Even at the high school level, football coaches take measures to avoid signs being stolen

Sunday, January 7, 2024 | 6:43 PM

There was a commotion in the bleachers at a WPIAL football game one night when some opposing coaches had their notes fall from the press box window.

Those notes turned out to be a cheat-sheet of sorts.

“They had written on them, ‘This is outside zone. This is speed option,’ ” said coach Don Holl, remembering a years-old story from his days before Gateway. “They had apparently stolen some signals from film from previous games and were using them to some extent.”

The assistant coaches asked at halftime to have them back, Holl recalled, and the fans said “no,” with some choice words for the coaches who had dropped them.

“I didn’t know about it until after the game,” Holl said.

Sign stealing in football has gained increased scrutiny since Michigan became embroiled in a college football scandal this fall. A Wolverines assistant coach was suspended, and head coach Jim Harbaugh sat out three games as punishment, but questions about the practice linger as No. 1 Michigan prepares to face No. 2 Washington in the national championship Monday night.

The practice of sign stealing in football isn’t as well known as the tactics used in baseball, but football coaches say it happens in their sport, too, even at the high school level. Not often does evidence fall from the sky, but WPIAL coaches say they go about their preparation assuming sign stealing is a risk.

“It’s incumbent on me and us to protect our signals to some degree,” said Holl, who is coach and athletic director at Gateway. “You change them once in a while. You have different ways to signal. If every time you play you have the same guy giving the signals, well, then I don’t know if you’re doing a very good job.

“That doesn’t mean you have to get super hi-tech, but maybe you do something to prevent it from being stolen.”

High school coaches nowadays use a variety of tricks and techniques to communicate plays from the sideline to their players on the field. With up-tempo offenses becoming the norm Friday nights, the days of huddling between plays or having the quarterback run to the sideline for instructions are over for many teams.

To move quickly, they have to use some type of signals. Cracking that code always will be tempting for some defensive coaches.

“One-hundred percent it happens,” Central Catholic coach Ryan Lehmeier said. “There’s no doubt. We change our stuff up a bunch. If you don’t think you’re getting got, you’re getting got.”

Sign stealing isn’t against the rules. What allegedly got Michigan in trouble was that the NCAA prohibits in-person advance scouting, meaning assistants can’t go watch their next opponent and learn their signals.

But in high school, there really are no limitations.

“Do I think it’s right or wrong? I know it happens,” Avonworth coach Duke Johncour said. “More power to you if you think it’s going to benefit you, so you try to put your time and efforts into doing that. My kids have said it over the years. ‘Hey, they’re calling out power, power, power.’ Well, tell them we’re going to run it right at them.”

High school coaches have easy access to a catalog of video on opponents nowadays, much of it through the website hudl.com, which is the system schools use for exchanging game film. As a result, many coaches have taken steps to make sign stealing more difficult by deploying decoys or simply blocking the view.

Among the options, Mt. Lebanon coaches this season used multiple dry erase boards on the sideline and wrote giant numbers on each before every offensive snap. The numbers corresponded with plays listed on a wristband worn by the Blue Devils’ quarterback.

The wristband was updated each week with a new numerical order of plays.

“We usually had three boards,” said then-coach Mike Collodi, who used the play-calling system at Mt. Lebanon and Elizabeth Forward. “One board is live, and the other two are dummies. The quarterback will know which board is live.”

Gateway had a color-coded system with each play-caller wearing a different color shirt that’s green, red, yellow or blue. Three were decoys, and the one that was live might change every quarter or half, as needed.

“Is it a little bit overkill? I don’t know,” Holl said.

Like many college teams, Gateway also held up large, blank screens behind its play callers. The screens serve as a backdrop to help players spot the coaches on a crowded sideline, but they also served to block the view from the press box behind the coaches.

“We cover those guys from behind so that (opposing teams) have to see our signals from field level, and they can’t film it,” Holl said. “However, when we’re on the road, you could conceivably just film straight across the field. So it’s a little bit of a moot point, but we still do it.”

With high-resolution digital cameras as good as they are nowadays, it’s not hard to spot coaches on the video, even if done unintentionally. Peters Township coach T.J. Plack said he doesn’t actively scout opposing coaches but wouldn’t be surprised if others do.

“I was sitting here watching film, and I kind of picked up on what (one team) does when they call their quick hitches,” Plack said. “I got that accidentally while watching the sideline. I thought, ‘That’s a weird sign,’ and then I saw it again later on.”

While many coaches are certain that sign stealing occurs to some extent, most also question whether it’s even a worthwhile effort. Consider, an opposing staff would need to learn the signs, identify the signals live during a game and then communicate that information to the defense, all in the span of seconds.

“Even if a team and a staff wants to put in the time to learn your signs and learn your offense, I don’t think it gains a significant advantage,” said Johncour, who led Avonworth to the WPIAL finals this season.

Holl said for many years protecting signals was never very high on his list of coaching concerns.

“I have a little bit of me that still says, if we’re going fast and you’re going to try to steal our signals, that seems to me like a recipe for disaster on defense,” Holl said.

Pine-Richland coach Jon LeDonne agrees. He said there are games when an opposing sideline might be “calling out a bunch of plays,” causing him to wonder how they would know. But LeDonne said he wasn’t too concerned about opponents stealing signals.

“I’m of the philosophy that, ‘Hey we’re going to line up and play football,’ ” LeDonne said. “We run three or four plays, so it’s not hard to guess what might be coming. But at the end of the day, you’ve still got to stop it.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

Tags: , , , , ,

More Football

Westmoreland high school notebook: Football rivalry games put on hold this season
Girls flag football catching on at Shaler
Westmoreland high school notebook: Penn-Trafford football to honor newest hall of fame class
Central Catholic QB Payton Wehner wins Willie Thrower Award
What to watch for in WPIAL sports on April 6, 2024: Top WPIAL QB to be honored with Willie Thrower Award