Washington State beat Arizona State in Tempe on Saturday night, in a game that had subtext to make it a whole lot more interesting. Here was the postgame handshake between WSU coach Mike Leach and ASU coach Todd Graham:
Todd Graham tells Mike Leach his comments about ASU sign-stealing are "chickenshit": pic.twitter.com/kC2KWsjIO3— Deadspin (@Deadspin) October 23, 2016
Leach, when asked about anything having to do with the game, made a show of declining to answer:
Leach "respectfully decline to answer" any questionS about ASU so he doesn't get fined pic.twitter.com/HTUrNfKKd3— Stefanie Loh (@StefanieLoh) October 23, 2016
So, why was Graham telling Leach, “How about a little respect?” and uttering variations of “chickenshit” and “bullshit”? Why was Leach refusing to answer questions about Arizona State?
Well, here’s a rundown:
Arizona State steals signs, but the Sun Devils say they do it legally.
Trying to decode the other team’s signals isn’t prohibited, and football coaches do it regularly.
The only thing the NCAA’s football rulebook makes clear about this is that you’ve got to do it organically:
Any attempt to record, either through audio or video means, any signals given by an opposing player, coach or other team personnel is prohibited.
The pro game has similar rules, which once got the New England Patriots into trouble with the NFL and gave them a reputation they’ll never shed. You can’t record the other team’s signs.
Trying to steal signs by watching or listening and memorizing them, though? There’s nothing in the rulebook that says you can’t do that. Some coaches think it’s unsportsmanlike, but that’s different than “not allowed.”
Arizona State is not the only team that does this, not even in its own conference. From an Oregonian query of much of the Pac-12 last year:
“It is an accepted part of the game," Utah's Kyle Whittingham said.
Who's to blame: the team trying to intercept the signals or the team whose code is easy to break?
"If your signals get stolen, it's your fault, not the other team's fault," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. "They are doing their undercover work."
Graham has been clear the Sun Devils are fine with taking part.
“Do we steal signs?” Graham said last November. “Yeah, we steal signs. Do other teams steal our signs? Yeah.”
To combat Arizona State’s sign-stealing, Oregon had its play-callers hide behind sheets during their game last season.
Leach has implied he thinks ASU’s breaking rules.
The WSU head coach raised issues with the general practice last year ...
Leach says the Cougs didn't change anything schematically after the 1st Q, "except for all the calls we stole from Arizona State." #GoCougs— Jessamyn McIntyre (@JessamynMcIntyr) November 8, 2015
... and he was pretty up front with his thoughts on Arizona State when asked this week at his press conference.
I think they still steal signs. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. That’s certainly the reputation, and I think they have technology and expertise on the subject, which if they ever go to a different conference or something, I’d certainly like them to share it with us.
Yeah, you’ve got to keep an eye on them. They’ll steal signs, and they’re pretty clever about it.
It’s like breaking the Enigma Code with them. I think they ought to do a full-on investigation to see how they’re doing it and make sure it’s within the rules.
“Technology” definitely implies cheating. Leach clearly thinks that’s happening, and he wants “them” – presumably the Pac-12 – to investigate.
More from Leach:
I’ve heard a lot of rumors of, you know, microphones to pick up extra sound, to sift and sort extra sound, perhaps what the quarterback’s saying, closeup cameras, stuff like that. I don’t know if they shoot [video of] coaches on the sideline.
Some teams will, which, this is totally illegal and I’m not saying they do or they don’t. My thoughts I’ll keep to myself, and you can imagine what they may be. But some guys, and it’s totally illegal, they’ll film the guy that they think’s signaling on the sideline while the game’s going on, so the next time they play, they can hopefully sort out what they think they see.”
Many people are saying that Leach should wait for some proof here, but whatever. He’d go on to call ASU’s sign theft an “unsavory practice” and said the Sun Devils have “a whole command center designed around this stuff.”
Graham’s response this week:
Here are Todd Graham's full comments RE: Mike Leach's assertion yesterday that ASU uses a "command center" to steal opponents' signs. pic.twitter.com/qcAsqgJ84O— Shane Dale (@ShaneDaleABC15) October 18, 2016
“Make this perfectly clear: We do everything exactly by the rules. Period.”
And, as far as fines go:
The Pac-12 has reprimanded and fined Mike Leach $10,000 for his comments about ASU stealing signs— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) October 21, 2016
I have no idea who’s right, but the burden of proof’s on Leach.
If Washington State’s coach has anything on Arizona State beyond Trump-style bluster that he’s heard a bad thing about the other team, he hasn’t offered it.
That doesn’t mean Leach’s stated worries aren’t valid. But he runs the risk of looking petty if Arizona State’s only doing what scores of other teams do.