'It’s Going to Change the Landscape': The NCAA's Transfer Revolution Is Here, and Its Impact Will Be Felt Far and Wide

The D-I Council's approval of a one-time transfer for all college athletes without the need to sit out is a game-changing measure with many consequences.
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On the heels of the NCAA’s decision to allow college athletes to freely transfer and play immediately, Greg Kampe has a message for basketball coaches everywhere: Change the way you recruit or see your career go up in flames.

“If you are building for the future,” the longtime Oakland men’s coach says, “you’re going to lose your job.”

In the latest move from college sports to rectify its archaic policies, the NCAA Division I Council approved a long-awaited measure Wednesday to grant all players the ability to transfer once in their careers and be immediately eligible, sources tell Sports Illustrated. The vote, expected for more than a year now, eschews a rule from the 1960s that penalized athletes in certain sports by forcing them to miss their first season at their new school. The legislation is expected to be approved April 28 by the NCAA Board of Directors and would, potentially, take effect immediately.

NCAA basketball and football sit on ground

The transfer legislation is another in a long string of changes by the NCAA to modernize its rules and make them more athlete-friendly at a critical juncture in the history of the governing body of college athletics. The NCAA’s amateurism rules have become a punching bag for some of the most powerful legislative figures in the land—congressional lawmakers and even Supreme Court justices. All of this is unfolding in the shadow of the raging debate over athlete compensation, as dozens of states hurriedly pass laws governing name, image and likeness (NIL) while the NCAA pleads for help from Congress.

The new transfer rule, as Kampe suggests, has far-reaching ramifications and unintended consequences that worry those at the top of the sport. Many coaches plan to alter their recruiting strategy, relying so heavily on transfers that it adversely impacts high school recruits, creates an uptick in poaching other college players and sets off a trickle-down effect that could widen the gap between bluebloods and the lower rungs of sports, specifically football.

“It’s going to change the landscape of college football,” says John Grass, head football coach at Jacksonville State, an FCS program in Alabama. “Certain things happen, and it changes the recruiting landscape. When the grad transfer thing happened, that drastically changed things. Cost of attendance changed things. This one will change things.”

Under current transfer rules, athletes in five sports, including football and men’s and women’s basketball, are ineligible in the first year they transfer. The new rule would allow all athletes to move freely at least once, though it includes some stipulations. Athletes must submit to their school a notification of transfer by certain dates to be immediately eligible at their next location. Fall- and winter-sport athletes would have to notify their schools by May 1, and spring sport athletes would have until July 1. However, because of the timing of the Council’s decision, the fall and winter sports’ notification date will be pushed this summer to July 1—a quasi-deadline day in the college sports world similar to those in professional leagues.

“We feel it has to be done for roster management purposes,” says Shane Lyons, the West Virginia athletic director who sits on the D-I Council.

Current athletes who have already transferred during their careers do not qualify under the new rule—they cannot transfer again and be immediately eligible without filing a waiver. The NCAA will continue using a waiver system for individual transfer requests from athletes who have already moved schools once and are seeking immediate eligibility, but the waiver criteria is expected to be more stringent.

Rumored for a year now, the new transfer legislation is already responsible, many claim, for the surge in the transfer portal, as hundreds of athletes are seeking to leap to a new school and play immediately. In football and men’s basketball combined, nearly 3,000 players—at least one-third of whom are walk-ons—are actively in the portal, according to a list compiled by 247Sports. The number in men’s basketball alone (about 1,200) accounts for about one-fourth of the the available Division I scholarship spots.

Many believe Wednesday’s news will send even more into the online database.

“After that rule comes out, I believe there will be 2,000 [men’s basketball] players in the portal,” says Kempe, who just finished his 37th year at Oakland, a Horizon League team in Michigan, and is an expert in portal happenings. He’s had 16 players enter the portal the last three years and currently has six in the database.

“It’s really crazy right now. Never seen anything like this,” he says, “but two years from now, it’s like the stock market—it’s going to find its way and recorrect itself.”

For now, it’s a free for all, with so many players already in the portal that there are unlikely to be scholarship spots for them all.

In a way, the transfer legislation is leading to an overhaul in some athletic departments, as teams heighten their focus on current college players and away from high school and junior college athletes.

“Colleges are starting to build out resources for college scouting in addition to high school recruiting departments,” says Brian Spilbeler, a cofounder of Tracking Football, an advanced scouting and data analysis company to which schools subscribe. “This is a game-changer.”

The shift in recruiting—from high school products to transfers—is alarming for some. The time-honored tradition of developing incoming freshmen for future seasons is evolving and will continue to evolve into coaches taking the NFL and NBA path, some say, assembling a team year by year with new players obtained through the college waiver wire—the transfer portal.

It’s been that way in basketball for years. In fact, this year’s men’s national champion, Baylor, started two and sometimes three transfers, getting 54% of its points from those players this season. In football, Spilbeler says he’s heard from some Group of Five programs planning to fill half of their rosters with transfers.

“The coaches that embrace all these changes are the ones that will adapt,” says Washington State athletic director Pat Chun. “The ones that can’t adapt to the sea of change are the ones that are going to struggle.”

Across the NCAA, transfer rates continue to soar, according to research from the governing body. Of 12,000 FBS football players, 14.7% transferred in 2019, an uptick of 2% from three years before. In men’s basketball, about 40% of players who enter Division I out of high school depart their initial school by the end of their sophomore year. The four-year transfer rate in men’s hoops has risen from 10% in 2010 to 16% last year. In women’s hoops, the rate was 12% last year.

“I’ve always been about developing players, but it’s not developing players anymore,” says Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “It’s about assimilating a team for next year that can win.”

NCAA team logos

High school and junior college athletes may feel the worst effects, industry experts say.

“You’ll see less and less people signing 25 high school kids,” says Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck.

In men’s basketball, Kempe believes that while five-star prospects will be recruited as they normally are, others will slip down the ranks as power programs focus more on veteran players in the portal.

“The four [stars] are going to get recruited at the lower level and the two/three- stars are going to Division II and we [in the mid-majors] are going to steal them,” he says.

In football, Berry says Group of Five coaches are worried about Power 5 teams poaching their best players, and Power 5 teams are fearing that their depth will suffer as talented backups leave for starting roles elsewhere. Recruiting a player from a college team before he enters the portal is against NCAA rules, but even now, it happens in rampant fashion. With transfers eligible immediately and a pending NIL rule looming on the sport, officials expect even more illegal recruitment.

“It leads to people being more bold about it,” says Northern Kentucky basketball coach Darrin Horn, a former assistant at Texas and head coach at South Carolina. “It’s going on already. I’ve even heard it’s not as deceptive as third parties or back channels—sometimes it’s just the schools doing it.”

High-ranking college sports leaders, like Lyons, are not ignorant to that fact.

“A lot of schools will say they didn’t have contact, but they all have a high school coach the kid called and in turn talked to someone at another school,” Lyons says. “That’s been happening.”

The raiding by power schools on mid-majors, in basketball, and on FCS programs, in football, is an expected result, administrators and coaches say. Berry, in fact, believes that some FBS programs, out of signee spots in a given year, will resort to placing recruits at FCS schools to later add them as a transfer—similar to the old sign-and-place strategy with junior colleges. As of a month ago, FCS players made up more than half of those in the football portal, says Spilbeler.

At Jacksonville State, Grass says he’s fought for years against FBS programs mining his team for its best players once they’ve graduated. Graduates can transfer immediately without sitting out a year. Now, he expects coaches to pluck his best guys, whether they are graduates or not.

“Mid-majors are fixing to feel the pain,” Grass says. “The Power 5s are going to have FCS big boards and mid-major big boards. It’s a trickle-down effect. Us being the minor leagues? There’s a little validity to that. The top 25 are going to poach the mid-majors and the mid-majors are going to try to poach the FCS guys.”

In men’s basketball, some believe that more players will drop down from the top-level schools than will move up to them. For every mid-major star who leaves for a power school, Kempe expects there to be two to three players leaving power schools to seek more playing time in the lower rungs.

It doesn’t change the fact that some of the mid-major conferences will see their players of the year gone.

“There’s this assumption that all of our good guys in our leagues are going to leave and transfer up,” Horn says. “I do think that is going to happen.”

And what if those players don’t work out on the top level? Officials fear that coaches will push them aside to make room for, you guessed it, more transfers. It’s part of an endless cycle.

Coaches looking to take advantage of the rule could conceivably build a team of only transfers, especially in basketball. Why would they do that?

“Once you fill your roster with one-time transfers, they can’t go anywhere [and play immediately again],” Grass says.

At least, it’s unlikely they would. Those who have transferred once already will have to sit out a year if they choose to transfer again. Though they can seek a waiver, that process is expected to feature a “high bar,” says Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. “We aren’t prepared to live with an open market where you can pack up and leave when you want.”

Some aren’t buying it. Berry says coaches are assuming that the one-time transfer exception will evolve into unlimited transfer, a theory that could further impact the annual football initial counter limit. Teams cannot add more than 25 new players in a year. For now, the NCAA is not adjusting the limit, though that topic is likely to be examined in the coming months. Some conferences have even proposed legislation that would allow schools to gain an additional new player for every transfer.

Intraconference transfers are another sticking point. Many leagues force players to sit a year when moving from one conference school to another. Conferences will have to adjust their own rules to mirror the NCAA’s new change. Already this year, the American, ACC and MAC lifted their intraconference transfer rule. The Pac-12 did so in 2019.

Given the expected high number of transferring players, the Academic Progress Rate will need adjustment too, officials say. It’s yet another unintended consequence of the transfer rule—one that, agree with it or not, will change the landscape of college sports forever.

“It’s no longer building for the future,” Kampe says. “The portal is going to be like the Brazilian steakhouse. The Michigans of the world will have a schmorgasboard. And at the end of next year and the next, they’re going to go back and get more steak.”

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