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The NCAA Working Group is putting a "you can transfer one time without sitting out" rule in front of the NCAA Council in April. If approved, your Luke Fords and your Mark Smiths will be immediately eligible when they transfer. Is that a good thing for Illinois or a bad thing?
Let's start with some background in case you're unfamiliar with how it has always worked. For most NCAA sports, you can transfer somewhere and play the next season. Chris Tamas saw two middle blockers transfer out of the program in 2018, so he went out and added Ashlyn Fleming, a two-time All Conference middle blocker at the University of the Pacific. She was immediately eligible, she stepped into the second MB role immediately, and was second-team All Big Ten as she helped the 2018 Illini reach the Final Four. If this was basketball or football and she had to sit out a year, I'm not sure Tamas' team reaches the Final Four that year.
For five NCAA sports, with football and men's basketball being the biggest two, there's a rule that says you have to sit out a year when you transfer. This was done to prevent free agency. Football and basketball are the big money sports, and with these million dollar coaching contracts, the coaches will do just about anything to improve their roster. We saw what Kelvin Sampson did when Eric Gordon was committed to Illinois - now imagine him doing that to your entire roster every year.
With the sit-out rule, the players were at least hesitant to transfer. Coaches were at least hesitant to offer one of their precious scholarships to someone who was forced to ride the pine. That's why this rule was there - to prevent crazy offseasons where some rosters were decimated (while other players were immediately "Creaned" to make room for these new transfers).
The problem with that in 2020: as coaching salaries increase, and as coaches like Mel Tucker just up and leave their team in February because Michigan State offered twice the salary that Colorado was offering, the awareness of the players' inability to do the same has increased tenfold. I think the committee was faced with one thing they could no longer avoid: how is it fair to allow coaches to move to a better opportunity yet restrict the student athlete from the same?
As that movement has grown over the past few years, we've seen an exponential increase in waivers. Maybe the biggest offseason talking point for Illini football last year - one that was discussed nationally - was the Luke Ford transfer. Justin Fields transfers from Georgia to Ohio State - immediately eligible. Tate Martell sees that there's no chance he's winning the Ohio State job so he transfers to Miami - immediately eligible. Luke Ford transfers back home - sit out a year.
I think the waivers (not just Luke Ford, but all of these waiver applications nationwide) were the impetus for this proposed legislation. Missouri had the Mark Smith/Dru Smith thing where Mark Smith was granted immediately eligibility but Dru Smith had to sit out a year. Tom Izzo threw a fit when Joey Hauser's waiver wasn't approved at Michigan State because the waiver process was so arbitrary. The volume grew louder and louder, so this was the NCAA's response.
And now the volume is loud in the other direction. Is this fair? If it's approved, is it essentially free agency? If this process was in place last year and, say, Obi Toppin transferred to Ohio State while Jalen Crutcher transferred to Louisville, Dayton is nowhere near the top-5 right now. Football might survive given that there's 22 starters instead of 5, but is this the end of mid-major basketball? Are the smaller schools essentially a feeder league?
Most importantly for Illini nation: is this good or bad for us? Does it mean that any great underclassman Illini football player will just transfer to Oklahoma or Notre Dame and we're screwed? Does someone like Alan Griffin become a major offseason target for schools back east? Here's my thoughts:
I can't see how it doesn't help. I've thought about this and thought about this over the past week, and I really can't see how it's not a good thing. I'm the optimistic sort, so I keep doubling-back to see if maybe I'm fooling myself here, but I really think this is good for the Illinois and the Wake Forests and the Oregon States of the world.
What's our frustration on signing day every year? "SEVEN top-100 wide receivers on Ohio State's roster now? Do these kids not realize that three of them will play and four of them will be forced out the door?" Sometimes they leave the state and immediately come back (Luke Ford), but many times a kid won't realize until his third or fourth year that snaps are hard to come by at a power program.
And as we've seen in the last few years, especially last year, the grad transfer option was increasingly used to level this back out. Brandon Peters is battling with Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffery for snaps in Ann Arbor, but there are lots of snaps available in Champaign. Josh Imatorbhebhe can't break the receiver rotation at USC, but graduate in three years, transfer to Illinois, and catch nine touchdown passes as a junior. Wole Betiku - come to Illinois and get nine sacks. Even sit-out transfers like Milo Eifler have found that tackles are available in Champaign.
If this passes, will there be transfers in the other direction now? I think so. Bennett Williams was kicked off the team in 2018, but had he not been, he's the type of player I could see ending up at Oregon as a direct transfer. Meaning, he didn't have many offers, he came to Illinois to get his shot, he was a freshman All American, and then schools on the west coast would come calling. Would one of the big Florida schools see Devon Witherspoon's freshman tape and give him a call? I think so.
(I should note that tampering will be a big part of this. With the proposed rule, a school can't reach out to a kid unless his name is in the Transfer Portal. So if a kid doesn't put his name in, there's no way for the big schools to "recruit" him. Which means it will all come down to enforcement of the tampering rules. Schools will most certainly talk to a kid's high school coach to see if he might be interested in transferring. That's not allowed, and could cost the college coach his job, but you know that some of those conversations will take place anyway.)
Overall, given how much sit-out and graduate transfers helped Illinois last season (is there a bowl game without Peters, Bhebhe, Betiku, and Eifler? I doubt it), I think this rule would help more than hurt. I think the supply of great players not getting snaps at USC is greater than the number of great players Illinois discovered. So bring it on, I say.
I'm more hesitant on the basketball side, but I still think it could help. High-major basketball stands to benefit from mid-major players transferring up more than football, I think. A player with a breakout sophomore season at UNC-Wilmington will have all kinds of options to play immediately at a big school.
But it's also quite possible that you could be all excited about an upcoming season and then see two transfers in August that just gut your program (with no opportunity to fix it before the season starts). That's the scary side of this for basketball as I mentioned above with the Dayton scenario. With Toppin and Crutcher, Dayton is a top-5 team. Without them, maybe they're .500? For football, lose two players and you might be stung a little bit but it's not a major thing. For basketball, lose two players and your season is over.
So if I'm looking at this from the perspective of a coach, as a Big Ten football coach I'd be excited by the rule change and as a Big Ten basketball coach I'd be a little hesitant. Sure, you could go find a mid-major superstar and immediately put your team in the top-25. But you could also lose half your roster overnight.
Let me use a local example. Old friend Jordan Goodwin picked St. Louis over Illinois. And he got the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore when SLU won the A10 Tournament and got an automatic bid. This season SLU is 8-6 in the A-10 and, despite having a nice season, probably isn't anywhere near the Tournament unless they win their postseason conference tourney again. So Goodwin is having this great year (16 points, 11 boards per game) but no one even knows about it. If this rule passes and is put into place immediately for the 2020/21 school year, I'm frightened if I'm Travis Ford. Goodwin could go anywhere this summer and be a superstar at his new school next winter.
Would that trickle down to Illinois? I'm not so sure. It feels like Illinois is a place where players would transfer to, not from. I'd be fearful of, say, Alan Griffin wanting a starting role, but he'll likely get it next season, so why would he look elsewhere? I think it would be more likely that a mid-major guy would want to transfer in than a high-major guy wanting to transfer to another high-major.
Still, this is basketball, and individual players matter. Here - I'll scare you to death: It's June, and you see "Kofi Cockburn to transfer to North Carolina" come across your Twitter feed. That torpedoes the entire season, right? That's why it's scary for basketball. You'd always be right on the edge of losing your most important guy. One guy can sometimes mean the difference between 17-14 (and missing the NIT) and 21-10 (and a seven-seed).
Overall, I think this is a good thing, both for NCAA sports and for Illinois. In big, broad strokes, I think this will mean two things:
- For football, the elite schools won't be able to hoard all the good players anymore.
- For basketball, the mid-majors are in big trouble and would act as feeder leagues.
Both of those are good for us.