Insight from Alabama coaches familiar with the new one-time transfer rule
Like it or not, a new age of college sports is upon us.
Earlier this month, the NCAA's Division I Council announced the adoption of a new one-time transfer policy which will allow athletes in all sports to transfer once in their college careers without having to sit out a year. That legislation is expected to be ratified Wednesday by the Division I Board of Directors.
So what happens next?
Despite speaking out several times against the new policy, Alabama football coach Nick Saban has a strategy in place and remains confident his program will benefit from the ruling. For Alabama men’s basketball head coach Nate Oats, the rule creates a sense of uniformity to a transfer landscape he feels has been rather arbitrary in recent years.
Saban and Oats are two of four Alabama head coaches who will be dealing with the one-time transfer policy for the first time this offseason. They’ll be joined by baseball coach Brad Bohannon and women’s basketball coach Kristy Curry. The rest of the Crimson Tide’s head coaches are already accustomed to life in a one-time transfer world.
While the policy is just now becoming universal in college athletics, it was previously in place for all sports except football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball and men’s ice hockey. Though the rule presents its difficulties, coaches in other sports have navigated the transfer waters for years, developing their own strategies in managing rosters with the ever-present possibility of comings and goings.
Recently, BamaInsider caught up with Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy and Alabama soccer coach Wes Hart to find out how they’ve dealt with the one-time transfer policy and how they think it will affect their fellow Crimson Tide coaches.
A positive environment goes a long way
Perhaps it’s because he benefited from a transfer during his time as a student-athlete, but Hart has never had a problem with the idea of players needing a second chance to find the right fit.
The former Major League Soccer defender began his college career at Wisconsin before transferring to Washington prior his junior season in 1998. At the time, Wisconsin’s men’s soccer team had undergone a coaching change, and its new staff didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with several of the Badgers’ players. That led to Hart’s transfer, a move that ultimately saw him earn All-American honors the next two seasons en route to becoming a first-round pick in the MLS draft.
Now on the other side of the transfer picture, the head coach says the last thing he wants to do is keep a player “hostage against their will.”
“First of all, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be honest with you,” Hart said of the transfer policy. “I know a lot of people kind of freak out and think, ‘Gosh, a player’s going to get mad and they’re just going to want to leave on a whim.’ I think what I’ve noticed, at the end of the day, it’s our job as coaches not just to recruit new players coming in but also to continue to recruit players that we already have on our team, keep them happy. I think it’s just a matter of being able to manage your players.”
While Hart has no problem with re-recruiting the players on his roster, the idea isn’t exactly popular among coaches who have previously been able to devote all their off-field attention to bringing in new talent. That being said, the process of re-recruitment may not be as daunting as it seems.
While it’s common for teams to communicate with players during end-of-season meetings, roster retention is more about creating a desirable environment within your program than campaigning to current players on an individual basis.
Murphy, whose softball program has advanced to 15 straight NCAA Super Regionals, says he doesn’t re-recruit his players but rather lets the team’s success, player development and tradition speak for itself.
“I’ve always held the thought that we want kids who want to be here, and if they want to go they’re free to go,” Murphy said. “So we’re not going to stand in the way of anything.”
Oats, who led the basketball team to its best season in nearly two decades this year, is hoping his program’s recent success will lead to a similar environment.
"Player development is atop the list of our priorities,” Oats said earlier this month. “I think we are making players better. We treat them really well. At The University of Alabama, the entire athletic department, players, student-athletes get treated extremely well here. They are more than well taken care of between their nutrition, our training facilities, our staff, our strength and conditioning coaches. There's a lot of stuff going on here.”
It’s not that easy though
The idea of creating the best possible environment for players isn’t exactly groundbreaking and is something all college coaches try to achieve regardless of their sport. However, Hart and Murphy find themselves in a bit of a different situation than Saban, Oats and Bohannon.
Professional contracts in football, basketball and baseball are far more lucrative than those in women’s soccer or softball. Program tradition and success are important for nearly all student-athletes, but those with greater financial implications might be more inclined to transfer if they feel their professional aspirations will be impacted.
A backup shortstop on the softball team isn’t likely to make a career in the sport regardless of whether she gets a starting opportunity at another program. On the other hand, the difference between being a backup and a starter at quarterback could mean life-changing money.
That isn’t to say players can’t benefit from waiting for their opportunity in high-earning sports. Mac Jones, who sat behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa early in his college career, is set to receive a hefty payday when he’s selected as one of the top quarterbacks in Thursday’s NFL draft.
While stories like Jones’ are encouraging, not all high-profile student-athletes will be as patient, inevitably leading to more transfers.
“I feel bad for baseball, basketball and football because I feel like that could happen for them now,” Murphy said. “It’s unfortunate, and sometimes the life lessons that are taught through sports are going to go out the window now. It’s just not a good thing.”
If there’s one person Murphy is glad he doesn’t have to trade places with, it’s Bohannon. College baseball coaches already have their hands full with a variety of roster obstacles including divvying out 11.7 scholarships among a 35-man roster while also navigating the MLB draft with incoming recruits as well as current players. Add in the possibility of instant eligibility among transfers, and it’s nearly impossible for coaches to project their future rosters.
“I think it’s going to be an absolute mess this summer, at all levels,” Bohannon told BamaInsider. “We already have enough uncertainty as it is. Can you tell me right now where Dylan Smith is going in the draft? How about Peyton Wilson or Tyler Ras? Are they going to be back? We’ve got three or four high school guys who are top 150 players in the country. Are they going to be here?
“Oh, and by the way, my backup shortstop, who I’m expecting to start next year, is he going to come back or is he going to transfer to a different place because he sat on the bench this year? Do I need to save roster spots and scholarship dollars for a really good pitcher at a mid-major who wants the SEC experience? It’s going to be an absolute headache and an absolute mess.”
How do you handle recruiting?
Since the establishment of the NCAA transfer portal in 2018, Hart has developed a new morning routine.
“It’s probably the first thing I do every day, log on [to the portal] and just see what’s out there and what’s going on,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy. There’s probably 10-15 kids every day in there.”
Those numbers are even more extreme in other sports, particularly men’s basketball where the transfer portal has been flooded by players in anticipation of the NCAA’s new ruling. Although, while transfers figure to become more prevalent in the coming years, roster sizes aren’t getting any larger. That creates another complication for coaches who will now need to strategize how they plan to utilize their scholarships.
For example, a football coach might elect not to sign a full 25-man recruiting class in order to leave room for the potential of incoming transfers. Will that have a negative effect on high school recruits who might miss out on a spot a program would have otherwise filled?
It depends on who you ask.
Hart says he typically likes to save a little bit of scholarship money every year to keep his options open across all recruiting fronts.
“You never know what will happen,” he said. “There’s always a kid, whether it’s a verbally committed kid who changes her mind at the last minute and now she’s looking or whether it’s a late transfer or whatever. I think it’s always good to have a little money around for that reason.”
Murphy hasn’t typically saved scholarship money for potential transfers but admits he might be forced to change that approach in the coming years.
“For some reason, it just seems like the transfer portal is en vogue right now, and I just don’t get it,” Murphy said. “It’s unfortunate, but that seems to be the way it’s going.”
The approaches also vary when looking at Alabama’s coaches who will be dealing with the new transfer policy for the first time this offseason.
When asked about his plans earlier this month, Saban said Alabama will be selective in how it pursues transfers while indicating he doesn’t plan to limit his signing classes to leave room for potential transfers.
While Saban brought in graduate transfers in Carl Tucker and Landon Dickerson the past two years, the last underclassman to transfer to Alabama was defensive back Phelon Jones, who joined the program from LSU in 2009.
Alabama is currently interested in bringing in Tennessee linebacker Henry To'o To'o, who entered the NCAA transfer portal in January. However, to do so, it would need the SEC to change its intraconference transfer rules which currently require players to sit out a season upon transferring within the conference.
Oats has already brought in two transfers in this year’s class in Noah Gurley and Nimari Burnett. Gurley, a graduate transfer from Furman, would have been eligible to play this coming season regardless of the new legislation. However, Burnett, a sophomore transfer from Texas Tech, would have needed an eligibility waiver if not for the new ruling.
Bohannon refers to the situation as “a puzzle with a lot of moving pieces.”
“It’s obviously going to be a different climate from a recruiting standpoint, and anytime there’s changes in the rules and parameters then we need to make changes,” he said. “We’re going to have to adjust to it. Do we want to add one transfer or do we want to add three? A lot of that depends on what room we have, but I think it’d be silly to say we’re not going to be very active in seeing who’s available and who would be a good fit if it’d be a chance to improve our roster.”
Tampering and other dirty dealings will still be an issue
In a perfect world, all college coaches would wait until players put their names in the transfer portal before reaching out to them for potential moves. Those familiar with college recruiting know there’s nothing perfect about it.
When asked, neither Hart nor Murphy pointed to a single instance where they felt teams were recruiting off their rosters. However, both coaches alluded to the heavy possibility of tampering in their sports.
“I’ve got to assume it happens,” Hart said. “I think every rule out there, people find ways to circumvent or find ways around it. I can’t really say for sure. I’ve not been affected by it directly, so I don’t know. But chances are, yeah, that will be going on.”
Added Murphy: “There needs to be heavy-duty tampering penalties for anybody that does that. This is going to get crazy if we don’t. It already happens now probably in the big-time sports. But if somebody is caught tampering, that penalty needs to be heavy because it’s just going to ruin recruiting if not.”
Bohannon was a bit more adamant when broached on the topic, stating that there is “absolutely” foul play that goes on in college baseball and that he feels “there’s no doubt that there’s going to be extreme tampering” moving forward.
“There are going to be coaches who go to college summer wood-bat league games watching players and talking to their high school coaches like, ‘Hey is Johnny happy there? Would he want a bigger role with us?’” Bohannon said. “There’s no doubt those conversations are going to be happening very frequently. ...That’s why we coaches who have our boots on the ground in the middle of it are so against this.
“We know what’s going to happen because it’s already happening to a lower degree. Now that kids aren’t going to have to sit out, it’s going to be an absolute mess, no doubt.”
Bohanon, Hart and Murphy all coach equivalency sports, meaning that they have a set amount of scholarships that can be spread out partially among their players. This is different from head-count sports like basketball or football where each scholarship player must receive a full ride.
This adds another important wrinkle to the mix as teams could theoretically start bidding wars among players by offering better partial scholarships than the ones they are receiving from their current schools.
When asked, Murphy said such a situation would be a non-starter as he doesn’t negotiate scholarships with players. Instead he plans to continue to combat the dirtier side of recruiting by offering what he feels like the best overall experience in college softball.
“I think it’s our tradition and our success and all the things that go into it,” Murphy said. “There’s so many things that are more involved than just the softball part of it. The benefits of being a student athlete at Alabama far outweigh what you have to pay.”
Advice to other coaches
So what’s the secret to navigating college sports’ new landscape? Hart and Murphy both agree it begins with character.
“I think you’ve got to do your homework on the front end and make sure you’re recruiting kids who aren't going to leave at the first sign of adversity,” Hart said. “Maybe they don’t start a game or the first sight of a loss, you have to make sure they aren’t just going to jump ship. I think it more goes back to what kind of kids you’re recruiting and what kind of mental toughness do they have. I think if you do your homework on the front end as well as manage your players appropriately, you can avoid a lot of problems.”
Added Murphy: “One of our major themes is if we’re going to miss on a kid, it will be talent, not character. I 100 percent believe that one of the reasons people get fired is because they do it the other way around. If all you are worried about is the talent, that gets you in trouble.”
As of now, Saban, Oats, Bohannon and Curry have all yet to reach out to Hart or Murphy to discuss what life will be like with the one-time transfer policy. Given the amount of changes about to take place, it wouldn’t be the worst place to start.