No one went sliding headfirst into his DMs. "Nothing really big came of it," said Blankenship, who is now a high school football coach. "It just became a funny story to share at parties later."

DON'T THINK FOR a second that coaches would have been in on the joke. Petrino isn't the only one who looks at ball boys suspiciously.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was a ball boy for his dad's Youngstown State teams as a kid, and even he sees the inherent conflict of being on the opposing sideline. Maybe it's because he knows too much. Back in his day -- we're talking more than 40 years ago at the Division II level -- ball boys pulled double duty, working for both sides. "The rules were: Keep the visiting balls as wet as you can if it was a rainy day," Narduzzi said. "Don't dry 'em off too good, OK? That was rule No. 1. And then make sure Youngstown State's balls were nice and dry."

Narduzzi laughed. Being on the opposing sideline taught him how to deal with difficult people. "You got to go over there and take some crap," he said. But he claims he never took anything he heard about strategy back to his dad at halftime. "I wish I did," he admitted.

Nowadays, he can't assume someone won't do that to him. There are no more innocent middle-schoolers working the sideline like he was. At the FBS level, they're typically college students who are part of the equipment staff. As was the case with Blankenship, many have backgrounds in the game. Narduzzi said other coaches will warn him before playing certain teams, "Hey, be aware of their ball boys."

"We always worry about ball boys being in the box and listening to what we're doing," Narduzzi said. "We've heard about how they put young little coaches over as ball boys so they can hear what we're talking about. But you always worry about a skunk being on your sideline, for sure."

Tulane coach Willie Fritz said he has never experienced anything untoward himself. The ball boys have a job to do, he said, and he respects that. But, he added in a hushed tone, "I've heard some stories." One he heard was how a ball boy would signal with his fingers: one for pass, two for run.

Fritz's offensive coordinator, Jim Svoboda, had heard something similar. "Oooooh yeah," he said. He added, "If you just know it's run or pass, that's a big advantage."

Late Mississippi State coach Mike Leach's eyes went wide at the mention of rogue ball boys during an interview in October. Leach, an eccentric and part-time historian who died last month, said there were teams "who honestly I don't believe deserve to be nameless" that he could "guarantee" pulled those tricks on him. "I've had some," he said of ball boys, "that looked a little too old and a little too clever."

LEACH DIDN'T STOP there, of course. While he was curious about what other coaches had said about ball boy shenanigans, there was another position on the sideline he was eager to talk about: the chain gang.

It should be noted that, contrary to what you might think, members of the chain gang are not hired by the conferences. Staffing and payment are handled by the home team, which presents an obvious potential conflict of interest. TCU coach Sonny Dykes, a Leach disciple, has had problems with the chain gang, too. An assistant warned him once that its members were using hand signals to tip off Dykes' team's plays. And while at Louisiana Tech, Dykes had a near-physical altercation with a member of the chain gang.

"Nobody saw it because there were like, 40 people at the game, maybe," Dykes recalled. "But I walked by and he threw his shoulder into me and I was like, 'What's up?' Then next thing I know, dude takes a swing at me -- a full-on swing -- and missed me by 3 feet. He was clearly intoxicated."

Svoboda said he'd heard of a chain gang member pointing up or down to signal run or pass plays to opposing coaches. But Leach's concern was less about information gathering as it was the act of sabotage.

Again, Leach begrudgingly kept the name of the offending team a secret -- if snitching in college football ever took off, it would never stop -- but he nonetheless painted a vivid picture.

"There was one team and the guy had done it for years," he said. "And it took me a year or two to figure it out, but it was one of the chain guys -- you know, the first-down chain. And he wasn't even holding one of 'em or doing the thing. He's just an extra guy standing with them with an outfit on and he'd just constantly get in your way. The whole game, he's in your way. ... He never said a word. He just mean-mugs you and doesn't say anything."

Leach got so frustrated with the guy that he finally confronted him while the game was going on.

"Listen," he said, "you get in my way, I'll knock your ass right out there on the field."

He reiterated: "You're getting too close. You better get way the f--- away."

It was deliberate, Leach was convinced. He went back and watched tape of other teams that had played at that stadium. He spotted the same chain gang member. "There!" he said. "He's into his mischief." Leach gave him some credit. The guy would intentionally stifle the coordinators when it wasn't the head coach calling plays. It was all right there, in high definition. "Bumping him, standing in front of him," Leach recalled. "Whatever he can to disrupt."

When Leach made a return trip to the venue in question, he asked that the member of the chain gang not be used. And, lo and behold, Leach said, "He was front and center." So Leach confronted him again before the game and made sure he knew of his request.

"If I have a bad time with you," Leach said, "I'll kick you out myself. I'll stop this game right here in the middle of this stadium in front of everybody."

He smiled.

"I didn't have a lot of problems with him after that," he said.

A FEW YEARS ago, a Power 5 coach picked up the phone to lodge a complaint. Granted, it wasn't to the NCAA or a conference official who could actually do something about it. Remember, no snitching. Instead, the coach called a reporter one night, incredulous over what a conference opponent had done. The opponent in question had a reputation for cheating, the coach said, but this time it had gone too far and had sent what appeared to be a student assistant to one of his team's games to film their signals.

It was obvious, the coach said, because the kid was in their stands, directly behind the bench, pointing a camera at the offensive signal-callers. When the defense was on the field, the camera disappeared. And the kid had on the worst disguise, the coach added, saying he was wearing all black in a sea of the home team's colors -- with a bright wristband the color of the team he worked for.

A coach from another team told a similar story about that same opponent's cloak-and-dagger techniques. Once they film one or two games, the second coach explained, they have all your signals. "That's bulls---," he groused. But don't be naive, he said, "It happens more than we think."

If you want to know why teams use dummy signal-callers and pop-up tents to block camera angles, that's why. Another favorite technique of coaches: covering their mouth when they're speaking into their headset. Because you never know who's capable of reading lips -- either with a set of binoculars or watching the TV broadcast in the coaches box.

"It's sophisticated," a Power 5 head coach warned of sign-stealing tactics.

A simple fix might be to follow the NFL's lead and allow coaches to communicate via headsets built into the helmets of an offensive and defensive player. But there's been no push of late to upgrade in-game technology. Besides, some coaches believe it would be a one-sided solution.

Narduzzi, a longtime defensive assistant before he became a head coach, said offenses already dictate tempo and would go even faster with headsets. So he has a radical idea: use headsets but bar offenses from snapping the ball before 25 seconds on the clock until the 2-minute mark of each half.

"Then we can actually huddle on offense, huddle as a defense, and now we can talk to the Mike linebacker and give a defense," Narduzzi said. "And now all of a sudden we have a real game and now offenses can't steal our s--- because they do."

But there's not much hope. The NCAA rules committee has shown no willingness to slow down offenses. Still, Narduzzi said he'd suggest the change to the committee this offseason.

For the time being, sign stealing remains a fact of life in college football.

Not only is Knowles convinced that opponents have filmed his signals, he believes some teams will then turn around and share what they've learned with others. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?" Knowles said.

Knowles said he doesn't like to talk about it because what can he really do to stop it? But since he was asked, he wasn't going to pretend it wasn't real. "It is a huge part of what goes on," he said, "and kind of a story behind the game."

"You know," he said, "if you can imagine it, it can be done when you have resources and people and time."

And the inclination.

STEVE SHAW, NCAA national coordinator of officials, walks a fine line, acknowledging the concerns of coaches while dealing in the reality of what they're suggesting. Do bad actors exist in college football? Sure, Shaw will certainly allow for that. But he asks: What's the impact?

Shaw said to first imagine that a ball boy or member of the chain gang is smart enough to comprehend what's being said by the coaches in his vicinity. Then imagine that individual is clever enough to signal what he has heard surreptitiously to the coaches across the field. Next imagine that coach on the receiving end both understands the message and has the time to relay it to the players before the ball is snapped. And, finally, imagine that information is correct, useful and leads to an impactful play.

Shaw said the sophistication of such a system is hard to fathom. But, he added, "The paranoia still exists."

Part of Shaw's job is to track down these rumors. Coaches might not speak up publicly, but they're not above sending an email to their conference office and attaching supporting video evidence.

Shaw recalled an instance in which a video sent in by a coach appeared to show a ball boy signaling run or pass based on how he wore his hat. But it wasn't -- in officiating parlance -- indisputable evidence. What looks rock-solid in one clip can fall apart in the next. "Any time we've done these," Shaw said, "it's hard to run it all the way to ground."

But there's something Shaw offers up on his own as an issue the sport might have to deal with in the near future. It's something multiple coaches have brought to his attention recently, and he believes it has merit: the misuse of smartwatches.

As a blanket rule, technology of that nature isn't allowed on sidelines. But officials focus those rules on coaches, Shaw said, and not "ancillary personnel." So if a ball boy were to wear a smartwatch, what's to stop him from sidling up to the opposing team's coordinator, calling up the coaches box and letting those coaches listen in?

If that sounds absurd, think again, because Shaw said there was a coach who sent in a video that appeared to suggest that very thing happened this season. Shaw said the video showed a ball boy with a smartwatch "loitering in the area." Shaw then asked, "So what does that tell you?"

"We saw what he was saying," Shaw said, "but there's no way to confirm any of that. ... He didn't put his left arm up and say, 'Speak into the mic, Coach.' It was just where it could have been on."

Shaw said his group didn't go as far as subpoenaing phone records, "but maybe that's the next step." Another possibility is addressing the use of smartwatches with the rules committee during the offseason. Shaw doesn't want to institute a TSA-style pre-check, but he said the officials have to remain vigilant.

"Coaches, I mean, I love 'em, but they're paranoid," he said. "That's their world, right? They're all looking for -- if you get me a little advantage, that's what I need. I need just a little advantage."

So who's to say how far they'll go and who they'll enlist in their efforts to find an edge? Shaw is as open as he can be with what he knows, but he got cagey when asked whether a ball boy or member of the chain gang has been disciplined for something illegal or unethical.

Shaw laughed knowingly. "When I answer that," he said, "I know the follow-up question is, 'Tell me who.'"

"These things are out there," he said. "They're more paranoia than anything. But, yes, have people been moved out of their assignment? Yes, they have."

So, like any good urban legend, it's grounded in some amount of truth. But when everyone is operating in the dark, it's hard to see how big the problem really is.