Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Night 69° Clear
Sports >  NCAA

Entering the age of the Transfer Portal: How the college athletic landscape has shifted as more student athletes swap schools

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Only one quarterback can play at a time.

Sometimes he gets hurt or doesn’t play well, and maybe the coach sends in the backup to rally the offense. A coach might even try something tricky – send the quarterback out wide, perhaps, and let the running back take a direct snap.

But still, at just about every level of football, there’s just that one quarterback.

Oh, to be that quarterback.

“I’ll never forget,” Alex Brink said. “Timm Rosenbach told us, quarterback is different than every other position. One gets to play, and the rest of us are competing to be the next man up.”

During Brink’s run as starter, for 40 games between 2004 and 2007 with Rosenbach as his position coach, the other guys had a choice: wait and compete, or find opportunity elsewhere.

A few stuck around. Others eventually opted to transfer.

Josh Swogger, whose foot injury in 2004 opened the door for his backup Brink to take over as starter in the first place, stayed in Pullman as a backup until his senior year, when he transferred to the University of Montana in the Football Championship Subdivision at a time when the “drop-down” quarterback was a phenomenon itself.

But the nature of transfers has changed in the 14 years since Brink was WSU’s quarterback, and it has altered college sports.

“Back in the day, you picked a school and you were there for four years,” said Jim Fitzgerald, the athletics director at the Community Colleges of Spokane, whose uncle Dan Fitzgerald coached at Gonzaga from 1972 to 1997.

“No one transferred 25, 30 years ago, but the whole landscape has totally changed,” Fitzgerald said. “The student-athletes have found their voice.”

The dawn of the Portal

That student-athletes transfer from one institution to another is not new, but the manner in which they do so has changed in large part due to the NCAA’s creation of the Transfer Portal, which debuted in October 2018.

It was created as a compliance tool that manages the process of transferring from start to finish, and, according to the NCAA’s own description, it empowers student-athletes to more easily let other programs know that they want to play elsewhere.

Subtly, the process changed in a crucial way: No longer did players need to get their coach’s permission. They just had to inform their athletic department’s compliance officer that he or she would like to enter the portal, and the officer has two days to do so.

If it was a student-athlete’s first transfer in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football or field hockey, students needed to appeal for a waiver to play immediately. In all other sports, they could play right away.

In its online resources for students who are considering a transfer, the NCAA states that “on average, student-athletes who transfer to a different school take longer to graduate and are less likely to earn a degree than student-athletes who remain at one school. A year in residence to acclimate to their new school may help offset this dynamic.”

Hence, there was the rule about sitting out one year. Students who transferred down a level, to Division II or III, were exempt from that.

But this week the NCAA Division I Council announced a change: Students in those five sports could transfer to another D-I school and play immediately now, too.

Marry that to a pandemic, when the NCAA granted all its student-athletes an extra year of eligibility, and transferring appears to be incredibly popular right now.

“When you combine all these students having an additional year of eligibility, combine that with that everybody can see it when they’re doing it,” said Scott Garrison, director of compliance at Gonzaga. “That’s resulted in a somewhat accurate sentiment that things have really ratcheted up.”

Access to the transfer portal is limited to those most closely related to it, like administrators and coaches, but sites like 247sports.com and verbalcommits.com track transfers secondhand.

Verbalcommits.com lists nearly 1,400 names in the men’s basketball portal for 2021, including Gonzaga sophomore Pavel Zakarov and redshirt freshman Oumar Ballo, as well as eight Eastern Washington players who entered their names after coach Shantay Legans left to become the head coach at Portland.

In 2020 there were 1,025 men’s basketball players who announced an intention to transfer, according to Verbalcommits, and before that the trajectory was slower but steadily increasing from 752 names in 2014.

Other sports are impacted, too, but in the weeks following winter seasons, this is the time when basketball athletes are moving while those in spring and fall sports wait on their decisions about whether to stay or to leave their current institutions, should they have eligibility remaining.

“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and especially the last 10 years, really the last five years, the amount of control we’re trying to make sure student-athletes have over their decisions and their lives has really opened up,” said Lynn Hickey, Eastern Washington’s director of athletics.

“The NCAA has worked for 20 years to make academics a priority,” Hickey said. “Now I think we’re probably throwing some of that out the window.”

‘I’m embracing it’

Even without the NCAA’s recent ruling on first-time transfers, situations such as those currently playing out at Eastern Washington, where both basketball programs are in the midst of coaching changes, were common grounds for students to appeal for a transfer waiver that would allow them to play immediately.

Five of the eight Eagles men’s basketball players who announced their intention to transfer have reportedly found a new school, including three – Mike Meadows, Tyler Robertson and Jack Perry – who will follow Legans to Portland. Another, Kim Aiken Jr., announced a week ago his transfer to Arizona, where former Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd was named head coach on Thursday.

Another, Tanner Groves, has not yet made his decision.

“It’s been pretty crazy. It’s been kinda cool,” Groves said on Thursday. “I came out of high school with one D-I offer to Eastern, a couple D-2 offers and that was it. Now I’m in a position where I’m getting contacted by some major universities in America. I’m embracing it.”

After averaging 5.4 points as a redshirt sophomore during the 2019-20 season, Groves boosted his scoring average to 17.2 points this season, including a 35-point performance against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.

Groves has two years of eligibility left because of the NCAA’s COVID-19-related decision to grant an extra season and said he should be able to finish his degree this spring.

“At the end of the day, you’re a college student,” said Groves, who graduated from Shadle Park High School and whose parents work in education. “Obviously the reason I (entered the portal) is because I wanna find a place that fits my game best, but basketball will end one day, and I can have a chance at being able to set up my future a little bit.”

Transfer rates have increased through other means, too. Since 2014 when the NCAA first allowed it, some students chose to go the route of a graduate transfer, defined as those who previously earned a degree but had not yet exhausted their eligibility. The NCAA reports that 2,127 students qualified as such in 2014, a figure that increased to 3,512 in 2019.

Quarterback Gardner Minshew, for example, transferred to Washington State in 2018 and because he did so as a graduate student was allowed to play immediately. He led the Cougars to an 11-2 season and now plays for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

“I definitely think that’s different,” said Idaho women’s basketball coach Jon Newlee. “Somebody’s put in four years and is graduating. I think that’s giving everyone a fair shake. Sometimes they have to transfer really for academic reasons because they might not have that master’s program that kids really need. … That’s a legit reason, and if you wanna keep playing basketball, then you can.”

Newlee, for example, found Gabi Harrington through the transfer portal before last season, when she averaged 16.2 points and started all but two games for the Big Sky champion Vandals. For Harrington, who played three seasons at Montana before transferring, it was an easy decision to go to Idaho.

“When I decided to transfer, they were one of the programs that came to mind because I knew I would fit in with the playing style,” Harrington wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review. “The day I entered the portal, Coach Newlee called me within a couple of hours after entering the portal and it was a no brainer. All my family and friends have attended the University of Idaho, so I have always been surrounded by Vandals. It was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”

Pressure on coaches, programs

Yet as it has become easier for students to transfer and as more of them opt to do so, it hasn’t been without costs.

“Clearly there’s times people need to be transferring,” Newlee said, citing coaching changes as one. “But to say, ‘I’m just leaving,’ I think it puts a lot of coaches under a lot of pressure.”

Newlee said he hasn’t changed his recruiting style at all in his 13 seasons at Idaho, which followed six seasons at Idaho State. But he also expressed concern about lower-tier programs becoming feeder programs for Power 5 conference teams.

For example if Mikayla Ferenz, a former Big Sky Player of the Year at Idaho, had a big game against a Pac-12 school, would that school try somehow to lure away Ferenz? Such a move would be impermissible under current recruiting rules.

But this seems to open that door, Newlee said, and it needs to be heavily regulated.

Power 5 teams aren’t necessarily immune, either. Before the transfer portal, coaches could list teams that a player could not transfer to, such as those within their conference. But in theory, a student-athlete could use their one-time transfer allowance and play immediately for a rival school the following season.

Washington State baseball coach Brian Green praised the changes as a positive for student-athletes, who can go where they want to go, especially in baseball, which is a partial scholarship sport.

“From the student-athlete perspective, I think it’s obviously a positive for them. It gives them options and opportunities,” Green said. “Unfortunately on the coaching side of things I think there are some things you’re gonna see happening. It’s gonna be pretty crazy. Kids are gonna be leaving.”

An additional problem, Green said, is the late deadline, July 1. That gives him just a month and half, he said, to replace a player who leaves.

“It’s gonna give freshmen an opportunity to play, but you’re also gonna have at the Power 5 level, if you’re young you’re not gonna be successful,” Green said. “You have to be old. You have to be physical. You have to be strong.”

There are other potential hurdles with credits transferring and the fit being right for students on new campuses – campuses that, potentially, haven’t been so easy to get to know during a pandemic.

Mikayla Anderson, a compliance officer at Eastern Washington, said she runs into situations where students’ credits don’t all transfer, which can add extra years to their academic careers. As the person who facilitates getting their names into the portal, Anderson has many conversations with students who wish to transfer. She’s sometimes one of the first people they will talk to.

“A lot of times it’s me just asking, ‘have you had a conversation with your parents,’ ” Anderson said. “Most of the time, (the answer is) ‘not yet.’ ” Let’s get on the phone with your parents so we can explain it together.”

At the University of Idaho, Heath Senour is the associate athletic director for compliance, and so he gets to have those conversations as well. He tries to front-load them by educating students about the process during rules and eligibility meetings early in their athletic careers.

He doesn’t ask why students wish to transfer, but he does ask them whether they have talked to their coach yet.

“Your coach is going to find out,” Senour said he tells them. “Do they wanna find out from you, or do they wanna find out from me, and I always think it’s a really good idea that the student-athlete has that conversation with their coach.”

Most of the time for Senour and Anderson, students have had or are willing to have that conversation with coaches, they said.

That is the case also at Gonzaga, Garrison said. Most of the time, too, the split is amicable.

“We see kids transfer for all the reasons you can think of, whether it’s playing time, don’t like the coach, every single reason someone would transfer,” he said. “More often than not they are transfers where everybody agrees the fit wasn’t great, and we want to support them. More often than not a coach is saying, ‘I want to help you.’

“For the most part, you should be incentivized to create an environment where your student-athletes are happy and liking it and inevitably transfers are gonna happen, because it’s not gonna be perfect for everybody.”

That was the case for Jordan Lester, a Whitworth men’s basketball player who started his career at Robert Morris University, where he played in 21 games as a freshman but averaged 1.4 points per game.

But Lester, a graduate of Eastlake High School in Sammamish, said he felt like he needed a change in culture and wanted to be closer to home. This was before the portal, and so he went to his coach, asked for a release and was granted it with a list of teams from RMU’s conference he wasn’t allowed to transfer to, Lester said.

He considered playing at Seattle University but that would have required him to sit out a season at that time, so he opted to play at Division III Whitworth; by dropping down a division, or in this case two, he wasn’t required to sit out.

A couple injuries and successful eligibility appeals later (plus an extra year due to the pandemic ruling), Lester is hoping to finally use his last year of eligibility next season, which will be his seventh as a college student.

“I don’t second guess it at all,” Lester said of his transfer to Whitworth. “Personally my career hasn’t gone the way I wanted it to, but just the culture and environment of the Whitworth basketball program is everything I was looking for. That was the main thing I was looking for when I transferred.”

Student-athletes ‘take control of their story’

But what if the fit isn’t right?

“Personally I think it is different for every person and every situation is unique,” Lester said. “Some people are homesick. Some are not vibing with the culture. Some think they can play at a higher level. Some want to play more.

“It’s different for every person, and you gotta evaluate it on a case-by-case basis.”

That need to evaluate on a case-by-case basis is alleviated, at least for a student’s first transfer, by the NCAA’s decision this week.

“Allowing student-athletes a one-time opportunity to transfer and compete immediately provides a uniform, equitable and understandable approach that benefits all student-athletes,” said Council vice chair Jon Steinbrecher, who chairs the Working Group on Transfers and is commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, in a statement. “The decision is consistent with Division I’s goal of modernizing its rules to prioritize student-athlete opportunity and choice.”

It is a system that compliance officers at Gonzaga, EWU, Idaho and Whitworth uniformly said is geared toward the student-athlete. Transfers are usually not contentious, they said.

But the successful push to open up the transfer process is in a way a symptom of a greater cultural phenomenon, Hickey said.

“The concept that everybody should be able to improve themselves and take control of their story and make themselves the best they can be, that’s where we are in our culture right now,” Hickey said. “I don’t think that’s all wrong, but I think in the process of trying to open that up too much, there are gonna be some people who get hurt. The grass is not always greener.”

It is something Newlee said he sees when he evaluates potential recruits, some of whom have jumped between AAU teams or transferred high schools in order to play basketball elsewhere.

“I see kids in the portal, you see that girl transferred, she’s now on her fourth college, and went to three high schools before college,” Newlee said. “Those are red flags for me, no thank you.”

Managing expectations

His playing career done, Brink, the former WSU and NFL quarterback, now works for EForce Sports in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on their football coaching staff. He works with athletes of all ages, including high schoolers.

As they talk about college and recruiting, part of the conversation he has with them is about patience, and about managing expectations.

He pointed out that Anthony Gordon transferred to Washington State with three years of eligibility left. Gordon redshirted in 2016, sat in 2017 and 2018 and then, as a senior, threw for 5,579 yards.

Brink said he also uses his own story as an example of the value of redshirting and then competing for a starting job.

“But there’s another path here where I don’t see the field until I’m a senior,” Brink said, “and I think for me at the time … my mentality at that point was, you’re one play away, keep your head down and keep working.

“If I’m an athlete now, you get in that situation, if you are truly gonna sit for four years, you have to ask yourself, ‘what do I want out of this situation?’ We always counsel athletes that when you go to college, it’s not just about playing football, because playing football can be gone in an instant. What degree do you want? What do you think about the school?”

Because, Brink said he tells them, the more likely scenario is that they don’t play, that they don’t start at quarterback for four years.

“I redshirted. I sat. That’s part of the process sometimes,” he said. “The other piece of the puzzle is, the grass really isn’t always greener, and you can get yourself in a feedback loop where you leave and you don’t end up in a better situation and you’re chasing something that’s not there.”

After all, there can only be one quarterback at a time.

And that means sometimes the other ones have to wait their turn – or find somewhere else where they don’t think they’ll have to.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.