Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema was briefly misunderstood following the Razorbacks' 45-21 loss to Auburn in Week 1. Through the clipped delivery of Twitter, the coach seemed to imply the Tigers had an unfair on-field advantage against the Hogs.
Bielema said Arkansas wanted a win, but believes "some people in that stadium and on that other sideline knew a little bit more about us."— Robbie Neiswanger (@NWARobbie) September 1, 2014
Soon after, Bielema clarified that his comments were meant to be taken in the broader sense, that Gus Malzahn's staff "knew more about winning than us."
Was Bielema backtracking? No. Is that because Auburn didn't steal Arkansas' plays, signals or formations during the game or even ahead of time? We don't know. Did the Tigers try?
"You bet your ass they did, because we all are," said an offensive assistant for an FBS team that runs an offense with similar formations as Arkansas'.
Unlike some of Bielema's previous public comments, there's no confusion here: The greater community of college football coaches doesn't think for a second that Bielema was worried about Auburn winning because of stolen information. Why?
"Because everyone's cheating, all the time. Bret would never use that excuse," the coach said.
When it comes to opposing play calls, football is a John le Carré novel stuffed into pleated khakis. Every staff is trying to code-break the opposition.
"We talk about that all the time, how and when to change them to stay ahead of the defense," the coach said. "Coaches have traded information off-field for years, too. When I left my previous school for this current one, I had every staff on my previous employer's schedule contact me about signals and protections. I told 'em to go ask someone else."
One FBS head coach admits to what's accepted as a routine practice: stationing an assistant coach or graduate assistant to chart every signal shown by the opposing sideline.
More Bielema vs. Malzahn
More Bielema vs. Malzahn
"We all attempt to do it by assigning a coach to watch the signals, and occasionally you will be able to pick up something by the end of the game. Most coaches are paranoid and disguise their signals well and change them from year to year and even game to game. But we have some that are very easy to steal to set up a play-action or special play off the look."
This is common knowledge to defensive coaches, who use any number of tricks to maintain encryption. Is an offense using a lot of hard counts before the snap early in a game? Are huddle offenses drawing down the play clock for no reason? They're probably charting base formations and potential blitz tendencies.
"You can usually see the one guy watching our signaler. They'll chart the signal and build a list to use in the second half," a defensive assistant at an FCS schools said.
Of course, that defensive assistant claims that only dastardly offense-minded types do the stealing.
"Sometimes we try, yes, but we're mainly in reactionary mode. I've never been able to steal signals from an offense effectively, because we can't communicate to our guys exactly what play we think they're about to run when things are going fast. Offense coaches also have so, so many plays to call. Defensively we have far fewer."
One area where defensive coaches have thrived at code-breaking is the no-huddle offense, where play calls have to be reduced to the fastest possible method of conveyance. We spoke with offensive assistants running many systems --spread option, air raid, pro power -- all of whom claim to have had play calls stolen by defenses because of no-huddle or two-minute drills.
"We huddle, so we don't normally have calls stolen," said the offensive assistant. "Our signals out to the huddle only give a number on a wristband, where a series of plays are written. We can separate formation calls that mask the actual play. But when we've gone to hurry-up we've had signals stolen quickly. It's easier to recognize."
Signal-jamming is the natural response, and in the era of hurry-up attacks, it's common to see multiple signal callers, in addition to posters with numbers, letters or pictures.
"When I was a G.A., we'd put ESPN people or cartoons on those poster boards. The TV cameras would pick up and fans would see it. That stuff almost always meant nothing. The play calls would come from somewhere else," the defensive coach said.
Ever wonder why coaches still have student assistants holding up towels around a signaler even in the era of HD television? Seems stupid, or even paranoid, right? It's to limit the angles from which the signals can be seen from field level, with its most noted application perhaps saving Florida State's 2013 national title. Coaches know that if the opposing spy across the field loses his vantage point, someone in the booth will have to take on the task of charting signals.
"Except that with everything going on, live TV won't catch everything, or you won't see it from the booth. So some coaches still think it's worth it," a current graduate assistant for an FBS program said.
You could always post a former employee of your rival in the booth with a pair of binoculars. That's what Alabama did with Tyler Siskey in 2013 vs. Ole Miss. Siskey was hired away from Oxford that season as the Tide's recruiting coordinator. ESPN announcers even mentioned that Siskey had been involved in helping Alabama prepare that week, and cameras caught Siskey, a recruiting coordinator, in the 'Bama coaches' box with a pair of binoculars during the game. Saban blasted criticism of espionage after the game, but almost a full year later, a source at Ole Miss confirmed that the staff believes Siskey was code-breaking in some way.
"At best, he probably could tell if it was a run or pass play, if that," the source said.
And if he really could, no coach would take it personally. They're trying to do the same thing on the other side.