One year after landmark ruling, Michigan's Shea Patterson grateful for the struggle

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Shea Patterson just wanted to play football. He wanted to lead Michigan at quarterback — he hoped right away — after transferring from Ole Miss, where he said he was “lied to” and experienced a “catastrophic” situation.

But the journey wasn’t that easy. There was the NCAA’s entrenched “year-in-residence” rule that requires transfers to sit a year, and that blocked his path.

Shea Patterson

It recently passed without fanfare, the one-year anniversary that Patterson — teamed with a tenacious, leave-no-stone-unturned attorney and backed by a father who passionately supports his son and wanted to see an injustice reversed — was granted immediate eligibility after a grueling process challenging the NCAA. Patterson, who is a ferocious competitor but low-key in his every-day approach, unwittingly became the poster child for changes to the college transfer rules and sparked a new era in college athletics that a year later is front and center in the debate for NCAA rules reform.

Patterson, who had gone through spring practice with the Wolverines not knowing if he would be eligible to play in the fall, was about to leave for Michigan’s spring football trip in Paris when informed by his lawyer, Tom Mars, he would not have to sit out the season and could play immediately. A year later, Patterson is happier than he’s ever been playing with teammates and for coaches he deeply respects, for a program he grew up admiring.

“Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday and sometimes it feels like it was a lifetime ago because the process was so taxing,” Patterson told The Detroit News last week before the team’s departure for the annual spring trip, this time in South Africa.

Six players were transferring from under-probation Ole Miss, and the players’ parents reached out to Mars, who had well-publicized success representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in a defamation suit against the university. It quickly became clear that the case for Patterson, in part because he plays the most visible position in college football and was transferring to Michigan — a high-profile university and football program with an enormous fan base — would ideally lead the charge for Mars’ efforts to challenge the NCAA transfer rules on behalf of all the players.

This was not a role Patterson, who does not clamor for the spotlight, sought. But he and his father ultimately knew he needed to be at the forefront of a process that would gain national attention and apply pressure to the NCAA. 

“It could have been any one of the six Ole Miss transfers who stepped up and took the lead in what happened last year, but Shea was the most logical candidate for that role,” Mars told The News via text message. “Both Shea and his father understood there was an opportunity to create meaningful change in the NCAA transfer rules that could benefit student-athletes for years to come. Yet, neither one of them were eager to put the national spotlight on Shea regarding a topic that was so controversial. Shea doesn’t crave attention, and being the poster boy for transfer reform was the last thing he wanted while he was focused on learning Coach Harbaugh’s playbook.

“However, after some soul-searching and many conversations with his father, Shea agreed to put himself out there — not just for his own benefit, but also for his former Ole Miss teammates and other student-athletes who might benefit from a change in the transfer rules. Looking back on those grueling four months in early 2018, and what’s occurred since then, it’s clear that countless student-athletes are enjoying more freedom this year only because Shea had the courage to be the name and face behind an effort that ended up being a game-changer for student-athletes everywhere.”

'No guarantees'

Sean Patterson and his wife, Karen, sat down with their family to discuss Shea’s predicament. Had they known the situation at Ole Miss — coach Hugh Freeze lying to recruits, including Patterson, just before National Signing Day about the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations (the program would be placed on probation with a two-year football bowl ban) — Patterson would not have signed a scholarship.

Shea Patterson and Michigan have been picked by writers in a poll to win the Big Ten.

But Sean also knew they were heading into uncharted waters when they decided, along with five Ole Miss players and their families, to face a process that might not provide the desired response. Even with all of the evidence Mars had collected during the Nutt case and his reputation for finding the proverbial needle in the haystack that favorably turns cases his way, this was a completely different scenario.

“As good as Tom Mars is, there were no guarantees, because this is an NCAA rule,” Sean Patterson said. “It’s their rule. It’s not a court of law.”

Had it been a court of law, he believes his son would have received a waiver the first day.

Patterson would go on to lead the Wolverines and rode the highs and lows of a 10-3 season. Mostly, there were highs. A lot of them. Ten wins in a row. And he treasured those highlights even more because of the four months early last year that were so trying. He had arrived in Ann Arbor, 18 academic credits lighter, because Michigan would not allow their transfer from Ole Miss (that is being appealed) and moved into a dorm on a campus where he knew only one teammate. And he also knew there were no guarantees that he would be eligible, let alone win the starting job after learning an offense he had never before played.

“Really, all throughout the spring, I’d just be taking those reps, and I had the mindset, regardless if I was going to play, I was going to work my butt off,” Patterson said. “But there were some times you felt devastated. You’re working your butt off, you know you could be the guy, but these coaches have to get four other guys ready and the reps are split. The first two months were really tough on me. Fortunately, I’m very happy with the decision I made. There’s no better spot than Michigan for me. I’ve created so many relationships and bonds. Ultimately, it made me a stronger person because of the adversity I went through. Same with the other (Ole Miss) guys. It tested your faith.”

Because of Patterson, the NCAA last spring in its report revealed a modification to the “Division I Four-Year College Transfers Directive.” With that alteration, a player can transfer without restriction as long as there are “mitigating circumstances outside the student-athletes’ control.” It is referred to in some circles as “The Shea Patterson Rule.”

“It’s pretty cool,” Patterson, when asked how he feels when he hears that reference, said before pausing and chuckling. “But I’d like to find another name for it.”

Sean Patterson, whose youngest, Nick, is a tight end committed to Michigan’s 2020 recruiting class, still has friends in Mississippi but called the situation that led to Shea’s decision to transfer “volatile.”

But the aftermath wasn’t easy, either, as he and Shea, especially Shea, fielded what seemed like non-stop questions about whether he would be eligible right away. That wore on Shea.

“Going through it, it showed how competitive he is and how bad he wanted to be here and how he was just looking for a stable situation at Michigan, somewhere where he could actually start over,” Sean Patterson said. “Coach Harbaugh, the first time we spoke to him, he said there’s no pressure to get him eligible. He said, ‘If he’s not eligible, that’s fine with me. We just want to do what’s best for Shea the person. He’ll have a chance to play the following year.’”

Harbaugh and Michigan offered the stability Shea Patterson was seeking, and that’s what he has enjoyed. He completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns, and that was in a system that wasn’t ideally suited to him. Now, he is being developed for new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ up-tempo, pro-spread offense, similar to what he ran at Ole Miss and definitely more in tune with his skill set.

'You need integrity'

His journey to immediate eligibility seems at times, as he said, forever ago. But he has kept his eye on what has transpired since he received the positive ruling. There has been a tremendous uptick in the number of transferring players seeking immediately eligibility — quarterback Justin Fields transferring to Ohio State from Georgia and also represented by Mars was a major offseason move — and the NCAA transfer portal is also a new addition to the college football landscape.

Jim Harbaugh had to prepare for the possibility that Shea Patterson would not be ruled immediately eligible.

“They’re starting to realize that coming out of high school you’re told so many things by college coaches,” Shea Patterson said. “I know nothing is promised, but one thing you need, you need integrity from the coach. This whole process, a lot of it is being able to opt out of things they didn’t sign up for. At the end of day, it’s about the player, right? It’s cool to see that most of these transfers are going through, after that long process I went through.”

Still, Patterson is not of the opinion every player who wants to transfer should receive immediate eligibility. In fact, he’d prefer if people stopped lumping him in with players who have been ruled eligible and don’t seem to have a legitimate reason.

“I do get frustrated,” he said. “I do get tagged on some things on Twitter and see articles with my name linked with other players in the same category. Mine was a catastrophic situation. So it does hit me when I’m put in that category. If you choose a school for the right reasons and you were told the truth and you leave because you don’t like the competition, that’s something I don’t agree with. You have to have a really, really good reason to opt out of a commitment you made to a school. It took some guts for me. It took a leap of faith. I knew I had to get out of that situation. My goals were not attainable (because of NCAA probation and the bowl bans), and I didn’t know that when I made the decision. I was lied to (by Freeze).

“My only hesitancy (with widespread immediate eligibility), I don’t want it to look like guys can leave  just because they don’t want to compete. My only thing is, if you can’t control it and you were told otherwise beforehand about a situation (like at Ole Miss), then I agree with this whole thing.”

The way Patterson sees this, he would be in favor of a one-time transfer with immediate eligibility but thinks there should be some definitive categories.

“There needs to be a list of possible transfer reasons,” Patterson said. “I think you should have a list of things that are valid and invalid. There needs to be a two-sided list of things you can transfer for and not transfer for."

Looking ahead

The “Shea Patterson Rule,” the mitigating circumstances rules change, has given players who have transferred a chance to play immediately without the lengthy wait Patterson endured.

“This rule has given some kids an opportunity, if they were in a really bad situation, to leave,” Sean Patterson said. “There are other kids I’m sure back in the '70s, '80s, '90s who wish they had this opportunity because they were in a bad situation." 

Shea Patterson: "There’s no better spot than Michigan for me. I’ve created so many relationships and bonds."

Mars has received countless requests from parents of transferring players. So many, he can’t possibly handle all of them. He would like to share with other lawyers, during legal seminars, what he has learned these last 18 months. That way, student-athletes seeking representation will have options to hire attorneys who have been well-trained in these NCAA-related matters. Perhaps Mars will host one of these sessions in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. After all, that would be fitting considering his work with Shea Patterson, a Michigan student and quarterback, is what has changed the landscape of college football and encouraged public pressure on the NCAA to reconsider some of its rules.

This situation clearly was difficult for Shea Patterson, for his father, Sean, to watch his son go through this process, and it was tough for his family to endure the wait. He called Mars every day for more than three months looking for assurances and with pretty much the same question each time: Will he be eligible?

“It ended up, the outcome is that Shea maybe opened doors for kids, but that was not the intention we had,” Sean Patterson said. “If that’s what this leads to, I feel great about this. If one family can be helped, I’m all for it. The intention we had was to find a situation where my son was able to live his academic and athletic dream. The original intention for us was, why should my son be punished when all these things have happened that he didn’t have anything to do with? In my mind, I was always taught that teachers and coaches are always right. In this case (at Ole Miss), they were wrong."

While Shea Patterson would prefer that the “Shea Patterson Rule” have a revised name, he and his family know they and Mars will be forever linked in this important step in student-athletes’ rights.

“All I know, a year later, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Sean Patterson said. “It’s made Shea tough as nails. I’d do this all over again. It’s affected a lot of parents and student-athletes. And the cool thing is, he’s a Michigan Man. That’s his legacy. 

“The dust has settled, but Shea's a success story. Did they win every game? No, but did he play football at the most prestigious university? Yes. Did he meet new people and make great friends? Yes. Will he have a chance to live out his dream? He does now, but not before with all the distractions. You’re always going to have your critics, but that Michigan jersey means so much to him for what he went through. It’s Michigan. It’s that tradition. It’s those 100,000-plus fans. It’s the maize and blue. It’s stability, and that’s what Shea was looking for, and that’s what he found.”

Twitter: @chengelis