Everybody’s got complaints, it seems.
Because of the transfer portal and the easing up of the first-time transfer rule, college football coaches have to spend more time than ever re-recruiting their own roster. Because of the introduction of name, image and likeness rights (and the fact that the NCAA has provided the smallest possible amount of guidance regarding them), coaches have to navigate an immature market, deal with amateur agents posing as player representatives and figure out how to divide a collected pool of NIL money like it’s a salary cap. Roster management is harder and more time-consuming than it’s ever been.
Administrators are complaining, too. “College sports are turning into minor leagues!” some of them got to complain in The New York Times. We’ve handed too much control to the athletes, they seem to think, and while everything’s fine now, everything will fall apart in the not-too-distant future if we don’t hand control back to the administrators. Doom approaches!
Everything’s more than fine now, however. The actual college sports product has rarely been more enjoyable. The 2022 college football season, the first in which both transfer recruiting and NIL funding played a truly significant role, was a damn delight. The 2023 men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, full of athletes making real money and, in some cases, playing for their second or third schools, have been so good that it actually prompted me to write about college basketball! Ratings are rebounding for some college sports and surging for others.
Meanwhile, though roster management might be more trying for head coaches than it’s ever been, the rewards are also richer. TCU just made the national title game with a small handful of blue-chippers, a number of key junior college transfers and starters who began their respective careers at Colorado, Louisiana-Monroe, Navy, New Mexico and SMU. That’s a recipe a lot of coaches can and will attempt to emulate.
There might still be only one way to build an actual national title team — amass an army of blue-chippers and deploy them in the meanest, most physical possible way (a la Georgia) — but there are more ways than ever to build a really good team. Here’s a look at the extra decisions a coach has to make and how transfers, juco and NIL usage can quickly reshape a team, for better or worse. With every change comes an inefficiency to exploit, and there’s more change than ever in college football. The coaches who navigate this inefficient landscape better than others will be richly rewarded in the win column.
How many transfers do you take?
Maybe Charlie Weis was a visionary after all. (OK, maybe not.) In 2013, heading into his second season as Kansas’ head coach and realizing just how deficient his roster was from both a talent and experience standpoint, the former Notre Dame head man signed a recruiting class that featured 15 junior college transfers — an almost unheard-of figure — to only nine high schoolers.
After ranking 98th in SP+ in 2012, the Jayhawks improved … to 97th. They were 102nd the next year. Weis was sent packing with a 7-29 record, and successor David Beaty inherited a land mine of a roster, one with no class balance, the same old talent deficiencies and, thanks to a limit on the number of players who could be signed in a given class, nowhere close to 85 scholarship players.
In 2023, a decade after Weis’ failed gambit, new Pac-12 coaches Kenny Dillingham (Arizona State) and Deion Sanders (Colorado) have roped in commitments from a combined 52 transfers. With coaches at schools higher in the pecking order focused on the transfer portal, veteran UTEP coach Dana Dimel just signed a class with 25 jucos. With the abolishment (temporary, for now) of the 25-player class limit, coaches are able to fill roster holes in a way Weis and Beaty weren’t, and we’re in the middle of an experimental phase in that regard. Not too long ago, adding six to eight transfers in a class would have been a sign of desperation; in 2022, FBS schools signed an average of more than seven transfers (from four-year schools alone, not jucos) per team.
First-time transfers no longer have to sit for a season before playing, and that has opened the proverbial floodgates in terms of both player freedom and roster movement.
“The portal does create opportunity for players and for programs to maybe find what is the best fit for a young man,” Troy coach Jon Sumrall said. It has presented some obvious effects for coaches, though. “While we are on the ’24s” — working on the 2024 recruiting class and making estimates of the team’s position needs for that season — “and we have a pretty decent grasp of what our ’23 roster will look like, there’s still this other portal window coming in May, which means it’s not final,” he noted.
In an attempt to build some sort of order into the system, the NCAA instituted windows in the winter and late spring for players to enter the transfer portal. After the transfer chaos of December and January, there has been a bit of a calm period. But once spring practices end, another batch of players will elect to look for a different school. “That’s where things are tricky,” Sumrall said. “There’s always surprises. There’s so many different pieces you can lose.”
A former Troy assistant and, more recently, Kentucky’s defensive co-coordinator, Sumrall took over as the Trojans’ head coach 17 months ago. While first-year coaches around the country loaded up on transfers to engineer quick turnarounds, Sumrall didn’t necessarily have that option. “When I got here,” he said, “there were already 81 players on scholarship [after December’s signing day]. You only had four spots to really play with.
“There’s some good and some bad in there,” he continued. “The good part was, we had a lot of returning production, and we had a lot of guys that had played significant, meaningful snaps at a high level. You cannot manufacture that. There were some great, experienced players we had here. The bad was that I didn’t get to bring in a whole lot of new players — the team kind of was the team for the most part. But that allowed me to really kind of get into the trenches with the guys that were already here.”
Troy had shown potential under Chip Lindsey, Sumrall’s predecessor, but a number of close losses had rendered the Trojans just 15-20 over three seasons. The roster was bulging with both hunger and experience, and with help from just a couple of newcomers and better close-game execution, the team surged to 12-2 and won the Sun Belt in Sumrall’s debut.
Thanks to expiring eligibility, last year’s experience is this year’s challenge. “Now we’re having to go out and replace a lot of critical pieces,” Sumrall said. After almost no transfer presence a year ago, Sumrall’s 2023 recruiting haul has currently balanced 19 freshmen, 11 transfers and 10 jucos. The Trojans remain one of the Sun Belt’s favorites for 2023, but Sumrall is dealing with much more change than when he walked in the door.
What kind of transfers do you take (and when do you contact them)?
There is, of course, no single type of transfer. Depending on your school’s level, you’re evaluating drastically different types of athletes with different profiles. “You’re either looking for a talent that is just stacked up behind other talent at a bigger school,” Sumrall said, “or you’re looking for guys that have produced and seen a lot of snaps and played a lot of football,” perhaps at a lower level.
Of the 11 transfers Troy has secured this offseason, five come from power-conference schools; two come from schools in the Group of 5, Troy’s peers; and four come from the FCS. The five power-conference transfers amassed only 239 combined snaps in 2022, but all were mid-to-high three-star recruits in high school and bring a certain level of potential upside to the table. (Memphis running back transfer Asa Martin, meanwhile, began his career as a four-star recruit at Auburn.) The FCS transfers, however, bring a lot more film to the table, albeit against much lower competition.
At different levels of the sport, the makeup of the portal looks different. “There’s going to be 2,500 kids in the portal, but if you’re in the SEC only about a hundred of them can actually play in your league,” Missouri’s Eliah Drinkwitz said. “And if they’re an O-lineman, everybody in the SEC wants them, and every other top-tier program. It’s going to be you versus another 18 schools.”
Working from this pool, Drinkwitz still engineered massive change last fall, at least on one side of the ball. Attempting to fix a defense that had plummeted to 97th in defensive SP+, he brought in an intriguing mix of veterans from blue-chip recruiting programs looking for a change of scenery (among them: Florida linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper, Oregon defensive tackle Kristian Williams and Clemson safety Joseph Charleston), three-star veterans from what might be called peer recruiting programs (Oklahoma State tackle Jayden Jernigan, Baylor tackle Josh Landry) and an FCS star (Jacksonville State edge rusher DJ Coleman).
Combined with the aggressive playcalling of new defensive coordinator Blake Baker, the effects were transformative. A deeper, faster Mizzou defense leaped to 19th in defensive SP+, and the Tigers improved from 56th to 40th overall. Despite this improvement, and despite help from a diverse pair of running back transfers (Stanford’s Nathaniel Peat and Division II All-American Cody Schrader of nearby Truman State), they remained held back by inconsistency at quarterback and a 2-4 record in one-score games, and finished just 6-7. But the portal more than did its job in Columbia.
“You know, even with the results of our year last year, you look back on the transfers that we took, and we hit on all but maybe one,” Drinkwitz said. “I mean, we nailed it.”
In some situations, relying on the transfer portal for vital talent means attempting to get a head start on who might appear in the portal at some point, and unofficial tampering complaints are common.
“Recruiting these guys before they’ve officially entered the portal,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said, “whether it be by calling their high school coaches, summer league coaches, having guys on your own roster who might have played with them, calling parents, having representatives call parents … we’ve got to figure out how to manage that and police it. It’s just going to become worse and worse.”
It’s fair to assume that, with the success of Fritz’s Green Wave in 2022 — Tulane upset eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State, won the AAC and beat USC in the Cotton Bowl on the way to a 12-2 record and the school’s third AP top-10 finish — he became pretty well acquainted with the idea of bigger-school vultures hovering over the program. But Tulane has managed to keep key stars such as quarterback Michael Pratt, all-conference offensive linemen Sincere Haynesworth and Prince Pines, defensive lineman Darius Hodges and cornerback Jarius Monroe in New Orleans. Fritz has also vowed to set a good example.
“I’m adamant with all our people: We wait for a guy to enter the portal before we start scouting them,” he said. “I’m sure that’s not how some people are.”
Fritz’s head coaching career has taken him through nearly every level of college football, from the juco ranks (Blinn College) to Division II (Central Missouri) to FCS (Sam Houston) to the Group of 5 (Georgia Southern and Tulane). His sympathy for those programs almost cost him a star player.
“I had a kid who just got done playing for us — Shae Wyatt — who was at the University of Central Missouri,” he said. “I was a coach there for 13 years, and I kind of had to be talked into recruiting him even though he was in the portal and everything was above board. I even called the [Central Missouri] coach to tell him that I was looking at him, and he told me I was the 10th guy who had called him that day!” Wyatt indeed jumped from Division II to Tulane in 2021 and, with 12 catches of 25-plus yards (including key fourth-quarter touchdowns against UCF, Houston and Cincinnati), played a pivotal role in the team’s 2022 success.
The less-tapped juco ranks
“Because of my background at Blinn and Coffeyville” — a Kansas community college where he spent four years as defensive coordinator — “I get jucos calling me from all over the place,” Fritz said. He found great success recruiting the juco ranks at previous jobs, though Tulane’s academic standards limit his ability to do so now. “We cannot take a guy unless he’s a qualifier right out of high school, and not all junior college hours transfer here, so there might only be a handful of juco kids that I can recruit [in a given year].”
Other programs have begun to back off jucos for a different reason: simple math. Schools have 85 scholarships to give, and if they’re pulling in six to 12 four-year transfers per year and still attempting to build a strong base of freshman recruits, they aren’t going to have as much space for jucos. That’s creating an inefficiency.
“I was at a real good juco a couple of years ago,” Fritz said, “recruiting one of those kids that was a qualifier out of high school. It was late December, and they said I was the first coach that had been in there. Normally by that time there might have been 40 Division I head coaches in there.”
“Without question, I think the transfer portal has made a higher level of junior college player available,” Sumrall said. “A higher level of high school player too. People are trying to address immediate needs out of the portal that may fix something on their roster right now, and you get less people looking through the junior college guys as closely.”
That could be great news for schools in the Group of 5, at least if they know what they’re looking for. “A lot of these junior college kids you’re seeing now, they’re high school qualifiers,” Sumrall noted. “We took a handful of kids this year that were high school qualifiers — they were just at junior college because the portal had snuffed out maybe their opportunities out of high school.”
To Sumrall, the qualifiers check an extra box. “If a [qualified] kid goes and plays junior college football, they must love football because there’s some hurdles there that they have to go through,” he said. “It shows that they wanted to go somewhere and work on their craft and just continue to play the game.
“Maybe there’s some kids we’re signing here that, five or 10 years ago, could have been SEC kids based upon the way recruiting was,” he continued. “But the numbers have changed, and the transfer portal has affected some of those opportunities.”
“When everything’s unstable, you’ve got to take a risk,” Drinkwitz said, “and it probably depends on what success you’ve had in the past.” He noted that Dimel, progenitor of the 25-juco recruiting class, was an assistant for Bill Snyder at Kansas State in the 1990s, when the Wildcats were milking the juco ranks as well as anyone ever has. “They did that at K-State, and they killed it. Dana knew the formula they were looking for.” Drinkwitz signed only one juco transfer in his 2023 class — linebacker Triston Newson — but Newson was one of the stars of spring practice.
The importance of the 25-man rule change
In conversation, all three of these coaches made note of the importance of the rule change eliminating the 25-man signing limit. “If you could only sign 25,” Drinkwitz said, “everybody would be under because you lose more than you could sign every single year.”
The limit was initially put in place to protect players — successful programs would sign excessive numbers of prospects and ditch players who were getting lost in the shuffle. Because of the rules forcing first-time transfers to sit out a year, those players were left with little choice but to sit.
In the current environment, such a 25-scholarship rule has become player-unfriendly. Schools were struggling to hit the 85-scholarship limit because of it — which meant that scholarship opportunities to play football were going to waste — and with the introduction of the first-time transfer waiver, getting rid of the 25-man limit became the player-friendly move. It was at least partially conceived as a way of helping schools to navigate through the years following the COVID pandemic and the NCAA’s granting of an extra year of eligibility for all athletes involved in the 2020-21 academic year. But there’s an extremely strong case for getting rid of it permanently.
How do schools divide NIL money?
The transfer portal and one-time transfer waiver have significantly altered the scholarship math. But there’s another numbers game that coaches are weighing in the era of the NIL collectives. The vision of allowing athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness initially meant permitting them to appear in commercials or profit from large social media followings. But with almost no guidance from a spooked NCAA, the more shadowy effect of collectives is playing a huge role in both recruiting and player retention.
Schools technically are not supposed to use NIL funds as a recruiting inducement, but off the record plenty of coaches will casually drop references to “having $X to spend in the portal.” Each school ends up with a certain amount to divvy up and a number of choices regarding how to do so. Entice incoming high school recruits? Transfers? Retain the stars who might be enticed into the portal by larger schools?
“Our philosophy is, our best opportunity for success at Mizzou is to retain players who had the potential to play in the NFL but were not a third-round or better grade,” Drinkwitz said. “We want to get them back. If you swing and miss [in the draft], you’re going to be on a practice squad. Well, we’re going to make sure you’re paid better than a practice squad player. We’re going to provide you for a year to get better and improve your stock. If you hit on that, you’re going to make way more. Do you want to cash in your lottery ticket now, or do you want to invest a year?”
In December and January, a number of veteran Mizzou defenders, including Hopper, the breakout transfer star, announced their intention to return to the Tigers for 2023. The Tigers were one of two SEC teams to rank in the top 10 in February’s returning production rankings.
Coaches are navigating through this new environment, but that’s not to say that the NIL market is in any way efficient or that some sort of regulations shouldn’t be encouraged moving forward.
“In the NFL, you have an NFLPA agent, right?” Drinkwitz said. “It’s in his best interest, for the sake of his longevity in the business, to negotiate in good faith, right? But you’re not getting top-level agents here.” Some players are represented by friends or family members, according to some coaches. “You’re getting guys who have been trying to get as many [offers] as possible, they’re coming back and saying ‘So-and-so offered me $12,000,’ and you’re like, ‘There’s no way they offered you a thousand a month.’ ‘So-and-so offered me $300,000.’ ‘What are you talking about?'”
“I know other people are doing things different,” Fritz said, “but I don’t think anybody knows exactly what’s going on in other places. You get kids saying stuff, you get coaches insinuating things, even people running collectives that are saying things that may or may not be true. You don’t really know.”
Fritz is a college football lifer, but even through his diplomatic tone, there’s a sense of his disappointment with the NCAA’s lack of leadership on the NIL front. “The lack of direction with what’s going on is a big surprise,” he said. “We’re kind of figuring all this out on a daily basis. There’s a lack of direction, a lack of foresight as to where we’re going.”
The lack of direction and transparency has had its effects on athletes themselves. Blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada, for instance, committed to Florida in part due to a $13 million offer from Florida’s Gator Collective. The offer was unofficial and unenforceable, however, and it fell through after he had signed a binding letter of intent to play for the Gators. Florida ended up releasing him from the LOI, and he landed with Arizona State instead.
“I remember, I guess it was back in July, there was an email out to everybody,” Fritz said,” and it was basically, ‘Hey guys, figure this out.’ Well, me figuring it out might be different than how someone else figures it out.”
Culture and change
Talk to a football coach for 10 minutes, and the odds are good that he’ll say the word “culture” at some point. Everyone wants to build a healthy team culture, one where seasoned upperclassmen are preaching the team gospel and serving as unofficial assistant coaches when the real coaches aren’t around. It has been vital to countless teams’ successes through the years, and it’s something that could get trickier to maintain if, as Drinkwitz estimates, “I bet you’re going to be turning over 50% of your roster in 18 months.”
“Not to name names, but there’s certain schools that have gone extremely transfer-heavy that, if you just look at the individual talent on the roster, you’d be like, ‘Man, what a team,'” Sumrall said. “But then you watch them play and they’re not a very good team. They may look great some Saturdays, but they don’t look very consistent. I’ll take consistency over maybe some things that are flashier at times.”
Sumrall is new to head coaching, but he’s attempting to head off any turnover-based culture issues with pure, unrelenting honesty.
“I’m very direct and up front when I recruit guys,” he said. “I have guys on my staff that are like, ‘Hey Coach, are you trying to actually get that guy to sign with us, or …’ I just want them to know what the real is. I think if they understand what they’re walking into, you automatically find people that maybe fit your culture to a certain degree. We coach every detail, we’re on everything, and you can definitely taint your locker room if the guys you’re bringing in don’t want to fit what that looks like.”
“I keep hearing everybody talk about how you’ve got to recruit your roster,” Fritz said, referencing the increasing need to avoid transfer portal losses. “We’ve tried to do that since I started coaching. You always want to treat your guys the right way. We try to retain them by providing a culture where they can thrive and grow.”
Despite my snark in the introduction, I do sympathize a good amount with current college administrators. College sports are such a uniquely American thing that it’s hard to find precedent for how change might affect a given landscape. It makes us fear the worst.
For all the ways that NIL absolutely hasn’t negatively impacted the on-field product yet — and for how invigorating it’s been watching athletes actually have more power within the industry — if handled poorly, NIL or the growing legal push to recognize athletes as employees could result in fewer total opportunities for college athletes in the future. And with the precedent the NCAA has provided with its botched handling of NIL, it’s fair to assume the worst when it comes to how it might implement changes related to the athletes-as-employees issue. That would be a net loss.
We are waiting for some sort of resolution one way or another — Congress bailing the NCAA out of its own ridiculous inaction, the NCAA actually growing a spine and attempting to regulate NIL and get progressive on the employment issue, or the NCAA once again stepping aside and allowing court cases and state legislatures to create a creaky and inefficient future. But if nothing else, these uncertain waters are creating opportunities.
As Michael Lewis wrote in “Moneyball,” “What begins as a failure of imagination ends as a market inefficiency.” Those with imagination and solid execution could exploit that inefficiency and win lots of games in the coming years.