Playing the field

A new system allows student athletes to essentially act as free agents. What does that mean for collegiate teams like the Wolf Pack?

University of Nevada, Reno punter Quinton Conaway joined the Wolf Pack football program in 2017 after transferring from Golden West College.

University of Nevada, Reno punter Quinton Conaway joined the Wolf Pack football program in 2017 after transferring from Golden West College.

Courtesy/University of Nevada Wolf Pack

The National Collegiate Athletics Association transfer process has been a topic of discussion for many years due to the relaxed attitude the association has had with student athletes wanting to change universities. With the new transfer portal in place, though, the process has become more complicated and riskier for all parties involved.

For the first time in collegiate athletics history, a free agency effect of sorts has begun to take shape with the arrival of the new NCAA transfer portal. While an athlete would previously have to request a transfer from their school and would need permission to speak with other teams, they can now enter their names on the NCAA website in the transfer portal. There, teams can search across the country among thousands of players from each sport, looking for the perfect fit for their roster. While every sport has been affected by this new program, football and basketball are where the headlines can be found due to the amount of coverage and revenue generated by both.

Teams everywhere are trying to catch up with how popular the portal has already become, seeing thousands of athletes depart from their original universities to new opportunities that arise as soon as their names pop up on the website. This affects smaller programs more than larger programs. Small schools become desperate to keep whatever talent they have from leaving, but they can also zero-in on unhappy talent at larger schools. While athletes in the Mountain West conference may want to transfer to a university that sees more airtime on networks like ESPN or CBS, players that are already on those televised teams become upset over lack of playing time they may believe they deserve, creating opportunities for smaller schools to gain four-to-five star talent that seemed impossible prior.

“I think the transfer process is an ever-changing landscape,” senior University of Nevada, Reno punter Quinton Conaway said. “I personally think the portal is a step in the right direction in that it gives more power to the players, considering the fact that coaches having little to no rules restricting their movement from school to school.” Conaway joined the Wolf Pack football program in 2017 after transferring from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California.

At UNR, where the Wolf Pack basketball team has become a recognizable foe in the top 25 for consistent Goliaths such as Duke and Michigan, they have found key contributors and leaders such as Caleb and Cody Martin, and constant scoring threats like Jazz Johnson and Jordan Caroline through the transfer system. All but Johnson were lost last Spring to the NBA Draft. UNR was able to combat these losses with the acquisition of Jalen Harris, but saw one of their most potentially talented players, Jordan Brown, leave for Arizona. Brown’s decision to leave hurts mainly because of his status as the only 5-star athlete to ever commit to the UNR basketball program.

Former 5-star recruit Justin Fields made his transfer from Georgia to Ohio State, shocking the NCAA world and stabilizing the quarterback position for the Buckeyes. Citing a racist incident when he was part of the Georgia baseball team, Fields was able to win an appeal that allowed him to play for Ohio State and has currently led the Buckeyes to a perfect 13-0 record and a number-two position in the college football playoff rankings. The incident in question stemmed from a report that Fields was called racial slurs by Georgia baseball teammate Adam Sasser, who has since been excused from the program. While most saw it as a simple way for Fields to play without restriction, Sasser has said he and Fields are on good terms, and Fields has not mentioned the incident since joining the Buckeyes.

“I think the main thing that needs improvement is the waiver for immediate eligibility,” Conaway said. “I think the portal has given players more power, but has some negative impact on smaller schools—the fact that if a player succeeds early on in their career they can transfer up to a higher school if they were under recruited.”

Jalen Hurts, a quarterback from Alabama, made his move to Oklahoma University, where he and the Sooners have a 12-1 record and a fourth place berth into the playoffs. Transfer headlines don’t just include quarterbacks. Outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips and running back Asa Martin, two highly recruited prospects coming out of high school, decided to take their talents to Miami from the University of California, Los Angeles and Auburn respectively.

Smells like team spirit

Sports that have a larger number of scholarships have benefited the most from the portal, as more roster spots makes finding athletes from outside the school’s program a necessity. The transfer portal presents risks on both sides of the game. For players, entering one’s name in the portal means giving one’s current university a chance to revoke a scholarship. The NCAA has no restrictions against a player looking to switch schools, but the university where the athlete attends can remove players from the team to open a roster spot. If the player does not find a new school to join, their position is nowhere near guaranteed afterward.

As teams like Missouri and Texas take advantage of the new system, others, like Arkansas and Louisville, have faced hard times since the portal was put into effect. Arkansas saw eight players decide to compete elsewhere, and Louisville lost two starters and were at one point ranked 123 nationally in recruiting. For teams, there are as many risks as benefits with the new system, and coaches have to be careful in selecting the right athletes for their teams, as well as keeping their own players happy so they don’t see their rosters diminish. Becoming an unsuccessful program and not finding adequate playing time for everyone can see a team lose key players every year. Athletes want to continue their careers to the professional level and will refuse to be held back by universities not abiding by their interests.

The dominant schools that play for national championships every year have found a new way of keeping their roster filled with promising young talent that will keep them in contention for years to come. However, even for smaller schools, losing seniors and juniors can be difficult, and filling their roles becomes even more crucial when fanbases become accustomed to success.

“How certain programs use the transfer portal is dependent on their model and the coach’s mentality,” UNR associate athletic director Ryan Mitchell said during an interview earlier this year. Mitchell comes from a legal background with a focus on conflict of interest issues. UNR coaches come to his office when they find an intriguing player, and he’s responsible for setting up contact with said athlete.

“Coaches are checking this site every day to search for new talent who could possibly join the university,” Mitchell said. “Then they eventually meet the same requirements for any UNR athlete and has their own opportunity at a scholarship for their respective sport.”

The transfer portal launched in 2018. It took over three years to configure the system and a national vote by NCAA members before it could be approved for implementation. Now, in football alone, there are over 2,500 players on the portal, with the total number arriving at over 10,000 different athletes, a number Mitchell expects to continue growing as more talented athletes ride the bench of highly rated collegiate programs, or become unhappy with the lack of attention they receive at smaller programs.

The transfer portal is expected to have a positive effect on collegiate sports and was therefore introduced to every sport in divisions 1 and 2. With new talent coming into every NCAA sport each year, it’s easy to see the portal growing into a system used across the entire NCAA and not just by sports which generate high revenue.

Athletics such as golf, baseball, lacrosse and hockey will all see more action within the portal soon. The only thing holding them back are that football and basketball are the only sports required to play in college before going professional. Basketball requires one year while football requires three before players can enter into the NBA and NFL. Whereas in baseball and hockey, for example, athletes can either choose to play professionally right away or even play internationally, with a chance to earn money and showcase their talents. Obviously, they can still choose to go to college and play for a university, but with ever-changing rules and laws against collegiate athletes being paid and how easily their talents may be wasted in college, it’s hard to imagine many scenarios where those athletes choose college over other opportunities.

UNR’s football team took a hit earlier in the season because of the transfer portal as running back Jaxson Kincaide chose to forgo the rest of his season so he could transfer in the Spring. Nevada’s crowded backfield played a large part in why the senior chose to leave after the 2019-2020 season. Kincaide stated on his Twitter account that it was the hardest decision he’s had to make but ultimately the opportunity for playing time outweighed his love for the Wolf Pack program.

“We have certainly used the portal [to our advantage], but also lost some very good players to the portal, so I think that it has had somewhat of a balanced effect on our team,” Conaway said.

While the portal has opened new gateways into how college athletic programs will fill roster spots, a free agency effect has arisen in collegiate athletics. Athletes can now enter their name into the portal and have several universities clamoring for the opportunity to have them join their program.

Cutting school

Tate Martell, a quarterback who began his career at Ohio State and transferred to Miami due to the addition of Fields, was recently granted immediate eligibility. His waiver included, based on reports, a request to play immediately due to Ohio State changing their coaching staff midway through the past season. Reporters around the country have criticized the portal because it allows players to circumvent typical application and development processes. Ohio State coach Ryan Day was already on the staff when former coach Urban Meyer decided to retire, so it’s still a mystery why Martell’s waiver was approved. Day even played a role in Martell’s recruitment, creating larger issues from those who doubted Field’s intentions when he came to Ohio State and took Martell’s position.

When a player completes the waiver granting them access to play immediately, both the NCAA and the former university have to approve. Reporters have criticized the lackadaisical attitude that many universities take to transfer approval for their former athletes. Ohio State saw no issue with Martell’s request, just like Georgia had no complaint over Fields. This lack of restriction on the part of these universities has widened the scope of opportunity for these players to be swayed by the other collegiate programs looking to take advantage of their talent. They are opened to being wooed by any team looking to host them for the next two or three years of their career. The hope is that, at some point, teams will discourage their former players from contributing to a competing program.

“These are all issues that would still need to be solved, as you wouldn’t want players having a greater effect for another school, but at the same time the process is much simpler now,” Mitchell said. “It isn’t complicated for a great athlete to change where he plays while at college.”

There’s a sense that college football is becoming an open market of sorts, a place where any team can build a competent roster through players that are afterthoughts on superior teams. That’s how UNR has found success in the basketball realm. Teams no longer have to go to different locations to find the best talent in the country, they just have to find the patience to wait until the next great player becomes disgruntled and wants to find a new home. How this affects recruiting in the future remains to be seen, since the portal did not come into effect until right near National Signing Day on February 7, 2018.

Teams will need to strategize how to distribute scholarships to players that might not yet even be able to find the university on a map. College names alone may no longer be enough to entice student athletes to play there. Coaches have to find roles for every one of their highly regarded recruits almost immediately or else face the consequences of watching their teams dismantle right before their eyes.

UNR faces these issues head on, as programs like Kentucky, Ohio State and Duke easily attract players UNR may have at the top of their list. The only way for UNR to stay competitive with schools like these is to win in the transfer game. Even now, with the new hiring of Coach Steve Alford to replace Eric Musselman, Alford faces the difficult task of keeping his own players at the university.

The transfer portal has changed the game of college sports on every campus and with new threats emerging every year, teams will be forced to keep a close eye on what names are being put in each day. Any one player can completely change the dynamic of expectations at a school. UNR and schools everywhere have to change the way they recruit players, as they won’t be speaking just with high schoolers anymore. They’re not just selling them on enhancing their talents with the program. They have to demonstrate to players that joining their program will help the players reach the professional leagues. Athletes need guaranteed playing time, even if that means putting them ahead of juniors or seniors who are about to graduate.

Teams will always need more talent, and the transfer portal is a new way of acquiring that talent without having to travel to high schools all over the country. Programs are gearing up for rapid changes in collegiate sports, and others are just trying to hold on to the talent they already have. Players are making decisions with future intentions in mind. Teams will have to continue to adapt and remain focused on the main goal, winning.

The Wolf Pack has adjustments to make since many of the star basketball players have left. Alford and his staff will not want a talentless team next year, so his view on the transfer portal should stay unchanged from Coach Musselman’s. Programs rebuild, regroup and replenish, and anyone who chooses not to will be on the outside looking in next season.