The already difficult job of coaching a major college football or basketball team has now been downgraded to almost impossible. For that, we can thank the arrival of the “transfer portal
Like the people-moving system on Star Trek, the portal (approved by the NCAA last July) allows college athletes to beam themselves from one program to another at will. Before it was installed last year, someone transferring from, say, Indiana University to Notre Dame had to then sit out a year before being eligible to play for the new team. Now, there are no such restrictions.
Why is this a bad thing? It depends upon how you regard college
If you see them as merely a healthy activity to amuse student athletes, the student body and the alumni, then the transfer portal just adds a little more interest. But if that’s the case, why are coaches in the “major sports” paid hundreds of thousands of dollars — millions, in some cases — to preside over these programs? Why are they allowed to hire a host of assistants, all also well-paid? Why do colleges spend enormous amounts of money on refurbished stadiums and new arenas? And what about all the income that pours into these schools from TV money, ticket sales, merchandise, etc?
The University of Texas athletic program earned $229,879,780 last season, for example; Ohio State, $210,548,239. This is not small change.
Certainly, college athletes have always had the right to join whatever team they choose, albeit within certain parameters. And if you were just a regular student (not an athlete), no one would care if you then decided to relocate. One of my friends in college was working on his fourth school.
The thing is, today’s elite athletes are probably not looking for the “college experience.” They want to be seen by professional scouts who will then draft and throw money at them, making everything else almost irrelevant.
I once heard a story about a seven-foot college basketball player who was asked by a sports reporter: “So, what classes are you taking this semester?”
“I dunno,” the player replied. “Coach could tell you.”
Moreover, the line between “average” and “elite” is often a matter of opinion. Almost every scholarship player on a major college football or basketball team (men’s or women’s) was a star on their high school team. When they arrive at the next level, however, they quickly discover that all their teammates were also hometown heroes. It is then up to the coach to earn his or her hefty salary by discerning which of these stars-in-waiting warrants the most playing time.
Sometimes, a player who is left off the starting team uses that as an incentive to work harder in practice, refine some part of his or her game that might be lacking, and eventually move up in the lineup. Maybe that hard work isn’t rewarded until the following season, or the season after.
On the other hand, these are often 18 or 19-year-olds — kids, in other words. Most of us are impulsive and fickle at that age, and the transfer portal seems to provide an easy off-ramp for a disgruntled athlete.
Once, it could be argued that college coaches had too much power over athletes. Now, it might be the other way around. The threat, either verbalized or implied, is obvious: “Unless I get more playing time, I’m out of here.”
Coaches used to be reasonably sure who would be on their team the following season. A basketball coach may not worry about recruiting another point guard to his team, for example, because he already has three, all with at least two years of eligibility left. But what if two of those three decide at the last minute to enter the portal? Recruiting is a lengthy process, based on trust, that does not lend itself to last-minute introductions. If you come in late, the cupboard is usually bare.
Transfers used to be relatively rare, perhaps two or three per year per team. At last count, however, nearly 2,000 college basketball players had applied for the portal out of 250 Division I teams; college football is looking at a similar ratio. Based on the new rules, there is no guarantee that a transfer applicant will find a new home, nor any requirement that the school from which he is transferring has to take him back if his search fails.
As University of Nebraska football coach Scott Frost (who is losing his starting quarterback) put it: “A lot of kids might find themselves without a chair to sit on when the music stops.”
Complicating this issue is another new rule that allows college athletes to earn “NIL” (Name, Image, Likeness) money from being featured in advertisements or other income streams.
Coaches are strictly banned from “tampering” with a player at another school. In other words, that would preclude a phone call to say: “I think your coach is an idiot for not appreciating your talent. If you transfer here, we will.”
Yet what if some member of a college booster club — many of them well-heeled business people with lots of cash to spend on their sports passions — does make that call, or e-mail, or contacts a friend of a friend?
“What are you making at that school, son? We’re in a lot bigger city, and you’ll have a lot more financial opportunities here.”
On Dec. 11, sportswriter Geoff Ketchum reported on the competition for quarterback Quinn Ewers, who has announced his impending departure from Ohio State.
“Word on the street is that first round draft pick-level NIL money is on the table for Quinn Ewers if he chooses Texas as his transfer destination.” Ketchum wrote. “The weaponization on the NIL front is fully underway.”
There are times, I believe, when an immediate transfer is warranted under the old rules. Maybe a player wants to move closer to home because of a family illness. Maybe his dad and current coach is taking a job at another school and he would like to continue to play for that person. These have been — and would continue to be — approved on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, sitting out a year and getting to learn about a new school, coaching staff and teammates with no pressure isn’t always a bad thing.
As it stands now, one coach said he actually had three teams to coach: “One playing, one leaving, one coming.”
Fortunately, there has always been a transfer portal for coaches. It’s called “Getting out of my contract.”
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."