Transfer Changes

Feb 27, 2020

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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:

  1. For football, the elite schools won't be able to hoard all the good players anymore.
  2. For basketball, the mid-majors are in big trouble and would act as feeder leagues.

Both of those are good for us.


skibdaddy on February 27, 2020 @ 08:13 AM

In the grand scheme of things this is more fair to the players. The NCAA makes millions off these kids, and the coaches can jump ship without notice. Yes the kids get a free education, but can you honestly say that Ayo isn't worth way more to the university than he's getting?

IBFan on February 27, 2020 @ 09:33 AM

Student Athlete. It’s not about compensation. It’s not about how important a player is to his/her team. It’s not about how much that particular sport generates. It’s not about Professionals making career moves. Well, it is, but shouldn’t be. There are plenty of sports that don’t make money. There are plenty of players that aren’t “Ayo” in sports like basketball,football. Players that desire higher compensation dont have to go to college. The total “cost” to a school is much greater than tuition to a university, but again it shouldn’t matter. And because it was the topic at hand, the free transfer rule will have negative effects.
What does it solve? Shortsighted solution to an overblown problem that wasn’t handled correctly in the first place. Mark Smith gets a free pass then pulls the same shit the next year if he’s so inclined. “Luke Ford” transfers to School B, then a family member is ill, wants to go back home, to School C you still are going to make that player sit out?

McAdoo on February 27, 2020 @ 10:02 AM

I think such a rule change would definitely be a positive for Illinois Football in the short-term, maybe even the medium-term. It is more of a nuanced question for Illini Basketball, I think we could get guys from the MAC or Missouri Valley to transfer in without much problem, but the issue for the basketball program would be top-end guys like Ayo, Kofi and/or Adam Miller. If those players have a good first season in Champaign, but elect not to jump to the pros immediately, programs like Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina will be more than happy to have that kind of guy transfer in for that second year. And that second year is the season you really want to have that high-level player. So that is what I see as the potential down-side to this for Illini Basketball.

Dix on February 27, 2020 @ 10:32 AM

I don't like the comparison to coaches. Coaches are able to leave schools because they are employees. Student-athletes, as courts have determined, are not. Coaches have a long history in their respective sports. College athletes are just getting started. What's "fair" for a coach shouldn't be compared to what's "fair" for athletes.

I also think 17-21 year olds don't have the maturity to be able to transfer without stakes. We talk about coaches being able to leave as if they don't have ANY stakes (e.g., uprooting family, buyouts, reputation costs, impatient fan bases). I worry about the 18 year old who is having a hard time adjusting to college coaching/ball, gets frustrated by being benched or held to discipline standards as a freshman and makes a poor decision to transfer out of spite or anger, when another year or two and the attendant maturation that comes with it would be beneficial to them in the long term. "Want to hold me accountable--fine I'll go to X university with much looser standards." It makes what Lovie and Brad are trying to do here much more difficult.

IBFan on February 27, 2020 @ 02:06 PM

Excellent post. Spot on.

Dix on February 27, 2020 @ 10:32 AM

CAIllini on February 27, 2020 @ 12:26 PM

I like the change even with the inevitable issues it will introduced. One thing I'd like to see included is a rule that schools can only allow X% of incoming "free transfers" per season. Say 15% (would be 2 player for hoops). Maybe double it when the coach changes to 30%, but don't allow schools to swap out 70% of their roster in one go. Maybe also put the cap on Y player per 4 year period as well appropriate for each sport to cap single year abusers of the system as well as perpetual abusers....

chicagoillinihoops on February 27, 2020 @ 12:46 PM

Can we lay some claim that once again a rule that had a negative impact on Illinois may once again add to the momentum to getting an NCCA rule changed (always after the fact of course).

sudden_valley on February 27, 2020 @ 12:56 PM

Would Dee and Deron have stuck around?

Chukwuwumba on February 27, 2020 @ 03:38 PM

I like the rule. In basketball, I hope you cannot be eligible mid season. Can transfer, but eligible at start of year. Imagine Kobe king eligible at Nebraska or Whitney eligible at Illinois. Ok, second one not so bad. But if injuries (or slips) happened to a bubble team/national front runner they would likely poach. B-ball recruiting would be interesting. Fall signees ideal; sign your targets then no need for transfers unless someone transfers out. Miss your targets; do you reach for the next prospect down or gamble with transfer? Some recruits may have to start at lower league than skills...then transfer into higher league after 1-2 years.

For Football, timing doesn’t seem to matter as much. After fall camp starters likely wouldn’t transfer. If depth transfers, would try to replace. There might be names entered into the portal looking for a better situation but may not leave.

Chukwuwumba on February 27, 2020 @ 06:33 PM

If the rule passes this spring, Illinois is in prime position to land desirable transfers with 6 spots. Other teams will lack spots. Let’s see if this pays off; 4d chess if it does

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