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A One-Time Free Transfer Is the Right Move. . . If Handled Properly

February 23, 2020

Usually narrow-minded, often short-sighted and occasionally unflinchingly rigid, the NCAA seems to actually be handling the curious case of transfers the exact right way.

At the end of the day, it’s anyone’s guess right now as to whether the Division I Transfer Waiver Working Group (yes, that’s a thing) will actually adopt a proposed redrafting of D1 transfer rules, allowing for a one-time, penalty-free transfer for all student-athletes in every sport.

Coaches aren’t planning for anything because this is all still so hypothetical right now.

But the NCAA is having the conversation. And in the last week, it has picked up some serious momentum. That’s a much-needed step in the right direction.

The framework goes like this. Undergrad student-athletes in all sports can transfer and be immediately eligible to compete for their new school if they do four things: obtain a transfer release from their previous school, leave that school in good academic standing, maintain academic progress at the new school, and leave under no disciplinary suspension.

(The fourth point is especially important. A byproduct of the transfer portal has been a black market for academically ineligible or morally problematic players to wipe their slates clean if they can find a situation desperate enough for them. Got suspended? Just transfer and keep playing.)

“The current system is unsustainable. Working group members believe it’s time to bring our transfer rules more in line with today’s college landscape,” said working group chair and MAC conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. “This concept provides a uniform approach that is understandable, predictable and objective. Most importantly, it benefits students.”

The natural pessimist in me wants to see this simply as PR. “It benefits students,” they say after years of showing that the power brokers don’t actually value what’s best for the student-athletes. (Notice the “athlete” part is left off in the statement.) This is the same organization that, as of a month ago, was still running a horribly misrepresentative “day in the life” ad which has been torched on every corner of the internet since March 2019 when it debuted.

The NCAA needs some good publicity, and after years of fighting NIL rights to no avail, fighting this too was no doubt proving problematic.

It didn’t have to be, of course. But the NCAA’s waiver approval process is convoluted and messy.

“Either everybody’s able to play or everybody has to sit,” Husker men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Take out the decision-making on who’s granted the waiver and who’s not because a lot of these cases look the same and some guys get it and some guys don’t.”

Hoiberg is, naturally, in favor of the potential change. He built his Iowa State success in part on transfer players. He’s widely regarded as the father of that kind of roster building in modern college basketball because of it. He has an assistant coach whose primary responsibility is keeping his eyes and ears fixed on the transfer landscape.

And he’s been burned by the NCAA.

The ones who haven’t probably won’t care as much unless they’re the clichéd-into-oblivion player’s coach. (There’s a reason coaches everywhere are getting younger by the year.) I’m thinking Ohio State’s Ryan Day here, who really had no direct path to getting Justin Fields eligible after transferring from Georgia other than arguing, “This is THE Ohio State University and he’s really good and will make you money.” Not saying that was the argument, but honestly what else could it have been?

Meanwhile, fringe players on the gridiron transfer home to be closer to ailing family members and the NCAA insults them by asking for detailed medical schedules.

Hoiberg had an air-tight case for Nevada transfer Shamiel Stevenson. The forward began his career at Pitt, recruited by Kevin Stallings. Stallings was fired after Stevenson’s freshman season and the man who replaced him, Jeff Capel, buried Stevenson on the bench. So he transferred to Nevada. A semester later, Nevada coach Eric Musselman took a job at Arkansas.

Stevenson was denied his waiver.

The argument from most people involved is either everyone gets one or no one gets one.

“I think to make the rule consistent one way or another makes sense,” Hoiberg said.

That goes for sport, as well. Currently, football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and men’s hockey are the only Division I sports whose athletes have to sit out a year after transferring.

“I do think there’s good merit to the idea there needs to be some equality across the board,” Husker women’s basketball coach Amy Williams said. “I definitely think it’s not equitable to have four or five sports that have to serve a year suspension whereas the other sports can have players transfer and be immediately eligible.”

Again, whether this passes or not is a separate issue. It’s not a foregone conclusion the NCAA does the right thing.

It’s also not a slam dunk if it does.

There are obstacles to this and such an exception would need a few iron-clad protections baked in.

“You pour into developing a young lady for three years and then right when she becomes capable of really stepping up and being a great player in your program, somebody else decides to come recruit her away from your program,” Williams said. “I think that’s what coaches are concerned about, is it going to be that free agency? Being able to just pluck players off of each others’ rosters?

Poaching, to be fair, happens now.

Scott Frost never directly accused Oregon State of contacting his players during his first year, but he might as well have. When Greg Bell transferred away from the football team, Nebraska blocked a move to any conference opponent, any non-conference opponent through 2021, and Oregon State.

The Beavers, who at the time had Mike Riley and Trent Bray working for them, had already grabbed Tristan Gebbia, Tyjon Lindsey, and Avery Roberts.

“If someone is trying to contact our kids while they’re still our kids and trying to get them to transfer, then I’m not going to be a fan of that continuing to happen,” Frost said at the time.

Such a change now would bring that operation, one that has largely lived in the back alleys of college football, a little bit closer to the forefront.

Don’t nobody want that.

What happens if Kentucky spends Wan’Dale Robinson’s entire freshman year recruiting him still. “They’re not winning,” someone might say. “We’ll use you differently.” Coaches already turn each other in for recruiting violations. We don’t need any more animosity between sidelines. The petty stuff isn’t good for anyone. We’d get a lot more of Paul Chryst yelling “F— you, mother——.” No thank you.

Frost has been pretty consistent in his thoughts on transfers, at least since he arrived in Lincoln and we started paying attention to his every word.

“I think we need to make sure that the transfer rules are such that it doesn’t really change the dynamics of intercollegiate sports and amateurism,” he said earlier this month during an appearance on the Husker Sports Nightly radio show.

That’s generally been his modus operandi.

While the amateurism discussion is a different beast entirely, he’s right about altering the fabric of the sport.

Florida State could just poach Dillon Gabriel from Central Florida with promises of a CFP berth. Jim Harbaugh could turn the directional Michigan programs into not-so-sanctioned feeder schools if he really wanted to. Group of Five schools already can’t make the College Football Playoff. The fear of loosened transfer restrictions furthering the gap between the elites and the middle-class isn’t a crazy one.

“It makes it difficult to build programs,” Williams said. “Maybe more kind of like what men’s basketball has had to do where you’re building teams for a year at a time not knowing who’s going to be one and done. It’s not quite as easy to build programs for the future, but more year-to-year teams.”

Maybe it makes Frost’s mansion construction more difficult. Hard to build if the foundation keeps shifting.

But then again, the sit-out rule hasn’t discouraged transferring in the first place. Players are looking out for their own self-interests more than ever—rightfully so—and Nebraska hasn’t lost any cornerstone pieces to the portal because of it.

Just because it can happen doesn’t necessarily mean that it will.

But ignoring the possibility seems like a classic bungle. Try to solve a problem and you create three more. If the NCAA is serious about making this kind of important change, it deserves to be done the right way.

Should there be any faith that actually happens? Guess we’ll find out. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported such a change could come this year, though Steinbrecher also told him “it’s got a ways to go.” This shouldn’t be a rush job.

College sports, they’re a-changing.

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