SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to the NCAA’s transfer portal, Utah director of athletics Mark Harlan has a pretty good understanding of how things are supposed to work. He’s well-versed in its genesis and roots.
In late 2016, during his tenure as athletic director at South Florida, Harlan was appointed to the NCAA transfer working group. He joined other administrators, student-athletes, faculty reps, NCAA staffers and coaches on a committee charged with examining issues related to transfers. Such matters, including institutions blocking student-athlete moves to certain schools, had come under greater scrutiny in recent years. Task forces were formed.
Harlan’s group explored all the issues that led to a few adjustments over two years of work. Transparency and eliminating confusion were among the priorities. An increase in graduate transfers and a great outcome in terms of accompanying academic changes have altered the landscape. A belief that graduates had earned the right to switch schools has made previous requirements, like a year in residency, fall by the wayside. Harlan noted that numbers climb each year and are always being studied and reviewed.
“For many years, going back to the beginning of college athletics — that’s how far back it goes — we’ve certainly had student-athletes that have wanted to transfer to other institutions,” he said. “Just general student-body transfers. Nothing unique in that regard.”
The process has been fairly clear for quite some time. Transfers must sit out for one year. Such is the case in football, basketball (men and women), baseball and ice hockey, unless waivers are granted for personal reasons like health and safety.
In all other sports, student-athletes can transfer and be immediately eligible once in their collegiate careers — subject to conference restrictions.
Several recommendations by the transfer group have been adopted by the NCAA’s governing body, starting with it no longer being acceptable for schools to block athletes wanting to switch programs.
“Without question that was the most significant outcome of the transfer working group in my opinion,” Harlan said. “Now a young person can come in and say 'I’m going to transfer' and the school does not have a right to say where they go.”
Conference rules still apply, however. In the Pac-12, for example, non-graduate transfers must sit out one year but do not lose eligibility.
Another reform looks at how the transfer process is navigated. Harlan noted that the committee believed (and is backed by data) that certain transparency is needed.
“It was difficult for a young person that perhaps wanted to go to be able to let another school know that he or she was going to transfer,” Harlan said. “They didn’t know where to call. There maybe weren’t advocates.”
The working group, he emphasized, looked at all NCAA-sponsored sports and not just football and basketball. It led to the creation of a database. After informing the school of a desire to transfer, the request is uploaded for each sport — complete with contact information and such things as remaining eligibility.
In October 2018, the so-called NCAA transfer portal was born. The creation followed recommendations and adoption that was voted upon. It includes provisions to keep a competitive balance and rosters understood.
“If a young person comes in and says 'I’m going to transfer,' the school now is disadvantaged. By definition, they’ve lost a roster spot,” Harlan said. “The moment that you notify the compliance department at your school that you’re at and your name is entered into the NCAA transfer database, the school retains the scholarship. The young person gets the scholarship through that term or semester when the request is made.
“That’s the give-back, so the school can move on and the young person can move on,” Harlan said. “So that’s the seesaw that you need to always balance.”
The process will likely be tweaked as time passes. Data is constantly evaluated as changes are made in the NCAA. The transfer portal, after all, is still less than a year old. During that time, Harlan has left the working group. His move to Utah necessitated a release because the Pac-12 was already represented by Rick George of Colorado.
Overall, Harlan believes the process is more streamlined and more transparent. He would like to see a system where coaches and athletes can better communicate. That’s the hope, even if it can’t be legislated.
“There’s a lot that I like about the system. I think transparency is always a good thing. I think educating the students is always a good thing and I certainly believe if a student doesn’t want to be here, there should be a route for them to go,” Harlan said. “But around all of that there needs to be conversations that occur to make sure the students know exactly what’s going on. So there’s definitely a lot to it.”
At present, there are hundreds of athletes in the database without places to play. An ESPN.com report in April estimated more than 500 men’s basketball players are in the portal. In May, a CBSSports.com examination estimated more than 700 football players were in the system.
“There’s no guarantees and so you’ve really got to be thoughtful about what you’re managing at your own school before you go,” Harlan said. “I think those conversations need to continue to happen at an industry level.”
Harlan wonders if it’s creating an environment where some student-athletes are opting to leave instead of sticking challenging times out. There’s no such data, yet, but it’s a concern.
“That’s part of the maturation process and if folks are going to the portal to avoid that struggle then I don’t know if we’re really doing anybody any favors,” Harlan said.
Transfers are also a two-way street. The portal makes it much easier to find such athletes, although Harlan believes most coaches prefer building programs with incoming freshmen.
“We’ve always been on the lookout for transfers,” he said. “Now there’s just an ease to it and if there’s an ease to it you’re going to gravitate toward that.”
Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said the transfer portal has actually made recruiting more complicated because there is no longer just two signing days (December and February). There was a huge influx of players interested in transferring after spring ball, unhappy with where they are on the depth chart.
“You better have some scholarships available beyond the signing day because there’s some good players in there,” Whittingham said. “We took advantage of that ourselves and so it’s caused you to hold back some scholarships for not only guys in the transfer portal but grad transfers. Recruiting now is literally every day of the year, 365 days a year.”
Whittingham said additions are still being made for the upcoming season.
“It’s going to take some getting used to, I can tell you that,” he noted.
The transfer portal, Whittingham continued, was kind of a novelty in its first year of existence. He thinks activity may be reduced in the future as everyone becomes more educated about the process.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out,” Whittingham said. “I know right now there are literally hundreds of athletes in the portal with nowhere to go at this point in time.”
That being the case, there’s a lot of guys in limbo.
“You hate to see that happen with kids ending up with nowhere to go,” Whittingham said. “So be careful what you wish for, I guess.”
Barring a few exceptions, Whittingham noted that most coaches he knows and has spoken with have said that once you’re in the portal, you’re done at the university you’re coming from. It doesn’t fly to shop around for a better deal and then come back.
As for the transfer portal, in general, Whittingham thinks its ultimate impact is to be determined.
“I’m all for the players and it’s all about the players and they’re the absolute priority in college football. So everything should be geared toward them,” he said. “But sometimes you’ve got to protect people from themselves. So we’ll see how it goes.”
Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts believes change was inevitable, especially when it comes to transparency in the transfer process. There was going to be a shift. The concern, though, is that it would become kind of like free agency.
“The rich would get richer. Just like anything else in sports,” said Roberts, who added that things are moving that direction anyway. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
The transfer portal, she continued, is what it is.
“I do think it makes transferring easier for kids. You don’t even have to have a discussion with your coach if you don’t want to,” Roberts said. “It changes the dynamic. It certainly changes how we have to operate in terms of retention.”
Roberts said they’re learning that the player rarely acts independently. As such, it’s important to have a pulse on the athletes as well as their circle of influence.
The added workload is changing the game.
“I’m learning this and sometimes you have to learn things the hard way, but you have to recruit kids whose circle of influence you can tell are going to stick with challenges,” Roberts said.
Just like anything involving a change in policy, she explained, you have to adapt. Coaches that fail to do so to the new transfer-friendly society are going to end up failing. You have to adapt and figure it out.
“The flip side of the coin is maybe you can recruit some transfers,” Roberts said.
Even that, however, is evolving. As Whittingham explained, the transfer portal has changed the process.
“Ideally I’d love to have three or four five-star freshmen every year. But that’s not the reality typically,” Roberts said. “So transfer recruiting is very real and we’re getting in the game. We’d be stupid not to.”
The bottom line, in her opinion, is that the transfer portal is not perfect yet. Things will swing from one extreme to another before it finds a happy medium.
In the meantime, it’s all about getting in and adapting. Otherwise, Roberts said, you’re not going to be successful.
Utah State athletic director John Hartwell expressed a belief that there needs to be continued adjustments. Transfers for valid reasons — such as being close to a terminally ill family member — should be “absolutely” granted.
“Whether he’s the last guy in or a starter, it’s more about having compassion for a human being,” Hartwell said.
On the flip side, Hartwell expressed concern about student-athletes who were under-recruited initially and then seek a transfer to a Power Five school for more exposure after a school like Utah State took a chance on them and invested time. Hartwell acknowledged it's frustrating.
Even though student-athletes from across the nation have sought transfers for a variety of reasons for many years, Hartwell said the portal has brought more attention and focus to the situation.
“You can log in there and see everything and anything,” he explained.
There’s no shortage of talent. Hartwell noted that there’s an average of more than two portal entries per program in Division I basketball. That’s a pretty high turnover, considering schools have 13 scholarships.
To combat the situation, Hartwell said that Utah State tries to have an exit interview with every student-athlete who decides to go elsewhere. Was it about playing time? A family situation? What exactly was it?
“So we can learn from it and try and reduce the amount of turnover,” Hartwell said.
Before the transfer portal was out there for everybody, he noted there was a better chance for the coach and the student-athlete to have a discussion before a move was made — providing all involved with a fairly true evaluation.
“Coaches want to know their players are 100 percent invested and when student-athletes press that button and enter the portal, for whatever reason, it becomes a difficult situation,” Hartwell said. “We’ve dealt with that here — maybe three or four weeks in after a student-athlete sticks his toes in the water, he decides he wants to stay — but that makes things difficult because then the coach wonders how committed he really is.”
There are additional challenges. BYU football coach Kalani Sitake noted that academics can make things hard.
“We can look into the transfer portal but we have to see their transcripts and what their grades are, even if they are graduate transfers. Attrition is part of college football. It’s always been there. There’s been transfers every year at every program. That just happens,” Sitake said. “What’s great about the transfer portal is it allows kids to put their names out there and get recruited.
"Before this year, when the portal wasn’t around, you just told your coaches that you’re going to transfer and you were left on your own to figure something out. You’re calling people in the middle of recruiting and all you really had were connections.”
Sitake noted that players entering the portal can go to the other side of the country, if needed, to find a favorable situation at their position.13 comments on this story
“I think it’s great for the young men and for college football. It allows kids to be at a place where they never thought they had an option at,” he said. “For us as coaches, it allows us to go to the portal and see what guys are there to look at and then see if it fits what we need. I think everybody wins in this. It’s just the first year it’s been available, so guys are making announcements to let them know they’re on the portal. It’s good for the young men."
CONTRIBUTING: Jeff Call and Jeff Hunter
SOURCES: 247sports.com and wbbblog.com