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How the Transfer Portal Has Shifted Power and Transformed College Football

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma Sooners Football

Lincoln Riley has counted on transfers to help maintain Oklahoma's dominance in the Big 12

College football coaches have called it free agency. An open door to cheating. The end of the sport as we know it.

And that was before the suddenly player-friendly NCAA announced in April that it would grant all football players one free transfer without having to sit out a season.

“It will be the wild, wild West,” one Power 5 coach says.

And away we go.

There are clearly two sides to this mandate, a dynamic so impactful that it will change the way every coach runs his program and add a new category of potential NCAA rulebreakers to the equation.

Players love it; coaches hate it.

Players love the flexibility it allows after signing their initial letter of intent and the ability to move immediately one time in four years without punitive consequences. Coaches hate everything about it, beginning with roster management issues and ending with how the new transfer rule will piggyback on the new Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rule. The entire framework of what they know and have lived by has flipped upside down.

They also knew it was coming because the NCAA, for years the hammer to any nail of player change, is deep in the mud of legal action that threatens its amateur model.

The NCAA had to offer some form of olive branch to, at the very least, look like they’re serious about change. But this specific change, many coaches say, will be epic.

Good luck getting any coaches to speak openly and truthfully about the new rule(s).

“Brutal,” a Power 5 coach says. “This rule puts every coach trying to run a clean program in an untenable situation. You’re enabling NCAA rulebreakers. You’re inviting tampering. They’ve opened Pandora’s box and are allowing players to take their ball and go home when things don’t go their way. What kind of message is that? Are we not in the business of building young men?”

And there’s the rub.

Because for every coach who claims his job is “molding young men” and that the new rule(s) is teaching bad habits to those same young men, there’s a player who watches a coach leave a program after a couple of seasons for greener — and by greener, we mean more lucrative — pastures.

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For every coach who claims it will be difficult to deal with roster management (it will), there are players who are run off from programs because they’re not a fit and the staff is recruiting over them.

Coaches can’t expect to move freely in their jobs while forcing players into a situation where they’re punished for leaving (see: the old, antiquated rule).

Yet there they are, still holding on tight like it’s 1970. Exhibit A: Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley.

Riley is one of the game’s best coaches. He’s young and charismatic; players love him. He has reached the top of his profession because he’s on the cutting edge of teaching and offensive innovation, yet he may as well be Fred Flintstone fueling his car with his feet when it comes to player movement. At least, player movement within his conference.

Riley’s backup quarterback, Chandler Morris, transferred to Big 12 rival TCU. Riley, who has said he thinks a player’s ability to transfer is a good thing overall, thought Morris should have to sit out a season because he’s transferring within the conference.

“We think it’s unhealthy for college football to encourage intra-conference transfers,” Riley said.

But it’s OK for Dan Mullen to leave Mississippi State for Florida. See where this is headed? For every coach criticism, there is a counter-arguments from the players.

Riley says he’s fine with transfers, and why wouldn’t he be? Three of the Sooners’ last four quarterbacks — Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts — have been transfers, and Riley could get three starters from the transfer portal this season (the talented Tennessee trio of RB Eric Gray, DB Key Lawrence and OT Wanya Morris).

Less than a month after Riley publicly took a stand against intra-conference transfer, the implementation of the new transfer rule means that Chandler Morris will play at TCU this fall, with or without Oklahoma’s blessing.

A year ago, when the transfer rule was in its infant stages of debate at the NCAA executive committee level, coaches begged their athletic directors to impress on the committee that one free pass would impact roster management to a greater degree than anything the sport has seen.

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Currently, programs already are locked into a 25-scholarship limit per season. So let’s say State U finishes spring practice, and five players decide to transfer to another school.

If State U signed 25 players a couple of months earlier, they can’t exceed that 25-scholarship limit for the season. So they’re down to 80 scholarship players for the year. “That’s the problem,” Mullen says. “And we haven’t seen the solution for that yet.”

It could be as simple as allowing teams to add players from the transfer portal and put them on scholarship. It’s basic math, really: lose five, gain five.

Because the transfer portal has been overrun with players looking for new schools — there were more than 1,000 players in the portal this spring — it shouldn’t be an issue to add players. But that brings up another sticky point.

“Those players are in the portal for a reason,” one Power 5 coach says. “A small minority are guys that can help you, guys that for one reason or another didn’t make it where they began. But a majority of those guys are either players other (schools) missed on, players that are just guys, those with academic problems or those who have been in trouble off the field. We wouldn’t recruit a majority of those guys coming out of high school.”

Most coaches believe that the NCAA will bend on the 25-scholarship limit and move the bar to allow teams to get to 85 scholarships if they lose players to the portal. There simply can’t be a situation where a coach gets fired and a group of players follows him to his next job — leaving his previous team gutted. Or a coach takes another job and brings a group of players with him. The NCAA can’t afford not to close that loophole.

The players’ side of that argument is that they’ll be pushed to the portal by a new coach who didn’t recruit them. Coaches will use roster management in conjunction with the portal, a 2020s version of running off players to free up scholarships for others.

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Once a player decides to enter the portal, his scholarship can be rescinded. That means once you’re gone, you’re gone — unless that staff has hopes to convince you to stay (that’s going to be rare; remember, they’re in the portal for a reason).

Players will have until May 1 of every year to declare for the portal, eliminating the idea that some would leave during the summer or fall camp, move to another team and play immediately.

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“It’s a circular nightmare,” another Power 5 coach says. “They won’t trust us, we won’t trust them. There’s no common ground, no chance to take a guy who might be facing some adversity and help him through it. Now the young guys with talent and even the upperclassmen with experience are going to always have those free walking papers in their pocket.”

And that, many coaches believe, leads to the biggest potential pitfall of all: recruiting violations. Coaches recruiting off other rosters; players leaving schools and recruiting other players to join them at their new school.

The possibilities are endless, and all are counterproductive to roster management.

“That s--- goes on now, when we’re shaking hands after the game,” one Group of 5 coach says. “It’s one of those, hey, if you want to play for a championship, or hey, if you want to play in the playoff, we can find you a spot. I’m telling you, it happens now. Now we have the free transfer, so what happens now? It will increase tenfold. How do you police that if you’re the NCAA? There’s literally no way to do it.”

Says Riley: “It’s no different than people that cheat in (high school) recruiting. We all know it’s going on. You wish more people would get caught. You wish it didn’t happen. But to duck our head in the sand and pretend like it’s not — it is.”

But understand this: it’s not all doom and gloom. There are fantastic success stories with the transfer process. Justin Fields was lost at Georgia, transferred to Ohio State, played immediately (with a waiver) and led the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff. A year later, he’s an NFL first-round draft pick.

Former OU head coach Bob Stoops and Riley turned three transfer quarterbacks into Heisman Trophy finalists. Jake Coker couldn’t get on the field at Florida State but won a national title as the Alabama quarterback.

Proponents of the transfer rule say that whatever helps players achieve their stated goals of playing football and getting an education is a win. Does it mean coaches will be forced to be uncomfortable in managing a roster? Absolutely.

It also means that players have taken another giant step toward being more invested in a product for which they are the driving force. But, coaches insist, an influx of change with two new significant rules (the transfer rule and NIL) will drastically alter the way teams recruit.

It’s a paradigm shift clearly geared toward player rights, while stopping short of an overt pay-for-play model.

“I’ve banged my hands on the table so many times about (NIL), and how it’s our chance to avoid a straight pay-for-play model,” one Power 5 athletic director says. “But I’m also not naïve. I realize there will be collateral damage, with recruiting at the top of that list. If you thought it was difficult for NCAA enforcement with recruiting now, it will be more stressful with the combination of the transfer allowance and the NIL.”

Recruiting won’t begin and end at the high school level. Coaches will be forced to continue to recruit players on their roster, in an effort to keep them from leaving for a starting job, or for a better city to earn NIL dollars.

Once a player leaves for the portal, he’s free for other coaches to recruit. Those recruiting pitches for the elite players will come fast, and it won’t be all about playing time.

“There’s a reason, when LeBron (James) decided he had one more go in him, that he chose Los Angeles,” says Miami head coach Manny Diaz. “I’m sure Sacramento wanted him, too, you know? He’s going where it’s best for him to go and build his brand. I would think a major metropolitan area like Miami, with our culture and diversity, why wouldn’t we use that as a recruiting pitch?”

And away we go.

The most disturbing — or beneficial, depending on which side you’re on — feature of the new transfer exemption: It doesn’t end at one season. The NCAA says players can continue to transfer unfettered even after the one allowable transfer — as long as they have an approved waiver.

The number of waivers approved has increased dramatically since the NCAA set up the transfer portal in October 2018. They won’t suddenly decrease because NCAA legislation has granted one free transfer.

“The horse is out of the barn already with waivers,” a Group of 5 coach says. “If you think those numbers are going down because of the new legislation, you’re not paying attention to what’s been going on in our sport.”

A few years ago, in an effort to be a kinder and gentler NCAA (and increase player rights), the sport’s governing body guaranteed all scholarships for five years. No longer were letters of intent one-year proposals.

With this new legislation, the NCAA has turned the tables on itself. They’ve now given the players guaranteed scholarships — and the ability to make them multiple one-year deals without punitive consequences if they don’t like their situation.

It’s the wild, wild West, all right.

“In three or four or five years, the sport is going to drastically change,” Mullen says. “Will it be better? We’ll have to wait and see.”

FAQ on the NCAA Transfer Portal

When was the portal first introduced, and what was its goal?
In October of 2018, the NCAA set up a portal where players could enter their name and pertinent information for other schools to see. Players no longer had to go through the respective universities to ask for the right to transfer.

What will the new transfer legislation do?
Previously, players who transferred to another school had to sit out a season of participation unless they received a waiver from the NCAA. With the new legislation, players are allowed a one-time transfer without the penalty of a missed year of participation.

Will the new legislation limit transfers to one per player?
Players will receive one free transfer, but they can still transfer as many times as their NCAA clock allows. Players are also allowed to apply for waivers for transfer after they’ve used their one free transfer.

Is there a deadline to enter the transfer portal?
Players can transfer any time during the year but have until May 1 to officially enter the portal and still be allowed to use their one free transfer. Any transfer after the deadline will revert to the previous transfer rule of sitting out a year of participation — unless the player receives a waiver.

Are there limits to where a player can transfer?
No. Players can move within conferences or subdivisions (FBS to FCS, or FCS to FBS).

— Written by Matt Hayes (@MattHayesCFB) for Athlon Sports' 2021 National College Football magazine.

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