Everett Golson's move to Florida State from Notre Dame highlights the value of the NCAA's graduate transfer rule.
Quarterback Everett Golson announced on Tuesday that he’ll continue his college football career at Florida State. The Notre Dame graduate has no guarantee of a starting job. He’ll arrive in Tallahassee far behind redshirt junior Sean Maguire, who has had three full seasons to learn coach Jimbo Fisher’s complex offense. Golson, whose arm strength would make any quarterback coach give him a fighting chance, may win the job. He may not. This is a risky proposition.
Golson might have had an easier time becoming the starter at one of the many SEC schools in need of a quarterback. He visited Florida and Georgia last week, but had Golson and the respective coaches had the inclination, he likely could’ve competed for and won the jobs at LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and maybe Alabama or South Carolina. He definitely would've been the favorite in Gainesville, where he visited last Tuesday. But choosing Florida also would have been risky.
The Gators would have been a huge on-field risk because Florida returns precious little experience along the offensive line. First-year coach Jim McElwain will probably attempt to build a line using some touted freshmen. This plan worked well for Florida State in 2011; the line became a wall that helped it win the ’13 national title. But ask then-quarterback EJ Manuel how much fun it was to watch those linemen learn in front of him. Golson should remember. He saw it in person at the Champs Sports Bowl while redshirting for the Fighting Irish in ’11. Florida State is also revamping its line this season, but left tackle Rod Johnson is a future first-round NFL draft pick, and the Seminoles' offensive recruiting and results in recent years are superior to Florida's.
Choosing an SEC school would have been risk for Golson in general, because the conference has chosen to put itself at a competitive disadvantage with regard to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule. While the league’s leaders wised up last year and dumped the proviso that graduates must have two years of eligibility remaining to transfer to an SEC school and play right away, they still limit themselves with a clause that wasn’t written for Golson but may have scared him away anyway.
The SEC is still embarrassed that Ole Miss took quarterback Jeremiah Masoli in 2010 after Masoli was booted from the team at Oregon. Yes, Masoli only came to Ole Miss for football reasons. No, he didn’t really want to be a forest ranger. That’s why SEC leaders created a two-year proviso in the first place and why, when they rescinded the proviso, they wrote in a stipulation that an incoming player could not have faced any major discipline at his previous program. This was to keep SEC schools from providing refuge for graduates dismissed from their previous schools.
Golson did not need refuge from discipline by Notre Dame. He did screw up. Royally. But he served his punishment. In 2013, he was caught cheating on a test and banned from the school for the fall semester. He missed the entire season and a semester of classes. Despite drawing interest from a host of other schools and having the option to play for a junior college that season and play anywhere else the following year, Golson returned to Notre Dame. “My heart was set on going back to Notre Dame,” Golson told SI in ’13. “Not necessarily to prove to anybody—just doing it for me. I felt like that’s something that I started. I didn’t want to run away from it and go to a juco or go to another school. I was going to face it.”
But the ire toward the graduate transfer rule isn't limited to the SEC. Many coaches and athletic directors hate the rule because it gives the player a modicum of power, and coaches and ADs tend to be control freaks. There is a nationwide movement among those who have gotten rich off the backs of college athletes to rescind the rule that allows the holder of a bachelor’s degree to transfer and play immediately at another school. They want graduates to be subject to the same rules as undergraduates, who can be blocked from transferring on scholarship at their first school’s whim and who must sit out a year before playing.
The coaches and ADs who would like to eliminate the best rule on the NCAA’s books have wrapped themselves in the shroud of academic purity. They point to studies that show football and men’s basketball players who use the rule to transfer aren’t sticking around to finish their master’s degrees. This logic might make sense if most Power Five football and men’s basketball players chose their original schools for purely academic reasons. But they do not. Otherwise, Stanford and Duke would face off for the national title in football every year.
This logic might also make sense if many coaches didn’t shove their players into scintillating curricula such as general studies and family, youth and community sciences. Players may as well major in journalism for all the good those majors will do them in the workforce. This logic might also make sense if schools worked to ensure the graduates who stay at their first program for a fourth or fifth year take a rigorous courseload. It was quite telling two weeks ago when Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott rattled off numbers from a study on the retention rates of the players who took advantage of the transfer rule. When he was done, I asked him about the academic ambitions of post-baccalaureate students who remain at their first school and only take ballroom dancing or some similar sinecure class so they may stay enrolled but devote the lion’s share of their energies to football. Scott had no answer for that, because this debate isn’t really about academics. It’s about power.
At the FBS level, most of these transfers involve players who have lost starting jobs or didn’t mix well with a new coaching staff. The moves tend to be beneficial for player and coach. The player gets another chance, while the coach frees up a scholarship without the unpleasantness that comes with cutting a player who has not done anything wrong. Typically, both sides get what they crave. But some coaches simply can’t bear the thought of a player having a chance to play right away because they are so accustomed to controlling who stays and who goes.
Meanwhile, at the FCS level, coaches are upset because Eastern Washington star quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. used the rule to move to Oregon for his final season. They don’t want the FCS to be used as a farm system for the FBS. They conveniently forget that Adams is the first player in memory to use the rule to move in this way. Meanwhile, FCS coaches have used the NCAA rule that allows players with two or more years of eligibility remaining to drop a level and play immediately to take hundreds of FBS transfers over the years. Those players wanted to find a better situation for themselves. So did Adams. The FCS coaches have no problem taking FBS players, just as they’d have no problem jumping for the higher salary of an FBS job if they were offered one.
A few coaches and administrators understand why they need to drop the fight against this rule. Stanford’s David Shaw and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham support the rule, and for the correct reason. Once a player graduates, he and the first school have fulfilled their obligations to one another. If he has been on campus four years, the school isn’t required to keep him on scholarship. Why shouldn’t he have the same freedom of choice? “I think for the most part it is [a good rule],” Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune this month. “For the student-athlete that comes to your university and does what he’s supposed to do in getting his degree, which is the No. 1 reason why they're all here, I think they should have some latitude and be able to have some options for graduate school. I have no problem with that.”
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, who has always steered clear of the groupthink that hamstrings so many of his colleagues, takes a similar view. “If our primary mission is educational and we certify that a young man or woman has earned a degree from our university and I’m certifying that they can work for Price-Waterhouse or a bank somewhere or to go into a graduate program at another school, I’m certifying they can go do stuff elsewhere,” Swarbrick told The Orlando Sentinel last week. “I don’t think I ought to be limiting that in an athletic sphere. I think the notion that people who are attending school at any level ought to be serious about studying while they are there is an important issue so what program are they in and what are they doing is the relevant consideration. I’m not interested in trying to limit their abilities.”
There is also the more practical side of all this that most coaches and athletic directors aren’t considering. They have just spent a year changing the rules so they can give athletes a larger slice of the billions being brought in by their efforts. They have loosened restrictions involving meals. The schools didn’t do this out of the kindness of their hearts. They did it because they were being sued in federal court. The moves they’ve made have removed the teeth from a few of the lawsuits they face, but why would they want to antagonize some rich and soon-to-be-richer attorneys by adding one more silly restriction when the rule in question only affects a few dozen players a year in the money sports?
Adams wouldn’t have been at Eastern Washington in the first place if FBS coaches had evaluated him properly. That isn’t his fault, and it’s fortunate he has the option to correct their mistake. Golson wouldn’t be leaving Notre Dame if he were the unquestioned starter. He is looking for a better situation, and he hopes to find it in Tallahassee. Who knows what will happen? Maybe he’ll sit behind Maguire. Maybe he’ll win the job and help keep the team atop the ACC. Either way, Golson and Notre Dame have each gotten what they wanted out of their transaction. There is nothing wrong with Golson getting another chance elsewhere right now—except to the coaches, athletics and conference administrators who have somehow convinced themselves a win-win situation is a problem.