A Division I basketball coach was on the recruiting trail one day this summer. Except he wasn’t on the road in a high school gym watching AAU games. He was sitting at his desk on his computer, scrolling through the NCAA transfer portal.
“Speed dating,” he joked.
Unveiled on Oct. 15, the transfer portal is a database that contains the names of NCAA athletes in every sport who intend to transfer to another school. Nine months later, college football teams will open training camps this week with rosters reflecting this sweeping change. The ease with which athletes can transfer has resulted in thousands of names being entered into the database.
The NCAA created the portal to give athletes more control of their situations and make the transfer process more convenient and transparent. Coaches have compared the portal to a waiver wire used in professional sports, and they monitor it regularly — daily, maybe even hourly — as another recruiting source.
“Everybody’s looking hard at the transfer portal and how does that factor into your recruiting,” Penn State football coach James Franklin said. “It’s an interesting circumstance that we’re all in, but it’s where we’re at right now, and you better embrace it.”
In pre-portal days, an athlete needed permission from his or her coach to contact another school about transferring. Coaches could block or place restrictions on which schools the athlete could contact, which created public relations nightmares for schools if those tactics became public.
“That didn’t stop them from actually transferring, but a coach at a new school was not able to contact that kid to talk to them unless they had received that written permission,” said Jeremiah Carter, the Gophers’ director of compliance.
The portal eliminates the need for permission. Athletes seeking to transfer simply notify their compliance office and, by NCAA rule, their name must be entered in the portal within 48 hours. Coaches no longer have a say. Schools can contact that athlete once the name is registered.
Carter assumed leadership of the Gophers compliance office in 2015. He joked that one major change under the portal system is “I have to send a whole lot less paper.”
“I don’t know that we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of transfers [at Minnesota],” he said. “The only thing I can say for certain is it’s more public.”
The portal website is hidden from the general public, but athlete movement from school to school has become a highly visible aspect of college sports, whether it’s graduate transfers or via the transfer portal. The College Football Playoff likely will hinge on the play of quarterback transfers for teams ranked in the preseason top 10, specifically Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma via Alabama) and Justin Fields (Ohio State via Georgia).
Russell Wilson popularized the graduate transfer route when he led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl in his one season (2011) with the Badgers following three seasons at North Carolina State. Graduate transfers — those who have earned degrees but still have athletic eligibility remaining — are eligible to play immediately.
The portal has facilitated the process for undergraduate transfers because it removes coach interference while broadcasting to schools across the country that an athlete is fair game to recruit.
Compliance offices give passwords to the portal to coaches in the athletic department so they can access it. Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino said he has never looked at the portal, leaving that task to his assistants. Pitino also noted that he typically learns about a player leaving another school through social media.
“You’re going to know which guys pop up that you’re interested in,” he said. “You’re never going to log on to the transfer portal and be like [surprised], ‘Oh, John Smith is transferring.’ You’re going to know through Twitter. That’s more of a source.”
Football is different because there are so many more players to track.
“I think there’s been over 2,500 names entered in the portal,” Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio said. “You almost have to recruit that as well as your high school seniors.”
The eligibility debate
The portal is the first step. What happens next creates the most controversy.
NCAA rules require undergraduate Division I athletes to sit out a year of competition after transferring, unless the NCAA grants their eligibility waiver request due to circumstances such as a desire to be closer to a sick relative or an issue at their original school that affected their well-being.
One common complaint has been the NCAA’s inconsistent rulings in approving or denying these waiver requests. The NCAA is not obligated to provide a public explanation in ruling on waivers.
Gophers point guard Marcus Carr had his waiver denied last season after transferring from Pittsburgh following a coaching change, citing a “toxic environment.” Yet some transfers are given clearance to play right away.
“That’s where it became a slippery slope,” Pitino said.
Too slippery for some coaches.
“I think the spirit of the transfer portal in and of itself is a positive thing for players,” Alabama football coach Nick Saban said. “The issue with the transfer portal is we’ve gotten very liberal in giving people waivers, so, when we do that, it becomes free agency, which I don’t think is good for college football.”
Saban said he believes the NCAA should do away with waivers. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh argues just the opposite.
“My opinion is that every student-athlete should have a one-time ability to transfer and not have to sit out a year,” Harbaugh said. “And then if they were to transfer a second time, then the previous rule that we had, where you had to sit out a year of eligibility.”
Pitino said eliminating the one-year penalty likely would double the amount of transfers each year and move college sports closer to free agency.
“The only thing that is holding a lot of guys back is that one year of sitting out,” he said.
One key caveat
Athletes assume some risk by entering the portal, because not every athlete will find a new school and/or scholarship. And once they enter their name into the portal, their original school can pull their scholarship. Penn State’s Franklin said that is his policy.
“You enter the portal, you’re losing aid at the end of the semester,” Franklin said. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t come back, but if you’re looking, we’re looking. So you can’t be on the team, be looking around, shopping around, and now we’re stuck.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck called the portal “healthy for college football” because it gives athletes more control. But like other coaches, he hopes transferring doesn’t become a convenient escape from competing for a starting spot or dealing with adversity.
The portal also places a greater emphasis on player retention, Fleck said, since transferring has become an easier process.
“Now you’re in competition to keep all your players because of this transfer portal,” he said. “You got to make sure people at Minnesota love Minnesota. I want my players to think Minnesota is the greatest place in the world to be. Come to our training camp. It’s going to be like the State Fair every day.”