Toward the end of Wednesday’s UConn Coaches Road Show event, once the floor had been opened to audience questions, a fan asked Huskies football coach Randy Edsall about what he saw as a fundamental unfairness. College football programs could develop a player over four years, then watch him transfer to another school for a graduate year right as he matured into stardom.
In response, Edsall offered a potential solution: spread players’ academic requirements over four and a half years (instead of the traditional four) so they’re out of eligibility by the time they finish their undergraduate degrees.
Though Edsall later clarified that he wouldn’t and couldn’t stop players from graduating when they want to, he said the situation the fan described was an example of how the ongoing rise in player transfers creates dilemmas for college programs. In some ways, Edsall said, coaches face disincentives to graduate their players quickly, because doing so makes it easier for those players to leave.
“If we have kids on our roster who are good enough academically to be able to graduate and get into grad school here, I’m all for that," Edsall said Thursday. "But I can get burned if I have kids that graduate and have the ability and go somewhere else.”
The recent rise in graduate transfers has affected the entire college sports landscape but is particularly relevant in football, where many players redshirt their freshmen years so they can add an extra season at the end of their careers. NCAA rules say that players who finish their undergraduate degrees in four years but retain eligibility can transfer to a new school without sitting out a year.
Edsall said the decision about how fast a player should move academically can be complex. If a student has the grades and desire to finish school in four years (or even in three), he is welcome to do so, the coach said. But when a player wavers academically, Edsall prefers to stretch his undergraduate stay over four and a half years, both for the athlete’s personal benefit and for the good of the football program. That way, Edsall said, the player gets a more manageable course-load and the team doesn’t have to worry about him transferring to attend graduate school elsewhere.
When a player wishes to stay at UConn after four years but doesn’t have the grades to earn entry into a graduate program in Storrs, Edsall said, it often makes sense for all involved to have him take fewer classes during his senior year so he can stick around for a fifth year as an undergraduate.
Looming over the equation is a fear, shared by many coaches, that talented players will take advantage of a 2011 rule change allowing athletes relative freedom to switch teams once they have completed their undergraduate requirements. Coaches have widely bemoaned the repercussions of that change, with UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma saying Wednesday that the rise in transfers has made college sports “almost like pro free agency.”
“Not only are you recruiting high school kids,” Auriemma said, “you’re recruiting your own kids to stay and you’re recruiting players who have already played in college somewhere that you know want to leave.”
Proponents of liberal transfer rules argue that players deserve freedom to play at whichever school they choose. A suggested tweak that would have discouraged programs from accepting graduate transfers was shot down in April, leaving the system intact.
Edsall said he worries that the NCAA has created a “feeder system,” allowing major-conference powerhouses to poach players from schools in smaller conferences, which then pillage programs at lower levels. UConn tight end Tyler Davis, for example, left Storrs with a year of eligibility remaining, transferring to Georgia Tech for his final season.
The risk of losing top players to rival schools, Edsall said, creates the temptation to slow down players’ academic progress to keep them around longer.
“Do we want to be a program that’s gonna graduate kids in three years and we’ve developed them and they’ve become good players and then, boom, they leave?" Edsall said. "That’s two years of their football career we don’t benefit from.”
Ultimately, though, Edsall only has so much say in what a player does.
“If a guy graduates and you lose him, I can’t do anything about that," Edsall said. "I don’t like it, but I can’t do anything about it.”
Edsall was not the only UConn coach to grouse this week about the ramifications of graduate transferring. Auriemma described the system as “insanity,” while men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley lamented that players can be too quick to leave.
“[Players] are either looking for the biggest stage that they can possibly play on, or if things don’t get off to the best start where they are, they’re looking for an easier path.”
Field hockey coach Nancy Stevens offered a different sort of answer when asked about transfers. She said the trend hasn’t affected her sport as much as it has affected higher-profile sports but that she attempts to help players who graduate with a year of eligibility remaining.
“If they’re not a projected starter for us, we’ll make phone calls around the country to find them a full scholarship to get a graduate degree and play for somebody else,” she said. “We just look at it a little differently.”