The transfer rule is broken, but it could be used as a recruiting edge

Friday February 10th, 2017

In my 10 years as a high school coach, four kids have left my program for basketball reasons. I am not one to lament all of the kids leaving their high school programs for greener pastures. We only get to be kids once and should enjoy every day we get to play. For some players, this means pushing themselves to be their best by playing against better competition, even with a reduced role.

For most kids, however, that means starting for their squad, even if on a lower level. I recently read that 82% of athletes would rather start for a losing team than sit for a winning team. I would never support players quitting midseason (with obvious exceptions like abuse), but before or after a season, they should act in their best interests.

When I read about the “epidemic” of Division I basketball players transferring, it sounds as if the kids have an illness that needs curing. But within the general student population, 37% of college students transfer at least once within six years. According to ESPN, 633 Division I players transferred last year out of more than 4,500 scholarship players (about 13.8%). Less than half of those players move to another D-I school. The view that this is wrong is based in the belief that these players “owe” something to their schools.

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Actually, the reason more players don’t transfer is because they have to sit out a year if they transfer to another D-I school. On its website, the NCAA contends that this year off is needed for a player to adjust to “his new academic setting.” But according to its own research, about 90% of athletes transferred for athletic reasons. The reason this penalty year exists, in my opinion, is simply to protect the coaches.

The coaches want more certainty of their rosters. They don’t want to have to change their systems year after year based on new personnel. But to me, that would be one of those most fun parts of coaching a basketball team. Every year, I’m learning something new, and trying to adapt to new players with different skill sets. Kentucky coach John Calipari has almost an entirely new team every year, and they are contenders annually.

When a college basketball player decides to transfer, he has to ask his coach for a release. The coach can then decide to manage the release however he wants. Coaches can prohibit a player from transferring to a school where a former assistant coaches, a school that is on the team’s schedule as an opponent, and can even give the player a list of acceptable transfer schools without any guidelines. The coach is in complete control. The player is at his mercy.

If the player doesn’t like the coach’s decision, he can appeal to a committee at his current school. Good luck with that one. After that, he can appeal to the NCAA. By the time this is all done, he might lose another year. Eventually, both the coach and the athletic director have to sign a transfer release to set the player free.

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All of these stipulations exist so, in the words of a close friend of mine who is a D-I assistant, “coaches won’t be shown up by a kid who leaves their program.” Since when does that matter? I root for the kids who have left my program, even when they have played against us. Aren’t coaches supposed to be for their kids, above all else? How and when did this get forgotten? When did this game become about coaches and not players?

Let’s first assume the NCAA will not change this one-year waiting period in part because the players have no agents, no union and no leverage. The power lies with the coaches. (In my next column, I will give my suggestions for how the NCAA can eliminate this waiting period in a way that is fair to both the players and coaches.)

Paul Biancardi always says players should choose a program with a coach “they can trust.” He is right. The player needs to ask: 1) If he can trust a coach to be honest with him and 2) If he can trust that coach to put the player’s interests above his own when things go wrong.

If I were a D-I head coach, here is how I would use the transfer rules to my advantage in recruiting. I’ll use my friend Patrick Chambers as an example. Chambers has done a fantastic job getting Penn State back to a competitive level in the brutal Big Ten. He is also one of the few D-I coaches who could not check me back in the day. Chambers has been so successful recruiting in his hometown of Philadelphia because the people that know him trust him completely. In my opinion, Penn State is only one or two players away from being able to challenge for conference titles annually without one-and-done stars.

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Jake Forrester is junior for me at the Westtown (Pa.) School and the 70th ranked player in the class of 2018. Forrester has offers at Indiana, Kansas State, Temple, Providence, and Penn State to name a few, and he will surely get more high-major opportunities when he plays for the PSA Cardinals AAU program this spring and summer. If I were Coach Chambers, I would separate myself from the other high-major programs recruiting top-100 players like Jake by offering two things.

First, I’d offer a guaranteed lifetime scholarship, as many Power Five programs are now doing.

Second, and more importantly, I would hand Jake a full transfer release without any restrictions with my signature. Only the date would be left blank. I would also email him and his guardian(s) a note that if he ever wanted to leave Penn State, he would be granted that release. I would let Jake know that my staff and I always put the best interests of their players first, no matter what that means for Penn State Basketball. The day he wants to leave, all he has to do is put a date on his own release and file it.

The best way under the current NCAA guidelines that a coach can prove his trustworthiness is to give that player his freedom before he sets foot on campus as a freshman. Freedom is power. By granting that power, a coach can truly build a players’ program.

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