Mass transfers are hurting the college game, longtime coaches say

Kimberly Davis Powell. True Vine Media photo.

The number of Division I players in the transfer portal has been close to 1,100 this past week – an all-time high for what has become a trend in April over the last decade.

It has been remarkable to watch the number of players announcing transfers creep up day after day. But what has been even more eye-popping is the wholesale team hemorrhaging that is taking place, which hasn’t been seen before.

It’s fairly common this year to see 3-5 players per team in the portal. Several of the 315 programs that have lost personnel have 6 or 7 leaving. And there are three teams that have eight transferring, four teams with nine, three teams with 10 and one team with 11 athletes on their way out. That’s a total rebuild on the horizon for those 11 programs.

It’s easy to blame the head coach or the season record when a player exodus occurs, but a look around shows that athletes are leaving teams with every kind of coach and record imaginable.

Their coaches have anywhere from 1-38 years of experience at the schools they are leaving. Some just finished seasons where their teams went deep into the NCAA Tournament; some played in the WNIT; and others didn’t qualify for postseason play.

The two National Championship teams, South Carolina and UConn, have each seen three players depart. The other Final Four teams – Stanford and Louisville – have also had transfers, indicating that even making it to the last possible train stop in a basketball season isn’t enough for some.

The issue is likely exacerbated this year by the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes for the lost NCAA Tournament of the COVID-19-impacted 2019-2020 season. Many are electing to take the extra year, which may encourage other players to leave. But this merely adds to an already-complex situation.

In researching the transfer issue five years ago, athletes cited numerous reasons for jumping schools, from the mundane to being closer to home to not finding the right fit within a program. Whatever the case, players feel freer to transfer than they did a generation ago, when such jumps were rare.

Part of the issue lies in the recruiting process, which now can begin as early as elementary or middle school. College coaches compete to sign the top prospects, and athletes jockey for the best looks and offers from schools. The result can be a mismatch that ends in divorce.

Kimberly Davis Powell, director of Essence Girls Basketball in Florida for the last 25 years, said the NCAA’s lifting in 2020 of the one-year sit-out rule after transferring made the situation worse.

“I don’t like it because now a lot of kids go into a school without taking the time to really think about it the first time,” she said. “They think they can just leave. But you have to prepare before you go in.”

Powell said some coaches have been “exposed in how they treat kids.” But some athletes also now feel a measure of free agency.

“Some kids get to a school and find they aren’t getting the control that they want, so they say, ‘I’m out,’” Powell said.

Tony Bozzella. Seton Hall Athletics photo.

Seton Hall coach Tony Bozzella has seen players transfer, and has taken transfers in three decades coaching Division I. He said now most athletes want to play in the WNBA – and some coaches will use that as a selling point. But prospects don’t usually understand how difficult it is to find a spot in the 144-woman league.

“I say, ‘why don’t you watch the draft, watch who makes it, and see how hard it is?’” Bozzella said. “Right now we have two kids who could make it, but it’s so hard and so special if it happens. We still have work to do.”

Bozzella said the transfer portal has “hurt high school basketball a lot” because it has further limited recruiting opportunities.

“Right now (college) coaches are looking for a more established player who can come in and help immediately,” he said. “Coaches used to look for a high school player that they could develop, and now, with all the transfers, many are afraid to put in that time. What if you put in the work and they leave after one year?”

Powell has heard the same thing from collegiate coaches.

“I’ve had coaches tell me that they’d rather recruit a transfer than a high school player,” she said. “That process is only a month or so, while otherwise, it’s years.”

Top recruits can sometimes get caught in the middle of this quandary.

“If it’s late enough (in the recruiting season), I’ve had coaches ask me, ‘why is she still available?’ if she’s not signed,” Powell said.

Student-athletes make assumptions when contemplating a transfer, according to Bozzella.

“Kids go into the portal and think they’re going to get a million looks, and if they don’t, they’re stuck,” he said. “They often think that if it wasn’t perfect at the last school, it will be now. But what if it isn’t?”

Players also have to meet the academic requirements of transferring, which is to have 20 percent of a degree completed after year one; 40 percent after year two; and 60 percent after the third year.

The increase in transfers has made extra work for everyone.

“This is the worst thing for the game, because now you have to hire an assistant to deal with transfers only,” Bozzella said.

Powell is part of a group that plans to approach the NCAA about instituting a one-time transfer rule for women’s basketball, mirroring softball.

“That makes the most sense,” she said.

If the NCAA does go that route, they will receive pushback from those who support unlimited student-athlete transfers. Their argument is that because coaches are allowed to take new jobs, athletes should be able to change schools whenever they like.

Bozzella doesn’t buy that line of reasoning.

“If I decided to leave Seton Hall for USC, there’s a monetary buy out involved,” he said. “My new school would have to buy out my contract from the school I’m leaving. There’s no similar consequence for student-athletes.”

As of today, just under 16 percent of those in the transfer portal have reportedly found their new school.