Reasons behind increased college basketball transfers numerous and complex

Traditionally, post-college season buzz has been centered around the NCAA Tournament and the National Championship game. But more recently, the months following the regular season have been filled with announcements of players leaving basketball programs to transfer to other schools. Over the last two years, in particular, transferring seems to have become a national trend, as athlete after athlete declares her departure from an institution.

No school or coach seems immune from transfers, as they occur at mid-major colleges and large institutions alike, and under newer coaches as well as Hall of Fame coaches. If it seems like it’s easier to count programs that haven’t had transfers, the data shows why.

Data courtesy of NCAA. Graphic by Tarsha Eason.
Data courtesy of NCAA. Graphic by Tarsha Eason.

After several years of holding steady below eight percent, the four-year college transfer rate for women’s basketball began to rise in 2010-2011, and shows no sign of slowing down. For many years, the transfer rate for student-athletes from two-year colleges was higher than from four-year colleges, but that pattern reversed in the 2011-2012 school year. Given the most recent data available from the NCAA, 2014-15 ended with nearly a tenth of women’s college basketball players transferring from four-year colleges and 8.4 percent coming in from two-year colleges.  These rates are comparable to men’s college basketball, with four-year and two-year college transfer rates of 14.1 and 15 percent, respectively, for the season.

Data courtesy of NCAA. Graphic by Tarsha Eason.
Data courtesy of NCAA. Graphic by Tarsha Eason.

The uptick has women’s hoops coaches, athletes, fans and stakeholders talking – and pointing fingers about who is to blame. Yet, as with any complex issue there are various contributing factors, and there is no singular influence on the increased transfer rate. Those influencing factors include changes in the recruiting process, changes in coaching, the different expectations and goals of young people, higher levels of parental involvement in the lives of athletes, the increased influence of social media and changes to NCAA transfer rules.

Understanding and navigating the new world of college athletics is something that coaches and schools are learning how to do now, and the process is just beginning.

Recruiting is no longer the same

Recruiting athletes used to be a grassroots process. College coaches traveled to high school games in the winter to see prospects, and after a relatively brief courtship, a player signed with a school. But as the growth of club ball exploded at the turn of the century, recruiting changed.

National services began to rank athletes, which increased competition to get them. The NCAA strengthened viewing period regulations as the month of July became the main time for coaches to scout and make offers to players before the first signing period, in November.

Many colleges offer bonuses to coaches who can pull in high-level recruits, which adds to the pressure to get them. Coaches get far less time to produce winning records than they did in the early days of women’s basketball, so signing solid players is a must.

“Coaching jobs are coveted now, as there is money to be made,” said former Auburn coach Nell Fortner, who now does analysis on the SEC Network. “A lot of people are trying to get into the business, so it’s competitive.”

Then there are the athletes, who often have their eyes on top programs. If they base their college decisions on ranking or profile only, the result can be a mismatch for both school and player.

Prentice Beverly, who is a national evaluator for Blue Star Media and runs the Balln Prep Basketball Academy, said recruiting mistakes can come from either side.

“It’s a little bit of both kids and coaches,” he said. “Some kids become enamored by (high profile) coaches who come at them, and they don’t ask the tough questions that they should. Lots of people don’t do their homework. Then, some coaches present X, Y and Z and they know they can’t give them that.”

ESPN basketball analyst LaChina Robinson said some parents need to become more familiar with their child’s prospective schools.

“Some families aren’t spending enough time with these programs,” Robinson said. “There are not enough unofficial visits taken where you see a practice. It all goes back to doing your research adequately and knowing what to expect so that once you get there, you’re not taken aback by a coach’s style.”

Coaches can be guilty of signing athletes they hope they can develop once they get to school. But Beverly said that is unrealistic.

“When a coach recruits a kid, they should know what level they’ll be playing at,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a magician – you can’t give that a kid a skill set in the first season if she didn’t have it coming in.”

Jacksonville University coach Yolett McCuin conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of JU Athletics.
Jacksonville University coach Yolett McCuin conducts a timeout. Photo courtesy of JU Athletics.

Jacksonville University coach Yolett McCuin discussed the transfer issue at length in a live April Periscope broadcast. She encouraged athletes to be honest with themselves throughout the process of choosing a college.

“If you get ten letters from mid-major schools, you’re a mid-major player,” she said. “If you get all Power Five Conference letters, you’re a P5 player.”

McCuin said the coaches and parents of players can also get caught up in the recruiting game and place more stress on the status of a prospective program or coach than whether or not it is a good fit for the athlete.

“Some high school and AAU coaches are in it for themselves, and some parents have unrealistic expectations,” she said. “They want their kids to go to a certain school.”

McCuin said both coach and athlete have a job to do throughout the recruiting process.

“It’s our job to sell a product. It’s the player’s job to decipher if what we’re selling is real or not,” she said.

Coaches are evolving and learning to adapt to the “new normal”

Brenda Frese has always been a straight-shooter with her players. She keeps the door to her office, as well as her mind, open. If a player has an issue on or off the court, she’s more than willing to listen. But lately, it seems that might not be enough.

In April, three key players from her Maryland Terrapins team – Kiah Gillespie, Destiny Slocum and Jenna Staiti – announced they were transferring out of the program. The whispers regarding the increase in player transfers is rife with assumptions and speculation about bullying and tough talk. But Frese said there is a larger conversation at play.

“The threshold may not have changed from where it was 20 years ago, but now there are different variables involved,” she said. “There is a resilience factor to this end, and as a parent myself, I try to make sure I’m teaching that with my own kids.”

Maryland coach Brenda Frese has been coaching for 23 years. Photo by Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese has been coaching for 23 years. Photo by Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports.

Frese has been coaching for 23 years, including 15 as a head coach. During that time, she said she’s approached all of her players the same way, in treating them as individuals. But sometimes a player comes to college unprepared or unwilling to put in the work needed to perform and succeed at that level.

“Because of the way youth basketball has changed and adapted to the forces surrounding the sport, there are many players accustomed to being told what they want to hear rather than receiving constructive criticism,” Frese said. “It something that isn’t going away, and I don’t think it’s exclusive to our game.”

Beverly has also seen transfers that stem from lack of work ethic.

“Coaches sometimes find once they get there that a kid isn’t what they thought they would be, so the kid doesn’t get playing time,” he said.

Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley says lately she has been focusing on high-character athletes in recruiting more so than talented ones.

“I’m accountable for wins and losses, of course. But I’m also accountable for helping develop these kids and making sure they’re ready for the next level of life,” Gaitley said. “In the recruiting process today, you have to take more time to really get to know the kids and get familiar with the circle of people around them. And it’s still a gamble. But chances are, if you get the kids that have character it will work out.”

Whereas some coaches used to be legendary for being tough, today’s athletes don’t respond to that style of communication. Perhaps the most high-profile such case lately was Loyola Chicago’s dismissal of coach Sheryl Swoopes last year. The former basketball great was accused by players of verbal and emotional abuse, and several left her program.

To avoid such scenarios, coaches have had to change.

“Back in the day when you had (Louisiana Tech’s) Leon Barrmore, (Tennessee’s) Pat Summitt and (Texas’) Jody Conradt, those were some hard-edged coaches,” said Fortner, who played for Conradt.

“That style doesn’t work in today’s world. You have to find a middle ground now.”

Sylvia Hatchell, who has coached at North Carolina for 31 years, also attests to the change.

“You can’t be as hard on the kids as we used to be,” she said. “Coaching in the late 70′s, 80’s and 90’s across from people like Pat Summitt and Kay Yow, we were tough and players did what you said with no questions asked. Now you have to explain and give a reason for everything. We used to run them, but it made them tough, mentally and physically.”

Dawn Staley coached her South Carolina Gamecocks to a 2017 NCAA Division I National Championship. Photo by Alchetron.
Dawn Staley coached her South Carolina Gamecocks to a 2017 NCAA Division I National Championship. Photo by Alchetron.

About seven years ago, South Carolina associate head coach Lisa Boyer gave head coach Dawn Staley some advice: tone it down. Boyer said Staley’s intensity was too much for her team.

I said ‘Dawn, we’ve got to find another way.’ All they’re hearing is the noise, they’re not hearing what you’re saying to them,'” Boyer said.

Staley listened to her colleague and friend.

“In my frustration, my message was being lost,” Staley said. “It was probably my delivery. Lisa thought the kids weren’t listening, and that I’d lost them, so I began to approach it a little differently. I made them do all the talking: ‘what do you think?'”

“It worked. I just want to get it right; I don’t care how it gets done. I make sure we’re always giving them info.”

Staley said it’s also important to build relationships with athletes now.

“There’s no substitute for communicating – you have to talk to them,” Staley said. “If you’re not talking to them they’re talking to someone else and listening to someone else. You have to care and take time out to build relationships and keep them strong.”

“It has to be part of your daily meetings, asking: is everyone OK? Make sure you find out when their birthdays are.”

Author and speaker Tim Elmore, who provides leadership training to groups around the world, affirms Staley’s approach. Elmore is the founder of Atlanta-based Growing Leaders, and spoke to coaches at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association conference at the Final Four in April. He said communication with Generation Y – those born after Millennials – means forming trust and changing values.

“We must build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth,” Elmore said. “Cultivating trusting relationships must precede confronting players or issuing big challenges to them. Even when you’re the head coach.”

“It’s a different day today. Our title gives us authority but building relationships and adding value gives us influence in their lives. This means we must make some shifts in our coaching style. Don’t think control, think connect.  Don’t think rules, think equations.  Don’t think impose, think expose. Don’t think manage, think mentor. This wins their hearts and empowers them to walk the second mile for their coach.”

Elmore said it is helpful to think of it like communicating with someone from a different country.

“One helpful metaphor for most coaches is to remember coaching young athletes as a cross-cultural relationship,” he said. “In the same way we work harder at communicating with someone from another country (language, values and customs), we must work harder at connecting with a student athlete. They’ve grown up in a different world than the one we did. This should inform our approach.”

Players are taking more control of their college careers

Both Robinson and McCuin wanted to leave their college basketball programs and come home their freshmen year. And both of their mothers told them no. Robinson said her mom was stern about commitment and sticking with the school she’d chosen. McCuin’s mother practiced tough love.

“My mother told me that if I came home I would get a job and work, and I was so mad,” McCuin said. “I stayed.”

McCuin said in the days when transfers were rare, they’d almost always be because an athlete feeling she wasn’t getting enough playing time. Today, there are as many different reasons behind transfers as there are athletes. Quite often, it has nothing to do with the coach. Such was the case for Kaela Davis.

Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis react as South Carolina wins the National Championship. Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images.
Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis react as South Carolina wins the National Championship. Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images.

By the time high-profile recruit Davis finished her sophomore year at Georgia Tech, she held or tied six school records, including most points scored in a season. Yet, that wasn’t enough for the competitive Georgia native.

“I was very successful as an individual, but when I took some time to think about it I realized that while it’s great to have individual accolades, basketball is about team success and being competitive,” she said. “I wanted to be in a situation where the team was competitive.”

South Carolina proved to be what Davis called a perfect fit, and last month, after her first season back after sitting out a year, the Gamecocks won the National Championship.

“Your time is limited in college, and that group took me in and made me feel like a part of it right away,” Davis said.

The same spring Davis left the Yellowjackets, Lexie Brown transferred from Frese and Maryland to go to Duke. Blue Devil coach Joanne P. McCallie said Brown’s transfer was about the degree she wanted to earn.

“A lot of times kids leave a program to get more playing time, or because they don’t like the coach. That wasn’t the case at all for Lexie,” McCallie said. “Lexie wanted more academics… that was a very different transfer. She feels really comfortable in the Duke atmosphere. She also wanted to stay in the traditional ACC.”

Gray, who transferred from North Carolina to South Carolina alongside Davis, alluded to the academic fraud investigation going on in Chapel Hill at the time as one of her reasons for leaving.

“A lot of stuff was going on at the University, and my dad helped me with my decision-making,” Gray said. “South Carolina was closer to home, and I was seeing the success of the program.”

Nicole Kornet transferred from Oklahoma to play her final year of eligibility at UCLA. Photo by Percy Anderson.
Nicole Kornet transferred from Oklahoma to play her final year of eligibility at UCLA. Photo by Percy Anderson.

Nicole Kornet, who transferred from Oklahoma to UCLA after her junior year, penned a widely-read blog last fall cautioning fellow athletes against leaving a school. She said departures have become an epidemic.

“This is the age of the transfer, and it saddens me because some of the reasons players leave are so willy nilly,” Kornet said. “I’ve known some athletes who, like myself, have had great transfers. But at the same time, I wish there was more loyalty with athletes.”

Kornet was highly-ranked going into Oklahoma, and she said she enjoyed the family atmosphere that coach Sherri Coale oversaw. But Kornet was too close to her home in Texas, and was feeling claustrophobic in the small city of Norman. She also couldn’t shake her fascination with California, where she had traveled to during recruiting.

“I’m an adventure person, and I just need to get out and be happy,” Kornet said.

Sometimes athletes do transfer because of lack of connection with the coach. Such was the case for Rachael Gregory, who just finished her playing career at Coastal Carolina University. She signed at the University of Buffalo to play under coach Linda Hill-McDonald. But on the day Gregory graduated from high school, Hill-McDonald was dismissed.

Gregory decided to give the program a try under new coach Felisha Legette-Jack. But after two playing years, Gregory realized it wouldn’t work.

“When someone recruits you, you trust them. If they leave and things get hard, you’re far from home and need a support system,” she said. “I realized Buffalo wasn’t a good fit for me.”

Gregory advises high school recruits to research prospective coaches and ask current athletes a lot of questions on official or unofficial visits.

“Make sure you get time with the players,” she said. “Lots of times you’ll play laser tag or go to a football game and do things you wouldn’t normally do as a student-athlete.”

McCuin said sometimes, the reasons players transfer is a reflection of society.

“If I have an iPhone and it works just fine, the new iPhone comes out and then I’ll want that one because it’s bigger and better,” she said. We are never satisfied as people anymore.”

Parental involvement, cell phones, Internet, social media influence athletes

Andy Landers’ parents drove him to college in 1970 and helped him move into his new living quarters. As they departed, Landers’ father warned him: “boy, don’t you be calling home and running up our phone bill.”

Landers didn’t.

Nell Fortner and Andy Landers on the set of SEC Now. Photo by Travis Bell / ESPN Images.
Nell Fortner and Andy Landers on the set of SEC Now. Photo by Travis Bell / ESPN Images.

“In four years I think I called them maybe ten times,” said the longtime Georgia coach, who now does color commentary and analysis for the SEC Network.

Parents today are more involved in the lives of student athletes, which Landers said is not necessarily a good thing.

“Now young people talk to their parents at least once a day – sometimes three times a day,” he said. “If there’s a problem they pick up the phone and call mama and let her solve it from 200 miles away. Mom can get online and pay that bill.”

“I love parents who want to be involved, but you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Landers said over-communication can rob a young person from learning how to handle issues on her own.

“Let’s say a kid has just walked out of practice,” Landers said. “She calls home, complains, then hangs up and goes to dinner or study hall and forgets about the original problem. Mom calls back later and the kid has already moved on to something else, and mom hangs up, half-convinced. Parents don’t understand what they’re getting when a kid calls.”

Frese had a similar experience at the University of Arizona.

“When I was a freshman in college and away from home, it was hard. I didn’t have a device that allowed my parents to be involved daily,” Frese said. “By the time I called my parents, I had already worked through the problem myself; that’s part of becoming an adult.”

Robinson said young people and their parents are connected by social media and are exposed to comments, comparisons and pressures in an arena that didn’t exist until recently.

“I take it back to the level of access – it all stems from that,” Robinson said. “I go on Facebook and people’s parents are comparing what kids are doing. The level of access is related to their level of visibility.”

“A big part of the pressure on today’s student-athlete comes from social media. So many entities have contact with these student-athletes, and a new level of attention is being paid to high school players. Schools post their interest in certain players; athletes display their accolades on social media.”

The advent of cell phones and the Internet also means people expect quick results, Landers said. But there is a cost.

“We live in an instantaneous world,” he said. “You used to have to go get an encyclopedia or go to a library to get information; now all that information is at their fingertips. The consequence of this is that young people today know nothing about investment. If I had a research paper to do, I typed it on a Royal typewriter. That’s called investment. Today, go to any college campus and you see students on phones. If they have to do a research paper, they Google it.”

“I remember (Bulldog great) Teresa Edwards thinking that if she did well enough her freshman year, she could start in her sophomore year. Now a kid comes from high school expecting to start.”

And though over-reliance on parents and dubious influences on social media might lead recruits and their parents to want the student-athlete to transfer, Landers said that isn’t necessarily the best solution.

“(Freely allowing transfers) isn’t presenting anything real world to student-athletes,” Landers said. “In real life, that’s not going to work. You’re going to have a lot of days on the job where things don’t go your way, and you can’t transfer out of a job.”

Transfer rules and regulations have changed

According to the NCAA, college athletes “technically” do not lose eligibility status when transferring from program to program. Each student-athlete has a five-year window to complete four years of eligibility. That extra year gives players a chance to transfer, which requires them to sit out for one year, without losing a year of eligibility. A waiver process was also available for student-athletes with extenuating circumstances, who were looking to transfer and compete immediately without having to sit out.

In the spring of 2014, the Division I Leadership Council adopted a new regulation that would all student-athletes transferring due to difficult life circumstances not to lose a year of eligibility, thus forever altering the waiver process. The change was meant to weed out abuse of the waiver process and allow students to focus on both their education as well as their athletic career with an additional (sixth year) of eligibility.

And because of those available options, student-athletes now have the ability to steer their college careers in a direction they see fit.

There currently no legislative limits as to how often a student-athlete can transfer programs and the National Letter of Intent (NLI) that players sign when they commit to a certain school isn’t completely binding. An NLI release process exists for players who seek transfers before one full year of eligibility is complete, and it’s up to each school to decide if they will honor the release or not after the NLI has been signed. If the school does not release the player, there are legal options available through the NLI Committee. For players who have completed one full year of eligibility, the NLI is no longer applicable or binding and they are subject to NCAA transfer rules only.

Many athletes appreciate the increased freedoms under the new rules.

“Players are more vocal about their needs,” said Bree Horrocks, who recently graduated early from Purdue University and plans to finish her collegiate basketball career at Vanderbilt. “Less players are willing to stay in environments where they feel they are not being developed as a player, or situations where they feel uncomfortable, unsafe or targeted. Quite frankly, I believe there would be less transfers if both athletes and coaches were more honest with each other and had realistic expectations for each other coming in.”

While Horrocks believes wholeheartedly that coachability is a key part to a player’s success, she also says it’s up to the coach to understand that everyone has a different set of needs. And in some case, “tough talk” can cross the line.

“It’s not acceptable to tell a player they are soft for not playing on an injury, or create an environment where players feel they have to play on injuries. If a coach is going to tear a player down, they need to make sure they also make the same effort to build them back up. I see that being the misstep in many programs.”

“You can’t tear a player down and tall them it’s up to her to bring her own confidence back or send an assistant coach to do the job. That coach needs to bring the same positivity to balance out the negativity.”

Landers said the increased transfer rate is due to what he characterizes as the NCAA “fixing something that didn’t need to be fixed.”

“They got into regulating the number of practice hours per week – at Georgia, we never used all of our allotted 20 hours per week,” Landers said. “Are some sports abusing that more than others? Yes. If there’s an issue with one sport, deal with that sport.”

“Then there came voices saying coaches require too much, when some don’t require enough. Then came guaranteed scholarships, and then the easing of rules around National Letters of Intent.”

The result, according to Landers, is a changed power dynamic.

“The school is on the hook for everything, because student-athletes are now in a position where they hold all the cards,” he said.

McCuin said she thinks the NCAA should institute a one-time transfer rule.

“Student-athletes should be allowed one transfer,” she said. “Because sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.”

NCAA, coaches taking proactive approach to transfer issue

The NCAA has begun steps to look into transfers. In January, the Division I Council approved the creation of the NCAA Division I Council Transfer Working Group. The group consists of athletic directors, senior women’s administrators, coaches and athletes. They will be advised by a 50-member board.

Managing Director of Division I Governance Diane Dickman said transfers have been a topic of conversation among NCAA stakeholders for about five years. The working group was formed to ensure that student-athletes graduate with academic degrees. Dickman said the charge for the group is to develop strategic recommendations that form expectations with regard to transfers, within the context of higher education.

“Responsible recruiting practices is an NCAA principle,” Dickman said. “What does that mean in the space of transfers, and how does that lead to accountability in departing, and in receiving instruction?”

The group should have recommendations for the Division I Council by June, 2018, about developing expectations around transfers within the context of higher education, according to Dickman. This will allow the group to collect significant feedback from stakeholders. The group’s purpose is not to stem the tide of transfers.

“That’s not a stated principle,” Dickman said. “It’s about academic success. The reality is that students transfer in the general population, and so do athletes. No one is trying to say you shouldn’t transfer. The question is in achieving academic success.”

Coaches now prepare for the reality that athletes could leave their programs at any time.

Staley said that she and her staff expected Davis to declare early for the WNBA Draft, as she did, but Gray also leaving for the pros was a surprise.

“I just keep a list of players ready for when people leave,” Staley said.

McCuin has a similar practice.

“I save two scholarships every year,” she said. “Because you never know.”

Additional contributions by Lyndsey D’Arcangelo