College coaches have a weird sense of humor—man, isn’t it hilarious, how easy it is to put an insolent player in line? Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings has blocked a player named Sheldon Jeter from transferring to Pittsburgh, and Jeter says his appeal to school officials was denied. And the New York Times’ Bishop tells the story of Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt, who decided he wanted to transfer after losing his starting position in the aftermath of a knee injury and a concussion. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told the press that Lunt was “leaving on good terms.” Gundy then proceeded to block him, without explanation, from transferring to nearly 40 different schools, including three of Lunt’s preferred options. Though Gundy eventually lifted those restrictions, the quarterback said in a recent interview that the damage had been done—that he’d lost contact with the schools Gundy had blocked, meaning he had no choice but to go elsewhere.
Given all the tools they have to tie players down, why are the men on the sidelines so adamant that players are the ones causing a transfer crisis? First, the coaches who preside over college basketball’s minnows are peeved that a small but increasing number of their players are transferring to major programs in search of better competition and more exposure. Golly gee willikers, what a scandal—now, excuse me while I recite the long list of coaches who’ve moved up from small schools to large ones. (Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Bill Self, Bob Huggins …)
Second, college coaches are upset about a couple of exceptions—one for players with sick relatives, the other for guys who’ve already graduated and are seeking master’s degrees—that allow certain qualifying athletes to switch schools and play right away. Most famously, the graduate transfer exception allowed ex-N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson to play his final season for Wisconsin without sitting out a year.
The grad student exception is a rare case of NCAA sanity, a reward for athletes who’ve fulfilled their scholastic mission. According to data compiled by Jeff Goodman, this maneuver is quite rare—a bit less than 7 percent of Division I men’s basketball transfers in 2012, 30 players overall, were instantly eligible thanks to the grad student rule.
As far as coaches are concerned, this tiny trickle of instant eligibility is a gigantic problem that is ruining their lives. Arizona State’s Herb Sendek—who’s clearly bitter that one of his best players used the grad student rule to leave for Indiana—told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz that the “rule in most cases is not being used as intended and is clearly adding to the widespread free agency in college basketball.” Marshall’s Herrion added that the only solution to this catastrophe is to make every player sit out a year—no exceptions. And our old friend Bo Ryan explained to Katz that we need to think about ethics. Taking advantage of eligibility exceptions "isn't what college athletics was meant to be,” he says. “How about the guy leaving his teammates and the coaching staff that developed him?”
To call Ryan a hypocrite would be an insult to hypocrisy. The Wisconsin coach’s indignation on transfer matters is as convincing as the thrice-wed Newt Gingrich’s defense of traditional marriage. In 1999, Ryan signed a five-year contract at Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Two seasons into that deal, he left to take the head job at Wisconsin–Madison—a move that, according to UW–Milwaukee’s athletic director, felt “like a divorce” to the players he cast aside. In Madison, meanwhile, a guard named Ricky Bower decided that he wanted to pull a Ryan and leave Wisconsin for BYU. Ryan was eligible to coach his new team right away. Bower had to sit out a year before he could suit up again—you know, NCAA rules and all. Is that what college athletics are meant to be, Bo?
In fairness to cranks like Ryan, college basketball coaches have it tougher than they used to. The NBA’s one-and-done rule means it’s impossible to keep the best players on campus. Toss in a bunch of transfers, and college hoops rosters have become ever-mutating beasts. That’s a hard reality for a control freak coach to adjust to: I’m supposed to let all of these guys just … walk out?
Kentucky’s John Calipari seems alone among his colleagues in recognizing that transfers are not evil. Calipari may profess to hate the one-and-done rule, but he recognizes that he’ll have a new team every year, and that he needs a plan to win in that climate. When forward Kyle Wiltjer recently told Calipari he wanted to explore transferring, the coach didn’t block any schools. Rather, he gave Wiltjer his unconditional support. Sure, Wiltjer is kind of expendable now that Kentucky has a historically great recruiting class coming in. And yes, Calipari has a history of “encouraging” subpar players to leave the Wildcats’ program. But what can I say—if you’re looking for justice and fairness in college sports, this is as good as it gets.
So who will ultimately win this tug of war over players’ rights to enroll where they please? I’ll give you one guess.
Back in January, a number of media outlets reported that all of these transfer rules could be changing forever. The NCAA was weighing a new proposal that would allow any Division I athlete with a GPA of 2.6 or higher to transfer and be eligible immediately. Changing schools without penalty—it’s not just for grad students anymore.
Every college basketball site opined on the “drastic shake-up” that would result from this rule change. Coaches would be forced to treat their players better, lest they seek out other opportunities. Players would essentially become free agents, gaining the power they’ve long been denied. Imagine the possibilities!
Those possibilities, it turns out, were indeed imaginary. Months after those initial reports, nobody (except John Infante) seems to have noticed that this remarkable proposal quietly died back in April. “Based on the fact that the number of four-year transfer student-athletes was not overly significant, the subcommittee noted that wholesale changes of the transfer rules do not appear to be necessary,” explained the NCAA’s Leadership Council Transfer Issues Subcommittee.
The NCAA’s report did have some good news—an indication that the subcommittee “would like to further explore the effectiveness of the permission to contact requirement.” Translation: It’s possible that they could end the absurd practice of allowing a vindictive coach to control whether a transfer like Jarrod Uthoff can get a scholarship at his new school. In the meantime, college basketball coaches continue their push to eradicate that pesky grad student exception. And what about the so-called student athletes, whose playing careers and potential livelihoods are at stake here? Don’t bother asking them what they think. As usual, they have no say at all.