There is no shortage of hot button issues in college sports today. NIL, realignment, targeting – there are a lot of things to talk about during the football offseason. One of the biggest hot button topics of the day is the transfer portal. Every year more and more players decide to try their luck in the portal. Some find great landing spots with great teams. Some make what appear to be lateral moves. For many, the transfer portal is the figurative roach motel – players check in, but they never check out. Often the fans don’t hear the whole story. Were they a bad fit for the system? Did the coaches tell them they should move on? Did the player have an attitude problem or a poor work ethic? Did the players get bad advice from friends & family? Most of the time, we are left to speculate why some players never emerge.
Just when we thought the flurry of players entering the portal was ending, Jayden Daniels announced that he was leaving Arizona State, not long after announcing that he would return to the Sun Devils. We do know a little about the circumstances of his decision. ASU has been surrounded by drama since last offseason because of rules violations during the COVID dead period. When Daniels stated he would be back with Arizona State, there hadn’t been any announcements about changes stemming from the violations. Then multiple staff members, including the offensive coordinator, were permanently dismissed. Unsurprisingly, this caused Daniels to change his mind about transferring, and subsequent video of his Sun Devil teammates clearing out his locker for him made it clear they weren’t going to miss him.
It took Daniels less than three weeks to announce his transfer to LSU. This decision is as unusual as the timing of his entry to the portal. LSU is a higher-tier program than ASU. That’s not meant to be a swipe at Arizona State University, simply an objective observation. LSU has a higher national profile; it plays in a conference known to be more competitive and is a mere three seasons removed from a national championship. The bizarre component of Daniel’s decision is that he is far from being assured of a starting job in Baton Rouge. Myles Brennan elected to stay with the Tigers after briefly entering the portal himself. LSU has recruited two other players direct from high school in the last two classes who are well-regarded. While observers have made arguments that all four candidates have the potential to win the starting job for the 2022 season, it certainly seems most favor Brennan to begin the season in the first string at quarterback, which leaves us to speculate why Daniels chose LSU? Did he get an indication that he was likely to beat out Brennan? Is he betting on himself? Does he simply want to play at a higher-profile program?
Daniel’s transfer saga is a good sample of some of the oddities we have come to expect from portal movements. For many fans, it’s not just about their team losing good players who used to stay for a full career. The transfer portal represents drama. The opening of spring practices means we have a small break in the drama – most players looking to leave do it before their team’s spring schedule begins – but it won’t last. As spring practices wrap in April, we will see another wave of players hit the portal who aren’t happy with their place in the post-spring depth chart hit. This wave of entries will happen quickly. The only current deadline the NCAA currently has for the portal is that a student athlete must inform their current school that they are entering the portal by May 1 (for fall and winter sports). After that date, the NCAA will not guarantee the athlete will be eligible to play the next season. The player does not necessarily need to choose a destination by that date, simply put their name in the portal.
While there are breaks in transfer activity, it is becoming a year-round cycle. There are many opinions on the impact of the portal on the sport of college football. Some view the advent of the portal as long overdue. Prior to the portal, student athletes had to request permission to transfer from the head coach, who had the right to place multiple restrictions on the player’s movement. Other fans see the introduction of the portal as making things too easy – the deterrents to prevent transfers have been removed. They see the large increase in players leaving teams as damaging to the stability of the sport and the ability for programs to compete. Others point to the reality that a notable percentage of players who enter the portal never find new teams. Some careers that could have resulted in four seasons & a bachelor’s degree end after a season or two with little to show for it.
The debate about the transfer portal will no doubt continue, but I think one thing that needs to be understood by all is that the NCAA will not be reversing any decisions made in the past decade regarding freedom of movement for players. The portal is not going away. The rules change that allows a player one free transfer without sitting out a season isn’t going away. It’s fine for a fan to say those changes should be made – I have supported the advent of the portal, but still feel it was a mistake to allow players a free transfer before graduation – but the portal and the free transfer are a part of our new reality in college football, and it is futile to daydream about things that aren’t going to happen.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways that the NCAA can improve the situation around the transfer portal to improve the overall health of the sport and help the many athletes who wish to seek transfer. Here are a few ideas the NCAA should consider:
Add structure to the transfer calendar: As we said earlier, there is only one true deadline for the portal – the May 1st date for entering the portal to be guaranteed eligibility for the following fall season. This is in stark contrast to the very detailed calendar put in place for high school recruiting, which includes multiple dead periods, two separate signing days and a litany of rules regarding official visits, unofficial visits, communications, etc. Very few of these rules apply to transfer candidates looking for a new school. Placing some more restrictions on when a player can enter the portal, when they can begin signing with new schools, deadlines for signing with new schools, and other similar measures can bring more structure and less chaos to the portal. These “windows” won’t solve all the problems. We can put a window in place that requires all players to wait until the end of the regular season to officially enter the portal, but that won’t stop players from leaving teams to announce that they will enter the portal at the end of the season, especially if they want to avoid playing more than four games so the season is a redshirt. What these windows can potentially accomplish is help organize the calendar for coaches. Right now, as soon as the season ends, coaches must address changes to their staffs, high school recruits looking to sign by the early signing day, address transfers who want to join teams as soon as possible, and possibly prepare for a bowl game, maybe even a playoff game, all in a few short weeks. I know transfers want to sign as quickly as possible to join their new teams for the spring semester and participate in spring training, but it would likely be better for the overall health of the game and most of the kids in the portal to make it simpler for coaches. Many coaches have stated that they are hesitant to just accept transfers that they haven’t had a chance to study or meet. Given the sheer number of players in the portal, coaches & staffs tend to defer towards players they were considering when they came out of high school. Organizing the calendar for the coaches can make it more likely they have the time to assess other players in the portal that they don’t already know, thus giving more portal players more opportunities.
Combine events for players in the portal: Just like there is contrast between the very detailed high school recruiting calendar and the wide-open transfer recruiting calendar, there is a huge difference between the ways high school players can get in front of recruiters & analysts and the options available for transfers. There are a multitude of high school combines where recruits can work out in front of coaches and scouts to both get noticed and show how they can perform against better competition than they would typically face in their local high school football games. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any comparable combines available to portal players. I’m the first to admit I do not know the finances surrounding the high school combines. I think some are funded by recruiting services, others are probably independent businesses that charge both attendees and observers for attendance. For a transfer portal combine to be possible, someone must pay the bills. They must benefit from it enough that it is worthwhile to put it together. This may be the barrier standing in the way, but with the number of teams, especially through the Group of Five, that are taking several transfers, I would think that eventually conferences would see the “profit” in offering combine events that their member schools could attend to see players who are looking for a new home.
Eliminate the early signing day for high school students: This is one that has been gaining some support of late, for several reasons. I supported the early signing day. I thought it was a great way for teams to get the majority of their high school recruits signed so they could spend more time focusing on the players who weren’t completely sure where they wanted to commit. I thought it would also help fans who were frustrated with players who “commit” but weren’t really committed. With an early signing day, fans would understand who was really committed and who was still considering their options. It just hasn’t worked out, however. Most players have leaned towards signing in December instead of February. While early signing day was intended to be an easy day for coaching staffs, it instead shifted the bulk of the work from February to December when coaches are dealing with all the other things we mentioned earlier. It has also caused some programs to rush on firing some coaches so they can get a head start on hiring their replacements and having them in place well before early signing day. This rush to make coaching changes has come full circle with recruits as well – the number who realize that it is wiser to wait until February to make sure that the coaches they prefer don’t move as been increasing. I think if we eliminate early signing day, the high school recruiting frenzy moves out of the very busy December season. It may frustrate some fans who sweat their big recruits sticking to their verbal commitment, but it would be best for coaches, it would be best for high school recruits and ultimately would be best for transfers who may not get looks from programs whose attention is directed elsewhere in December.
Create incentives to not transfer: The portal didn’t make players want to transfer, it just made it hassle-free. Before the portal, players had to go through a lot of red-tape and restrictions, and possibly face a lot of intimidation from their current coaches. I think it is safe to say that there were a lot of players twenty years ago who wanted to transfer but the deterrents prevented them from pursuing it. The portal and rule change eliminating sitting out may have removed the deterrents, but perhaps the NCAA can introduce some positive reinforcement to convince players to stick it out at their current schools.
As I said earlier, the transfer portal is reality. The free transfer is reality. The NCAA isn’t going to backtrack. We can continue to complain about this new reality, or we can work to improve it within the framework of what is possible and realistic. I do think some of these ideas already have enough support from people within college sports and from those that cover the sport professionally to become a reality, and I am looking forward to that. I support the college athlete’s right to movement between programs, but the number of players entering the portal who never emerge is discouraging, and I want to see as many of them as possible get opportunities to continue their college career & education.