Niyo: NCAA sure to fumble new transfer rules

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Coaches aren’t big on compromises. But compromise is, as the old saying goes, the best and cheapest lawyer.

So with the façade of amateurism crumbling around college sports and landscape-changing lawsuits looming — beyond Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama, there’s also Jenkins v. NCAA — that’s what we’ll likely get eventually: Another compromise.

One that keeps the coaches in control and the employees — or “student-athletes” — in check, relatively speaking.

The NCAA working group tasked with finding a better solution to the supposed transfer “epidemic” in college athletics recommended a few changes this week, the powerful Division I Council is expected to vote on them at its June meeting in Indianapolis.

But the group tabled any more talk until the new college basketball commission chaired by Condoleeza Rice releases its report next week, another admission that the bigger problems are still perplexing to those in power.

“How complicated could this be? It’s about students changing schools,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said last month at the Final Four. “And yet I’ve never seen anything that’s quite as intractable a problem as this one, because you just can’t get agreement.”

That it’s the fourth incarnation of this working group only speaks to the underlying tug-of-war here.

“This is a bit of a poster child for the idea that, we see we have a problem in the NCAA, and then we study it and study it and nothing happens,” said University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler, chairman of the Division I board of directors. “And we have to own that.”

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Of course, ownership is at the heart of the problem here, possession being nine-tenths of the law and all of that. The athletes want freedom and justice for all, and the folks in charge of this multibillion-dollar industry are clinging to the status quo — their arguments mostly just rationalizations to that end.

So while common sense says the current arrangement is all wrong, don’t expect the NCAA — with too many stakeholders and too many agendas — to get this right in the end.


Short of unrestricted free agency — a non-starter for everyone but the players — the most sensible recommendations actually have come out of the Big 12 Conference, courtesy of a law professor at Baylor and a molecular pharmacologist at Iowa State.

They’ve called for eliminating the ridiculous restrictions that coaches — and universities and conferences — are able to put on would-be transfers, limiting where they can go once they’ve decided they’re leaving. No more “permission to contact” forms or any of that nonsense.

There are countless cases of coaches and athletic departments playing keep-away with players’ lives, only to be shamed into doing the right thing by media coverage. Pittsburgh tried to block Cameron Johnson’s transfer to North Carolina in basketball. Kansas State’s Bill Snyder initially refused to give a release to wide receiver Corey Sutton, airing his dirty laundry in the process. Michigan’s John Beilein didn’t want Spike Albrecht playing at Purdue. A couple years ago, Alabama’s Nick Saban, the king of college football, tried to fight the graduate transfer of Maurice Smith to Georgia, a move the SEC ultimately approved.

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"Why should a guy leave your team and go play for somebody else and you have to play against them?” Saban whined. “I don’t think that’s fair.”

That’s fairly laughable, as arguments go. And give the NCAA credit for finally admitting as much. It’s one of the few recommendations the working group managed to pass along this week.

The Big 12 proposal also suggests allowing immediate eligibility for players transferring out of a program that’s hit with a postseason ban for NCAA rules violations. A change that would’ve kept new Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson out of limbo this spring after leaving behind the mess at Ole Miss. Again, that makes too much sense not to adopt, right?

But what about players who want to leave when the head coach that recruited them leaves, or gets fired? That’s another idea that’s not as widely endorsed, even though only a handful of sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and hockey — require athletes to sit out a transfer year, and certainly nobody’s suggesting coaches should do the same.

“My thought process is this: If I were to have to leave Northwestern, I would have to pay a buyout,” said Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, who reportedly earns $3.3 million annually with what his athletic director terms a “cost-prohibitive” buyout. “So there’s a lot of skin in that game. Everybody says you can leave for free as a coach. You can’t. So let’s take that aside.”

Let’s not, though. Because those buyouts are a two-way street, serving as a deterrent to coaches thinking about “transferring” but also a golden parachute whenever a school and its influential booster club decides to send them packing.


The players don’t have that luxury, obviously. And that’s the real problem here, a third rail the NCAA and its member schools absolutely won’t touch until a court forces their hand. If you compensated the players like employees, at least in the revenue-generating sports, then there’d be fewer objections to treating them as such.

Instead, we’ll have to listen to coaches and administrators shrieking about some of the other proposed changes, including one that would let players transfer without sitting out a “year-in-residence” if they met certain academic benchmarks, such as a 3.0 GPA.

That’d be a step closer to free agency, though, and coaches are quick to point to all the unintended consequences. Power 5 schools tampering and raiding smaller programs, particularly in football and basketball. Graduate transfer rules getting exploited. Coaches dealing with even more roster upheaval. Concerns about graduation rates.

They’re all legitimate issues, and basketball coaches have a much stronger argument here, as Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser noted at the Final Four, saying mid-major programs are “just going to be a farm system” if transfer restrictions are lifted. But Nebraska’s new head football coach, Scott Frost, also says it’ll “open up a can of worms” and worries it could be a “disaster” if some of these changes are adopted in his sport.

“I’d just hate to see it be the Wild West and kids being able to jump from one school to another and another,” he adds. “It’d make it really hard to manage rosters and to coach the kids.”

Mind you, Frost, the reigning national coach of the year, is finishing up spring practice at his third different university in four years, having jumped from one school (Oregon) to another (Central Florida) and another (Nebraska) in search of a better opportunity.

In all, 21 FBS programs replaced head coaches this offseason, which equates to a 16.2 percent. The transfer rate for FBS players was 4.1 percent in 2016, the last year the NCAA has compiled the numbers.

“I hope people think about the consequences of where it might lead,” Frost added, “before they take quick action and adopt a rule that could lead to a lot bigger problems.”

Problems for whom, though? That’s really the issue here, same as it ever was.