Without exception, players who earn a degree, yet have playing eligibility remaining are allowed to transfer to a different school and play immediately. Normally, transfer students must sit out a year before being permitted to play for a different school. The remaining eligibility could come from being red-shirted (usually as a freshman), requiring the player to sit and practice for a season before being permitted to play in regular season games. Other causes for remaining eligibility could stem from medical/injury reasons, as well as by taking summer classes and graduating early.
As the 2015 college football season kicks off tomorrow, it is worth noting that two of last season’s four playoff teams will be starting quarterbacks who played for another university last season. Oregon’s Vernon Adams, a transfer from FCS (Division II) powerhouse Eastern Washington, will replace last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, and freshly-minted transfer Everett Golson, who started in the national championship game three years ago as a freshman for Notre Dame has been dubbed the replacement for 2013 Heisman winner and national champion Jameis Winston. Also named a starting quarterback is Georgia’s Greyson Lambert, who started nine games for Virginia a year ago. Most notably, Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson racked up huge numbers for North Carolina State before transferring and winning a Rose Bowl at Wisconsin. In addition to quarterbacks, several graduate transfers are expected to make a major impact on their teams this season, including Stanford grad and new Penn State offensive lineman Kevin Reihner and former Michigan standout and current Auburn cornerback Blake Countess.
While that is not an uncommon practice for to switch teams in pro leagues, playing for two different teams in consecutive seasons in college was impossible a decade ago. In 2006, the generally rigid National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) offered a surprising concession to players, the graduate transfer rule. Without exception, players who earn a degree, yet have playing eligibility remaining are allowed to transfer to a different school and play immediately. Normally, transfer students must sit out a year before being permitted to play for a different school. The remaining eligibility could come from being red-shirted (usually as a freshman), requiring the player to sit and practice for a season before being permitted to play in regular season games. Other causes for remaining eligibility could stem from medical/injury reasons, as well as by taking summer classes and graduating early. A graduate transfer must also enroll in a university whose graduate program offers a major the student athlete is pursuing that the origin university does not.
Although the NCAA has considered rescinding the rule on multiple occasions, including immediately after adopting it in 2006 as well as this past spring, there is a good chance that the rule is here to stay. The NCAA appointed a panel of coaches earlier in the year to review the parameters of the graduate transfer rule, with the coaches recommending that graduate transfers should be forced to redshirt the first transfer year, but be permitted to play an additional sixth year. The NCAA, however, quickly scuttled that recommendation. The transfer rule was implemented to help improve graduation rates; but many in the NCAA like Northwestern’s football coach Pat Fitzgerald believe that the existing rule does not put enough, if any emphasis, on graduate transfers completing their advanced degree. Fitzgerald said, “The intent of the rule is not the true practice of the rule.” Only 24 percent of all 2011-2012 NCAA football graduate transfers completed their graduate degree, 32 percent for NCAA basketball players. According to Fitzgerald, Northwestern, an academic powerhouse and football doormat, only accepts graduate transfers that have “full intention” of earning their degree. Critics also believe that granting extra years takes scholarships away from incoming freshmen. This may be true, but even the coaches on the panel would have to agree that a fifth-year senior is much easier to coach (and more likely to play) than a wet-eared frosh.
While it’s true that most players seeking a graduate transfer are doing so for football (or basketball)-related reasons much more than for the love of academia, it would be a rush to judgment to assume that players are gaming the system. Although graduate transfer situations may vary on the individual context, players who are red-shirted are often not the most highly-recruited athletes out of high school. Many of these players have had to work their way through the ranks to become respectable enough to become recruited by another school to play for just one season. Second of all, the high-stakes game of college coaching in which lengthy tenures are admittedly more common than in the pros, still involves a great degree of turnover. The graduate transfer option allows players who have lost the coach who recruited them a chance to “earn their freedom” in a system that doesn’t require those coaches who switch teams to sit out for a year. Finally, a player who earned a degree, especially those who graduate early, probably went to class and took his studies seriously. As many fans cynically refer to college football players as “student athletes,” it’s hard to mock one who actually graduated with a BA or BS. Still, as the graduate transfer ranks increase with every season, especially with this year’s highly-talented crop altering the college football landscape to such a degree, it may lead many to wonder whether or not the NCAA will ultimately pull the plug on the rule.
Chicago Tribune – Teddy Greenstein
ESPN – Ivan Maisel
New York Times – Marc Tracy