College coaches need to stop complaining about the transfer portal and start adjusting

Dan Wolken

If you’ve been following how college football coaches have assessed the NCAA’s so-called “transfer portal,” you’re likely to get the impression it is driving us to the end of college sports and eventually to the end of civilization as we know it. 

Even for a group of notorious complainers every time a rule change makes their lives more difficult, The Portal has triggered an avalanche of angst unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. 

“I’m worried about college football,” Penn State coach James Franklin told reporters in February. “I’m worried about what we're teaching young people.”

TCU’s Gary Patterson took it a step further, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that "we won't have college football" if making it easier for players to transfer turns into virtual free agency. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown was the most recent to jump on board, telling reporters he’s “not sure this was the way it's supposed to be,” while North Carolina State's Dave Doeren turned it into a player safety issue, telling ESPN, "What happens when a position group has three guys left in it? I don't think we can manage our rosters the way we used to be able to." 

Penn State coach James Franklin leads his team to the field prior to their Blue White spring game on April 13, 2019.


Even Lane Kiffin -- yes, the same Kiffin who was free to leave Tennessee for Southern California after just a year — blasted the Portal as the symptom of “a generation of just wanting attention no matter what” in an interview with the Palm Beach Post

But here's the truth: The creation of The Portal, which is really nothing more than an electronic database for players to signal their intention to transfer, was only necessary because of the actions of the coaching industry itself.

To understand that, however, let’s talk about what The Portal actually is and why it differs from how things used to work. 

Since last October, athletes who are interested in changing schools need only to inform the school’s compliance staff that they intend to transfer and want to be entered into The Portal. The school must comply within 48 hours, and once the athlete’s name is online, they can be contacted and recruited by anyone. 

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That's it. That’s all The Portal does. Seems pretty reasonable, right? 

But it is a pretty big departure from the way things were handled previously. Prior to The Portal, an athlete wanting to transfer had to obtain a so-called "permission to contact” form signed by the school’s athletic director, which was necessary for the athlete to then talk to other schools. 

In most cases, this wasn’t a big deal. But the “permission to contact” forms were too often used as leverage — either schools wouldn’t sign them if they wanted to try to pressure the player into coming back or coaches would insist that if a player wanted to leave, they couldn’t transfer to particular schools or conferences. 

Those situations rarely worked out well. In fact, they became massive public relations blunders and a constant source of embarrassment for the NCAA.

Some notable examples: 

 In 2011, receiver DeAnthony Arnett wanted to leave Tennessee after his freshman season and go back home to Michigan, in part due to his father’s ailing health. But then-coach Derek Dooley initially restricted him from Michigan and Michigan State, effectively forcing him to a MAC school. The rationale? Tennessee said it had “a long-standing policy of not releasing student-athletes to schools that we play or recruit against.” After criticism, Tennessee backed down and Arnett went to Michigan State. 

In 2012, Wisconsin basketball player Jarrod Uthoff's desire to leave blew up into a huge story when coach Bo Ryan blocked him from half his initial list of 25, including the entire Big Ten, Marquette and Iowa State. He eventually went home to Iowa and, due to Wisconsin’s stance, had to pay his own way for a year until NCAA rules allowed him to get back on scholarship. 

In 2013, quarterback Wes Lunt transferred to Illinois after Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy restricted him from talking to schools in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC.

Former Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings blocked Sheldon Jeter’s attempt to transfer to Pittsburgh, forcing him to go to a junior college for a year. Then, after Stallings went to Pitt, he tried to restrict Cam Johnson (who had already graduated) from going within the ACC to North Carolina (under public pressure, Pitt eventually relented).

In 2017, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had to apologize after initially denying receiver Corey Sutton’s list of 35 schools he wanted to contact, revealing publicly that Sutton had failed a drug test, then finally granting him a full release. 

Former Texas Tech quarterback Michael Brewer was initially restricted from going to any Bowl Subdivision program in the state of Texas before it went public. It was then revised to just the Big 12. He ended up at Virginia Tech. 

Honestly, we could go on and on for hours citing similar situations. And rightly, once the NCAA recognized that coaches and administrators couldn’t help themselves from abusing their power, it decided to change its policy.

“The creation of the transfer portal wasn’t just a progressive step in the direction of giving student-athletes more freedom of choice,” said attorney Thomas Mars, who has successfully represented several high-profile athletes seeking immediate eligibility waivers. “It was also a way to remedy the problem of coaches blocking the exit door just because they could - even when the coaching staff had knowingly misled or mistreated the student-athlete. I witnessed that myself at several different schools before the portal went online last October.”

You can certainly understand why coaches, who are used to having control over everything in their programs, are now upset because they no longer have a lever to pull when one of their players wants to leave. 

But rather than lament about the opportunity to teach a life lesson or complain about making it too easy for this generation to run away in the face of adversity, coaches would be wise to actually invest more in relationships with their players and perhaps think of ways to make their programs a place kids want to stay. 

The power coaches had to make transferring more difficult was used and abused to the point where it had to be taken away to save them from themselves. We can argue whether their current complaints have some validity, but what happened prior to The Portal is not a matter of debate.

“I understand why the coaches don’t like the transfer portal,” Mars said. “But I don’t understand why so many ADs are letting their head coaches gripe about it so publicly. People who are paid multimillion-dollar salaries in other fields don’t whine about new challenges they encounter in their jobs. They’re expected to go figure it out and deal with it.”

Indeed, The Portal is working exactly as it was intended — for the benefit of the athletes. It’s time for the coaches to stop whining and start adjusting.