When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said last summer at Big Ten media days he believes in a no-questions-asked, one-time transfer without the penalty of sitting out a year, it created a buzz and attached a high-profile coach to a topic that has generated considerable discussion.
He clearly had given the subject some thought. In the case of a second transfer, he said the year-in-residence rule requiring a player to sit a year, would be applied, and the graduate transfer rule, allowing a graduating player with eligibility to transfer freely, would be untouched.
Harbaugh’s one-time transfer approach would eliminate players filing waiver appeals, which can take enormous amounts of time for the student-athlete and their families, and would also relieve the NCAA from the extra burden of examining the growing number of appeals.
“I am clearly advocating for rights that college football players have not had,” Harbaugh said last July. “It would be good to just have a clear, concise (rule) where everybody understands what the ramifications are. I think that would be a fair way to proceed.”
Establishing a clear rule implemented consistently – and across the board for all sports – is the one point on which every football coach The Detroit News interviewed during the last football season agreed. They want transparency. They want consistency. But not all fully embraced Harbaugh’s pitch. Many coaches believe a one-time transfer without sitting would discourage players from pushing through adversity that might provide valuable life lessons, a tenet of college football.
Washington State coach Mike Leach is wary of the NCAA bureaucracy and wants the governing body to scale back the complicated rules, like the transfer issue, and simplify and offer clarity.
“A lot of these NCAA manuals and rules, they’re not written by lawyers. They’re written by people pretending to be lawyers,” Leach said during a lengthy conversation. “And the only thing more annoying than a lawyer is someone pretending to be a lawyer, and I’ve got a law degree, so I know something about it. Without all the pretend lawyers, all of a sudden that manual would be about a third of what it is right now.
“Football’s first reaction to everything is, ‘We need a rule. Well let’s have rule.’ And then pretty soon you have to have rules to adjust all the rules because it wasn’t that good of a rule to begin with. But instead of getting rid of it, you’re just going to add a rule upon a rule. It’s like the ugly picture on the wall that they keep trying to straighten.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen seemed to favor Harbaugh’s proposal but also would be fine with reverting to the year-in-residence rule obligating the student-athlete to sit out the season after a transfer. The bottom line – he wants whatever the decision to be consistently applied.
“I do have a strong stance that it should definitely be one way or the other, and that eliminates a lot of questions,” Mullen said. “You have young men come to speak to you and say, ‘Coach, I’m thinking about transferring and I’m going to be immediately eligible because I can file a waiver,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not sure that’s going to be the case for you,’ and they’re not afterward and some are.
“Obviously, I don’t know the specifics on how the decisions get made and have every fact about every case, but I read one case that looks legitimate, this guy should get a waiver and be eligible, and he’s not eligible, and another one, ah, he should probably have to sit, and they’re eligible. For the coaches, for the players, for, really, the integrity of college football, it should be one or the other.”
Mullen conceded that he’d be fine if the one-time transfer Harbaugh backs is adopted.
“‘Hey, if I don’t fit in this program, I have a one-time opportunity to transfer and be immediately eligible,’” Mullen said, describing what a player might think. “There’s consistency for guys that want to transfer that you know there’s no waiver. It’s cut and dry, either you’re going to be immediately eligible or you’re going to have to sit. I would be in favor of it being consistent and us knowing exactly what’s going to happen.”
Before last season, the NCAA denied a waiver appeal for Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald, who transferred from Boston College, where BGSU coach Scot Loeffler had worked as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. McDonald sat out the 2019 season and has two remaining years of eligibility.
Loeffler described an all-consuming, draining process that desperately needs tweaking. Even if McDonald had been approved, Loeffler said he would still be lobbying for reform.
“The experience I’ve been through was, No. 1, the time and energy from Matt’s parents, Boston College, the time and energy from our university – my whole summer was occupied by this,” Loeffler said. “I’m on vacation and on the phone with people for three hours a day. The time and energy that goes into this from even the NCAA’s part is mind-boggling. There’s got to be a better way.
“And then No. 2, there’s zero consistency. There are guys’ cases that are very similar, and one kid gets a waiver, one kid doesn’t. The consistency, there is none. Going through it was miserable.”
Attorney Tom Mars is nationally considered the authoritative voice on transfers and immediate-eligibility waiver appeals. His impact has been so significant he made the New York Post’s list of the “20 Most Powerful People in College Sports” last fall. During the past two-plus years, he successfully ensured immediate eligibility for several athletes, most notably Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, who brought this issue to the fore when he transferred from Ole Miss and enlisted Mars’ help, and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
Shortly after McDonald was denied immediate eligibility, Mars told the Toledo Blade the NCAA rules regarding transfers and eligibility were so incomprehensibly layered that they are the “legislative equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster – the product of constant amendments by the Legislative Council that were stitched together without regard to the consequences of what they were creating.”
He is a strong advocate for the rights of student-athletes and believes the NCAA should – and will – soon move to allow a one-time transfer without penalty. Mars said in a text to The Detroit News last fall that there was a time he was confident in his ability predict transfer waiver outcomes. That changed with the inexplicable inconsistencies of rulings.
Two of the most head-scratching decisions came last summer, when tight end Luke Ford, who transferred from Georgia to Illinois so his ailing grandfather could watch him play in person, was not granted immediate eligibility. Illinois and Georgia fans, who were widely supportive, had started a “Free Luke Ford” campaign on social media. And then there was Virginia Tech offensive lineman Brock Hoffman. Hoffman’s situation generated plenty of headlines when he transferred from Coastal Carolina to Virginia Tech so he could be closer to his mother, who had a non-cancerous tumor removed before his freshman season. The issue for the NCAA, reportedly, was that he asked for the transfer two years after her diagnosis. His immediately eligibility was denied.
“My confidence has waned to the point where I have more confidence predicting the outcome of my next bet on a slot machine,” said Mars, who is in private practice at his Mars Law Firm and last summer joined the NCAA’s newly formed “Complex Case Unit.” “Whenever it becomes that difficult to predict an outcome in any rules-based system, the whole world becomes a grey area. And when that happens, every decision can be seen by observers as arbitrary and capricious. That’s what’s happened here, and this can’t be allowed to continue.
“The complete absence of predictability with transfer waivers requires that the Legislative Council adopt a ‘one-time transfer without penalty’ rule or some other rule that allows for the kind of predictability that our country’s laws provide. Unless the members of the Legislative Council Act quickly, I predict the NCAA will soon be seen by the vast majority of fans, sports writers, and commentators as the collegiate sports equivalent of a banana republic. And let’s not kids ourselves for the sake of being polite; based on the inexplicable decisions in a number of recent waiver requests, there are many people in the college sports community who feel that way already. That can’t be healthy for the future of collegiate sports.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sits on the American Football Coaches Association Board of Trustees representing the Big Ten. The board discusses issues like this every offseason, and he said the coaches all believe players should have the opportunity to transfer – period.
His take on this, however, is completely opposite Harbaugh’s.
“It’s my opinion that every athlete should have to sit out,” Fitzgerald said. “The numbers show that graduation rates go down when you transfer. This gives every student-athlete an opportunity to get academically healthy. It gives every student-athlete an opportunity to get to know the new group of teammates that they’re gonna have and get into their new environment, and then when they graduate they get an opportunity to get that year back, so they never lose anything athletically.”
Like every coach, Fitzgerald wants clarity in the rules.
“The lack of transparency and, quite frankly, the lack of understanding why some young people are eligible and some are not right away, we just can’t have that type of world,” he said. “It’s not fair to the student-athletes, it’s not fair to their families, it’s not fair to the schools that are losing the player and not fair to schools that are gaining the player.
“There was nothing wrong when you had to sit a year. Nobody complained, there were no issues. We should look back in time instead of saying, ‘Well, this was wrong in the past because coaches restricted (transfers).’ No, not every coach restricted. That’s not true. Some coaches chose to. I’ve been in this role 14 years and I never restricted a player from transferring.
“I don’t think having kids eligible right away is the right thing to do. I think that sometimes it gets hard – during my freshman year (at Northwestern), I was not happy. I thought about transferring. I called home and my dad said, ‘Hey, son, if that’s really what you want to do, that’s fine.’ I was like, ‘Great, come pick me up.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, no, you’re making a big-boy decision, you get home on your own.’ It was amazing how I decided to stay and everything worked itself out.”
Perhaps that can be chalked up to an old-school approach. Maybe Harbaugh’s is new school. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel arrived at Michigan from New Orleans to play for Bo Schembechler. He was homesick.
“The first couple days in the dorm room I cried like a baby after practice,” Manuel said. “I’m tired, I’m worn out, I got my butt kicked all day, I’m 1,000 miles away from home. Not once did I call my parents, because had I called my dad or had I talked to my mom and she informed my dad, I would have been thoroughly cursed out. That’s part of life. That’s part of transition.”
But Manuel also sees Harbaugh’s point.
“I’m more and more moving to that,” Manuel said. “But I also feel that we’re getting to a point in this development of young people where we’re allowing people to transfer because it’s difficult, because they’re tough on me, or it’s tougher than I thought it would be or they’re not starting me, they’re telling me I have to work harder to be better. No. We are allowing kids to make decisions about the rest of their lives based on four or five months, based on maybe eight months of a school year where it’s been tough. It is a transition.”
The general consensus among coaches, it seems, is this: The NCAA must make a clear-cut rule and stop the insanity.
“If it was Coach Harbaugh’s way or Coach Fitzgerald’s way, one way or the other, I wouldn’t have wasted countless hours away from my family, countless hours away from my team,” Loeffler said. “Who they decided was allowed and who wasn’t is mind-boggling. If you were in a court of law, it’s pretty clear cut. There is no court of law. It’s an opinionated group of people that are trying to follow, I guess, rules, but the rules are inconsistent.”
While there had been plenty of debate regarding the transfer rules, Harbaugh put the spotlight on the topic last July when he raised his proposal at the Big Ten media days. It got attention and at the very least, he sparked even more discussion, putting the student-athlete at the forefront. Shortly after, he was engaged in a heated back and forth with Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell over Michigan transfer James Hudson that would have been avoided if the one-time transfer, no penalty, was in place.
“I’m glad there’s dialogue on it because in this PC society people are so afraid to have any dialogue and you’re not going to purge bad ideas and elevate good ideas unless there’s a lot of dialogue,” Leach said. “You’ll never find it unless both sides aren’t afraid to contradict one another. That’s how things are solved is through embracing contradictions.
“I can promise you the NCAA is going to change the rule. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but they love changing rules.”
The hope among coaches, at least, is that the NCAA makes a change and gets it right by making it clear and consistently applied. That’s all they ask.