As college transfers increase, so does debate on how they should be governed


By Kellis Robinett - The Wichita Eagle



He was on vacation in Germany, but that didn’t stop David Ridpath from monitoring college transfer news back home.

Texas-Arlington was blocking basketball player Ericka Mattingly from transferring closer to her Wichita home, Pittsburgh was restricting graduate Cameron Johnson from playing basketball immediately at North Carolina, and Kansas State was refusing to grant Corey Sutton a release from his football scholarship. Ridpath couldn’t look away, even on a different continent.

“It never stops,” said Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University who is also president of the Drake Group, a nonprofit organization that defends academic integrity from commercialized aspects of college sports. “Coaches have way, way too much power in this. Transfers will be the next battle in college athletes’ rights.”

As transfers become more prevalent in college athletics, so does the debate on how they should be governed.

Should student-athletes have the same freedom of movement as regular students? Should coaches have the power to block players from transferring to certain schools? Are graduate transfers good or bad?

These questions are being asked with greater frequency and earnestness, mostly because transfer numbers are on the rise with no decline in sight. Coaches have referred to the trend as an epidemic that makes it difficult to build and maintain rosters, but when they try to restrict players from leaving negative publicity follows.

Blocking transfers has become a bad look for coaches at the same time that gaining transfers has become as important as recruiting high school seniors.

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Some argue the NCAA needs to change its transfer rules, because they place unfair restrictions on unpaid student-athletes. Others think the rules need to become stricter to prevent a system of free agency.

One thing is for sure: the current rules are a bit confusing. The NCAA recommends student-athletes download a transfer guide from its website and follow a four-step system before seriously considering a transfer. After that, a number of factors dictate when a player can compete at a new school.

Here is a rundown of the current guidelines:

Normal students are allowed to freely transfer from one college to another so long as they meet admission standards. Yet student-athletes are treated differently. In most sports, players are allowed to transfer and continue playing immediately at a new school at least once, thanks to a rule called “the one-time transfer exception.” But that is not the case in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football and men’s ice hockey. In those sports, the vast majority of student-athletes must sit out a year before returning to competition.

The year off is used as a makeshift transfer deterrent and as a way for athletes to adjust to their new school, but that’s not where the restrictions end. Coaches also have the ability to block transfers to any school for any reason, meaning players can only transfer and receive financial aid immediately at a new school if they get a scholarship release from their old school.

Then there are graduate transfers, who are allowed to switch schools and play immediately so long as their new school offers a graduate program not offered by their old school. But they also need a scholarship release.

Get all that?

“The whole thing starts to get really nebulous and unfair,” Ridpath said, “especially when you see the different rules for different sports and you look at coaches that get to move wherever they want, whenever they want. You are basically putting a non-compete clause on certain student-athletes.”

Jay Bilas doesn’t understand why so many restrictions are in place.

The ESPN college basketball analyst has become one of the nation’s loudest voices on transfer issues, and he says that won’t change until the rules do.

“No other student is told they can’t leave one school for another school and not obtain a scholarship or compete in extra-curricular activities,” Bilas said. “It only happens to athletes.

“Can you imagine if the schools banded together and said all scholarship students had to face these transfer restrictions? Say a scholarship music student wanted to transfer closer to home and they said, ‘Fine, but you can’t receive a scholarship there or participate in music there.’ It would be laughably absurd.”

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Gary Barnett misses coaching, but he is glad he doesn’t have to deal with today’s transfer climate.

He doesn’t know how he would handle it.

Before resigning from Colorado in 2005, Barnett had a system for dealing with transfers. If it was an older player that lacked starting potential, Barnett released him from his scholarship and wished him well. But if it was a younger player with a bright future, he tried his best to talk him into staying. If that didn’t work, he blocked the transfer request.

“If you could keep him there, he would eventually play and everyone would end up happy,” Barnett said. “You know as an adult that the kid just needs to get through his first year and mature, but he’s too young to understand that. Those are the type of transfers I always tried to fight.”

Barnett empathizes with coaches that take extreme measures to retain players, because he knows how difficult it is to replace transfers. Most high school recruits aren’t immediately ready to fill the void, he said, and multiple roster hits at the same position can be damaging.

Still, he’s not sure he would fight transfers today.

His method seems to be on the way out.

“I don’t think there is anything you can do anymore about a kid who wants to transfer,” Barnett said. “Used to be, you could road block the kid and the athletic director would go along with it, because he understood why you were doing it.

“But now it has gotten to where athletic directors will say, ‘You know, I really don’t want bad publicity and I really don’t want a lawsuit here. Why not just let a kid who is unhappy leave?’ “

Former Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg can think of a few reasons why coaches should place restrictions on transfers. The current ESPN analyst thinks transfers have become so common that coaches are beginning to recruit players from other teams.

He doesn’t think that is fair. Nor does he like the idea of a coach having to face off against one of his former players. Many schools restrict players from transferring within their conference and to schools that appear on future schedules. Greenberg doesn’t think he would restrict a transfer into today’s climate, but he understands that line of thinking.

“You identified the player, you developed the player and now you have to coach against the player,” Greenberg said. “That’s a hard thing.”

Bilas doesn’t care.

“All the different excuses you hear are nothing more than that, excuses,” Bilas said. “You have got teams that are leaving conferences and coaches and administrators that are taking jobs within the same conference. There are no restrictions on them.

“Why are these schools afraid to play one game against a former player? Because he knows your program? That doesn’t make any sense. He could write a book about your program. He could go work for a rival school and tell them all about your program. But they can’t transfer? It’s ridiculous.”

Greenberg’s biggest problem with the current transfer climate: student-athletes are switching schools that would have stayed loyal a decade ago.

With the rise of grad transfers, many players at mid-major schools are now choosing to end their careers playing in a power conference. That, he said, has led to coaches restricting summer school hours and limiting redshirts — anything to prevent a player from graduating early and playing his best basketball elsewhere.

“People who are having success are transferring,” Greenberg said. “It’s not just kids who are unhappy. It’s the leading scorers. It’s the best players.”

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Blocking transfers is not a good look.

Whenever a student-athlete goes public with his or her transfer issues, Bilas and others with massive social-media followings shine a light on the situation and a wave of negative PR follows.

It has happened twice at K-State, when it attempted to block former basketball player Leticia Romero and, more recently, Sutton. But the school relented in both cases and gave both players their releases. It also happened recently at Pittsburgh, which pushed hard to make Cameron Johnson sit a year before playing at North Carolina, but ultimately gave up the fight.

So why fight in the first place?

K-State coach Bill Snyder defended his decision, saying if he allowed every backup on the roster to transfer in hopes of becoming a starter elsewhere, he wouldn’t be left with much of a team. Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings preached commitment, an argument that rang hollow with some considering he left Vanderbilt for Pitt.

“Coaches leave at the drop of a hat,” Ridpath said. “Bill Snyder is a bit of an anomaly, because of his dedication to Kansas State. But he doesn’t own the athlete, and that is something that coaches like him has to learn.”

Some schools have stood firm on transfer restrictions. Texas-Arlington blocked Ericka Mattingly from Wichita State, Tulsa and Oral Roberts. She ended up at Butler Community College and will have the opportunity to return to Division I after a season in junior college.

It was her best option under the current rules.

It was also far from perfect.

College transfers will continue to be a hot topic from here to Germany until that changes.

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By Kellis Robinett

The Wichita Eagle