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Todd Graham is great at stealing signs and that bothers Mike Leach

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Why some sign stealing is acceptable, and some is not.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sign stealing is a funny thing. While the act itself isn’t against any written rules — unless you bring in technology — there exists a moral code and terms of engagement. It’s generally accepted that all coaches will try and steal signs, and most of them will admit to this. The unwritten rule, though, is that sign stealing should be limited to a spotter with a clipboard, trying to decipher the code throughout the game. In theory this reduces things to a battle of wits, something coaches thrive on anyway.

What this really means is that there’s an acceptable level of sign-stealing competence. You’re supposed to be good, but not too good. Everyone should hover around this level, creating a natural balance where there are small advantages to be had. Nobody should be consistently great it it, though.*

*Except you, Alabama.

This also keeps sign stealing out of the public eye. If deciphering signs is a micro game-within-the-game and not a large part of the gameplan, it doesn’t come up in interviews or press conferences. Reactions to run-of-the-mill stolen sign incidents are couched in “halftime adjustments” and normal tweaks that happen throughout the course of a game.

But when a coach is too good at deciphering hand signals and signs, you get what happened this week with Mike Leach and Todd Graham. Once again, they volleyed shots back and forth, this time in the week leading up to the game.

It’s not new, either: Graham has been singled out repeatedly throughout his career. This includes last year, when Leach said ... well, pretty much the same things he said this year.

“They probably ought to do an investigation on them. I mean, you’ve got two straight schools with concerns over it, back-to-back and they have a reputation for it that extends beyond that. The conference probably ought to investigate them and see what they’re doing, make sure nothing is illegal.”

When you look back at who has publicly talked about Graham’s sign-stealing expertise, you see a pattern. Scott Frost used coded language, saying he got intel Arizona State was “working diligently” to steal signs and going to “great lengths” to do so. Dana Holgorsen had a long-running feud with Graham, including a detour into faking injuries, and said, when asked about stealing signs being a part of the game, “Ask [Graham]. He’s obsessed with it.”

All of these wink at Graham being too good at stealing signs without being specific about how. It irks the play callers because he’s so good at what he does, they believe, that they have to gameplan against it. The small game-within-the-game has to be accounted for and introduces another variable in the most important part of the game: communication. But coaches don’t generally get deep into the how, instead choosing to code language and make just enough of a fuss to get it attention and shove some of that annoyance back onto the alleged sign stealer.

I also don’t think Leach knows what Graham does. But he, and others, do think that Graham is too good at whatever he’s doing. So they assume he’s doing something above and beyond the rules, or are implying it is to court public opinion. Justin Fuente, now at Virginia Tech, summed this up best when speaking generally about stealing signs.

Memphis’ Fuente referenced a 1964 Supreme Court ruling on obscenity when asked what is unethical in the world of signal stealing. “I’m not sure how to define it,” he said, “but I’d know it when I see it.”

Asked about how this all may work, Leach conversationally meandered into specifics — hypotheticals, the lawyer in him will say — and got himself fined. But he didn’t need to talk about command centers and sophisticated microphones. In fact, he made the point pretty well last year, and might’ve nailed why Graham is so good at this:

"It's one thing to just pick up a cue, it's another thing to break it down as a science and film various things and carry it over from one year to the next and do some special analysis of it"

So Leach went too far explaining that someone else went too far bending an unwritten rule. When you criticize stealing signals, it should be done politely and broadly, because that keeps everything in a nice balance. Leach was blunt and impolite.

And when you beat the person you called out in a blunt and impolite way, thus upsetting the balance, you get called a chickenshit .

Because at the end of the day both coaches really don’t give a crap about those norms anyway, and neither is in the right. Just put a radio in the helmet already.