Former Gophers quarterback Max Shortell has a strong arm and good grades, but under current NCAA rules, he'll be ineligible to play for another top-division program next season after transferring from Minnesota.
In coming years, however, athletes with Shortell's grade-point average might not have the same restriction.
The NCAA is considering a rule change that would permit athletes to compete immediately for any school after transferring -- if they carry a 2.6 GPA or better. This is among many topics that will be discussed when the annual NCAA Convention opens Wednesday in Grapevine, Texas.
The transfer legislation is still in the early stages, but one timeline, published internally by the NCAA, suggests a proposal could be presented by the organization's Leadership Council to its Board of Directors by August. That means athletes could be able to transfer under the new rules by the fall of 2014.
"We're still collecting data, research and framing the issues," said Northeast Conference Commissioner Noreen Morris, who chairs the Leadership Council. "The NCAA staff came up with [the 2.6 GPA benchmark] as a concept, and said, 'Here's something you might want to think about.'"
The potential change has appeal for Shortell and other athletes seeking more freedom under NCAA rules. But coaches and administrators fear it could lead to a flurry of students transferring just to change teams.
"I assume it'd be like a free agent market, probably," Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith said. "That's [the NCAA's] big mantra now, to look out for the student-athletes. They already blame [coaches] for the transfers; I wonder who they're going to blame when the transferring doubles."
Athletes on the move
Student-athletes are allowed to transfer once and compete immediately in all sports except football, basketball, baseball and men's ice hockey. Those sports aren't given the exemption because studies show that when athletes from those sports transfer, they are far less likely to graduate.
But research also shows that athletes who transfer with a 2.6 GPA or above are just as likely to graduate as those who stay at their original school. That's why the NCAA picked 2.6 as the benchmark for its Academic Progress Report (APR). A program loses points toward its APR if a student transfers with a GPA below 2.6.
"We thought, should we think about somehow connecting that number to the transfer [eligibility] rules as well?" Morris said. "Is that the right number? We said we need more information."
Shortell's father, Dr. Tom Shortell, believes a better benchmark for the one-time exemption would be a 3.0 GPA. Max Shortell was an Academic All-Big Ten selection and carries a 3.3 GPA. Originally recruited by former Gophers coach Tim Brewster, Shortell stuck with his commitment after the university replaced Brewster with Jerry Kill in December of 2010.
Shortell started two games as a freshman in 2011 and three more as a sophomore but announced his plans to transfer in December, after Kill turned to freshman quarterback Philip Nelson to start the regular season's final six games.
To play right away next season, Shortell would have to transfer down at least to a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) school. If Shortell could stay at the top level and transfer to a Football Bowl Subdivision school? Well, Texas is an example of a team reportedly looking for a quarterback who can transfer into the program and play right away.
"I'm not saying [Max] was interested in them, or they were interested in him, but they run a pro-style offense," Tom Shortell said. "They need a quarterback for next September, but Max has to lay out a year. Why is he punished for that? To me, the problem is these coaches can switch jobs at any time, and they don't really realize the ramifications this can have on the kids."
Process playing out
At this week's convention, a Leadership Council subcommittee is expected to review more transfer data and continue discussing potential changes. J.T. Bruett, the University of Minnesota's director of athletic compliance, anticipates a four- or five-month window during which the NCAA would seek feedback from coaches and administrators.
"The transfer procedures at the NCAA Division I level have been in place for quite a while," Bruett said. "So to all of a sudden do a reversal here and allow student-athletes [with a GPA of 2.6 or better] to transfer without penalty, that would be a significant change."
With looser transfer restrictions, lower-level schools could run the risk of becoming feeder programs for the NCAA's elite.
"That's one of our biggest concerns from the Northeast Conference," said Morris, whose league includes Monmouth and Farleigh Dickinson. "We recruit the student-athletes who may not have been recruited by a quote-unquote higher-level league. If we bring them in, develop them, and all of a sudden, other schools are interested, they may feel like they want to play big-time."
Of course, as North Dakota State athletic director Gene Taylor said, that already happens today, with transfers simply accepting they have to sit out one year, where applicable.
Taylor said he'd be nervous if athletes were free to transfer "carte blanche." But he added, "We're in this business for the student-athletes, and I think we do have rules where you scratch your head sometimes and say, 'That's not really fair.'"