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Yelling about transfers is more than a century-old college football tradition

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When it comes to player movement around the sport, coaches and administrators have virtually always found something to argue about.

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Walter Camp
Walter Camp.
Library of Congress. Banner Society illustration.

Today’s college football coaches are endlessly irked about transfers. Gary Patterson says eligibility waivers threaten the whole sport. Mike Gundy thinks transfers are spreading snowflake-ism. James Franklin says they make it too hard to manage a roster.

Infinite coaches think transfers equal free agency — even though college football players have long changed schools less frequently than have college football coaches, regular college students, and athletes in many other college sports, according to the NCAA’s own data.

NCAA data.

On the other side, advocates for player rights think many or all transferring players should be allowed to change schools freely. They object every time the NCAA rejects a waiver request by a player moving closer to a sick family member, but greenlights a high-profile QB who faced the hardship of not being the best quarterback on his old team. In 2018, the NCAA unveiled an online transfer database and loosened some rules before tightening waiver criteria the next year.

None of this is new, other than the word “online.”

College football’s powers have been at odds over transfers for well over a century. Their arguments have usually ended with players having vastly less freedom than coaches and administrators, so that part isn’t new either.

Remember in 2011, when Russell Wilson grad-transferred to Wisconsin and kickstarted a trend?

2011 was the first year Division I graduates were allowed to transfer without penalty, even though an NCAA committee passed the rule in 2006. Schools were so incensed that they used an option to override the vote, something that had only happened once before.

Coaches have always been among the rule’s loudest opponents.

“Just think about it,” Mark Richt, typically more of a pro-athlete voice than his peers, said during the 2006-07 push. “You take David Green; he could easily have graduated after his junior year. All of a sudden your senior year, everybody’s kind of counting on him and he just takes off and goes somewhere else. That would be devastating to his teammates, too. I don’t think it sends a good message.”

All the big conferences voted against it, but it passed. It continues to be the rare rule that restores some agency to college athletes, and many coaches continue to publicly complain about it (while accepting grad transfers onto their own rosters).

In 1993, the NCAA passed a new transfer exception. It became a massive showdown between FBS and FCS (I-A and I-AA at the time).

It allowed football players to transfer down from FBS to FCS without sitting a year, but it didn’t give FCS players going up the same right. And it specifically did not apply to players transferring to teams in basketball, baseball, men’s ice hockey, or FBS.

Patty Viverito, the commissioner of the Gateway Conference, figured players who dropped would mostly be “walk-ons who decide they won’t get to play, who decide the glamour of being recruited by a I-A school doesn’t replace the chance to play. It’ll be the third-string kid at Nebraska who thought he was going to be a college star.”

But FBS schools thought, in Viverito’s telling, that their rivals would use the rule to run off recruits who hadn’t panned out, clearing room for better players. FBS schools staged a vote to rescind the rule, but failed.

Chuck Neinas, the executive director of the association that repped most of the big conferences, threatened a reprisal: “I can tell you that the action taken here will be the subject of our membership at the 1994 convention. I can hear them saying, ‘If players can go down, they can go up.’’’

FCS coaches have long worried their best players would jump to FBS teams under such a system. (Sometimes, FCS coaches who are soon to become FBS coaches even complain about FCS grad transfers becoming FBS players.)

In 2004, the Mountain West brought up an idea that gets proposed by somebody every so often: giving one free transfer to players in every sport. It got voted down, with the NCAA’s Football Issues Committee rehashing an old line: that it would create a farm system.

Texas high schools spent half a century arguing about transfer rules.

In 1931, the state governing body created a one-year sit-out rule, in response to high schools recruiting each other’s players. (This, like just about every other old thing in this article, sounds pretty familiar.)

It also said players had to play all their football within an eight-semester period. This being Texas, some high schoolers had delayed their graduation so they could keep playing. This meant a transfer would lose a year of eligibility, not just delay it.

“There are probably some unscrupulous coaches, principals, and superintendents that have offended in soliciting transfers, but such is not generally the case,” the head coach of an Austin high school wrote in the Austin American when the rules passed, “and there would be many innocent transfers who would have to suffer from a rule.”

Every few years after that, one or another Texas newspaper would check in on the push to get rid of the rule, which didn’t end until 1981, when a basketball player whose family had moved to Texas for work sued with the help of the Texas Civil Liberties Union. The state eventually settled on a rule that required players to sit out if they transferred for athletic purposes.

This wasn’t a college sports thing, strictly speaking, but it sprang up for the same reason college transfer rules have. Keep scrolling.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s, new eligibility standards for JUCO transfers met immediate and constant resistance.

The NCAA decided:

  • Each NCAA athlete needed a 1.6 GPA.
  • Junior college transfers to NCAA schools needed two years of credit hours at their JUCOs and a 1.6 average, or one year while keeping up a 3.0.

The rules bothered coaches like Arkansas’ Frank Broyles, who’d long wanted a rule change to let freshmen play (and would get it in 1972). The 1.6 rule shrank the pool of freshmen who could contribute.

And they bothered JUCOs, because — as Last Chance U viewers are aware — JUCO programs want to sell themselves as routes to Division I.

“This rule is something we’ve been opposed to,” Navarro JC coach Don Duncan told the Austin-American Statesman. “The fact that boys could finish their football and then transfer to a senior college at midterm and participate in spring training has been the strength of our program.”

In 1967, the Ivy League (which didn’t give out athletic scholarships and felt it shouldn’t be bound by NCAA rules around them) and HBCUs (which felt the system was unfair to disadvantaged students) united in a push to get rid of the 1.6 rule. The NCAA banned the Ivys from championship competition but spiked 1.6 in 1972.

After that, nobody argued about academic eligibility ever again!

In 1969, the NCAA allowed JUCO transfers to play right away, which partially mitigated the challenge of making them spend two years qualifying. It also relaxed that two-year rule, but hall monitors claimed schools were padding grades and bringing JUCOs over after one year. The NCAA then un-relaxed the rule before decades later installing something like the current system.

As fans, we carry on this legacy by insisting our rivals just take anybody and don’t live up to the rigorous standards of our own teams, which are perfectly selective about the players to whom they award second chances.

Quick interjection: One thing that wasn’t controversial was the NCAA’s 1961 decision to institute a “year of residence” for transfers.

In 1898, Columbia, Harvard, and Penn agreed on a one-year sit-out for any player who transferred within that group of schools. Many conferences eventually set the same rule, as did high school associations. The NCAA nationalized all those rules at once.

Restricting player rights in a way that doesn’t put any specific conference at a competitive disadvantage has always been one of the few ways to build consensus in the NCAA.

Before that, conferences disagreed on whether players from shuttered programs should be allowed to transfer freely.

These days, people argue over whether to let the latest NCAA-sanctioned team’s players transfer freely. After World War II, a lot of programs shut down entirely, and a similar question came up: What should become of their players?

Leagues had different interpretations. Saint Louis stopped playing after 1949, so the Missouri Valley gave a free transfer to any Billiken who wanted one.

But not every player was so fortunate. Saint Mary’s shut down after 1950. San Francisco shut down after 1951, as Loyola Marymount left major-level football. The Pacific Coast Conference did not waive its transfer rule, meaning juniors’ careers ended suddenly.

World War II was cause for lots of power-conference disagreement over transfers.

At that time, the NCAA had a blanket ban on athletic transfers of any kind. A trade group repping Northeastern schools said the ban had outlived its usefulness.

“A large majority of them think, despite the uncertainties of the period which lies immediately ahead, that the unwanted ‘tramp’ athlete can successfully be discouraged without penalizing the student who follows wholly satisfactory reasons in selecting a new alma mater,” this Central Office for Eastern Intercollegiate Athletics group said.

The NCAA didn’t have teeth yet, so schools just went ahead and took transfers anyway. This was a gold rush. Legions of servicemen were freshly home from the war, and schools generally agreed to waive the one-year requirement and allow four years of eligibility for returning troops — even if they’d already played. This is how Frank Leahy’s 1946 Notre Dame recruited the best class ever.

Not everybody was cool with letting soldiers play wherever they wanted. The SEC declined to give vets transfer freedom, returning to its pre-war tack of banning intra-conference transfers. Only Auburn, Georgia Tech, Tulane, and Vanderbilt voted to free the troops, so it’s fine to call Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee anti-military.

The WWII-era debate makes more sense in the context of the decades-long transfer paranoia that’d preceded it.

Schools were perpetually convinced everyone else was trying to poach their athletes and game eligibility rules. That’s yet another connector to today’s transfers, as is this: most schools professed horror, but most admitted tacitly or otherwise they needed to stay in the transfer market.

In 1926, the Olympic Club in San Francisco — one of many non-college teams that faced colleges in the old days — convinced a player on Montana’s roster, Russell Sweet, to transfer-portal into the Bay Area.

“This was a plain case of proselytizing by the Olympic Club,” Montana’s AD told the AP. “They hounded Sweet day after day with telegrams and special delivery letters, painting rosy pictures of jobs in San Francisco, a home in which to live and a chance to compete for the club in football and track. Finally Sweet succumbed, got married, and went to San Francisco.”

Players leaving to seek wives (and so forth) was apparently a nightmare for admins everywhere. In 1923, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton banned transfers as a way to fend off the evil of “inducements,” the common term for any method of encouraging a football player to enroll at a particular university. A Colorado professor at a 1919 conference asked Eastern colleges to please stop “proselytizing” Western athletes to play ball in the East.

West Virginia, Notre Dame, and other schools swore off transfers. (They’d eventually come back around.) Knute Rockne reportedly believed a player’s only true allegiance could be to the first college he played for, whichever it was.

In 1929, Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching talked itself into believing the college football transfer controversy was nearing its final years:

One phase of the progress of American college athletics toward decency during the past forty years may be gauged by the disappearance of the tramp athlete. From 1890 to 1905 he was to be found upon most college football teams. It was common practice for partisans of certain larger institutions to make almost regular annual campaigns for drawing players away from smaller colleges. The ease with which an undergraduate at one institution might transfer to another, following an importation of the principle of migration among European universities, was furthered by the fact that registration of special students in a single subject was common practice.

Fortunately, today a just appreciation of the functions of migration on the part of administrative officers, the strengthening of college standards, the adherence of conferences to the one-year and three-year rules, and, above all, the enlightenment of college opinion have practically eliminated the tramp athlete and his cousin the “ringer.”

Roughly a century later, people still fight about every phenomenon referenced in the Foundation’s two paragraphs.

If you’re wondering when schools started complaining about opponents seeking transfer athletes, the answer is: However long ago we think it started, it probably started way earlier.

In 1901, football godfather Walter Camp and Harvard got into a beef about one of the first grad transfers ever.

Eligibility had been a hot debate for a few years, with 1889 Princeton proposing a ban against anybody ever playing for more than one team.

In 1892, Oliver Cutts enrolled at Bates College in Maine. That school didn’t field a football team until 1893, Cutts’ sophomore year. He played that year, then missed all of 1894 after breaking a leg. He played in 1895 and graduated in 1896, having played two seasons.

Cutts became a teacher in Philadelphia. He also taught football at the school, which will become important in a second. Cutts enrolled at Harvard Law in 1900, and in 1901, he joined the Crimson as a tackle.

Cutts was apparently good. Camp, Yale’s coach and de-facto AD, hollered about the eligibility of this 200-pound (large at the time), 28-year-old archrival tackle.

“So much unsolicited evidence comes into our hands that Cutts taught football at the school from which he was receiving a salary that we find it difficult to prevent trouble and stop stories, both of which we desire,” Camp wrote to the Harvard Athletic Committee. “Can you give us necessary material to answer strong prima facie case.”

The Globe sent a reporter to Bates, where people claimed Cutts was “just as pure as an amateur as any other college player in the country.”

“No one here takes the slightest stock in the claims made from New Haven, or thinks there is the slightest question of his eligibility,” the Globe reported three days before kickoff.

On the morning of the game, Camp brought forth a Yale grad who said Cutts had received a salary for teaching football, making him a football professional. Harvard’s bosses huddled, and they ruled Cutts eligible after Cutts’ old boss said Cutts wasn’t paid for athletics.

Cutts then played a key role in Harvard blowing out Yale, 22-0.

Camp continued, presenting evidence that Cutts had been paid to privately coach boxing and was thus an athletics professional. Harvard declared Cutts ineligible, but the win still counted, because there were no NCAA timelords around to pretend certain game results hadn’t actually happened.

Losing to your biggest rival, narcing on that rival, and getting little out of the whole ordeal is yet another college football tradition that goes back well over 100 years.