If you’re anything like myself the relatively recent changes to college football as it pertains to the transfer portal has put your mind in a bit of a pretzel. While very few would argue against any proposal that would appeal to the betterment of the sport or the betterment of the players, the traditionalist in many of us still squirm a bit in our seat as we see the statistically significant influx or exodus of players at the end of each season from nearly every single program across the country. Spending years investing time and energy into knowing the players, watching them develop in a system, and then seeing them grow into stars as the weeks went by was a fundamental part of the sport. The annual roster analysis made the offseason exciting, looking over them obsessively to see who was graduating or going pro, trying to find out if the promising sophomore was going to be good enough to fill the hole on defense, or if the second string QB could handle the pressure of the lights and expectations the following year.
While my formative years of college football fandom leaned heavy on preseason magazines and the early stages of Al Gore’s internet, the excitement level was really contained into a six month period between August and January. Sure, spring games existed, and a few players may move around on occasion for personal reasons, but the annual high school recruiting class was your bloodline to see where your program would be in two, three, or even four seasons down the road. I’m here to tell all of you who still yearn for that feeling, who still viewed the day Athlon, or Lindy’s, or Phil Steele dropped those magazines as an early Christmas present, that day didn’t disappear, it multiplied. That's the power of the portal.
Transfers have been around for awhile, but with the minimization of the restrictions associated with each transfer, you no longer have to wait a full calendar year to see if that cornerback from UCLA is as good as he looked out west, or if that transfer QB from Ohio State could be the one to guide the program for the future. Those moves can happen fast, that player can be infused into your program in a matter of weeks instead of months, and a down year on paper in the Spring can now turn into a competitive season very quickly. But, the obvious “other side of the coin” is that those sudden departures can happen to your program as well...
“Wait....I followed his recruitment for months, he came here, we developed him, he got some playing time as a freshman, and now...he’s just gone?!?”
“We spent years building this guy up, feeding him the ball, making him a star in the offense, and then...he bolts for a bigger program?!?”
“We passed on other players to get him here and then he turns his back on the program and leaves because he wasn’t playing enough?!?”
The odds are if you remember where you were when the ‘Challenger’ disaster occurred, you’ve uttered one or all of the statements above. Before you scream age-ism, let me tell you that I’m not far behind, and I have thought some of the same things myself even as a man of “less experience”. The problem for me initially was the “change” overall, speaking in generalities, and the sport I grew to love was shifting away from many of the things which still exist for me as core memories decades later, but like we often hear, change can in fact be good.
In the last couple years I’ve slowly got on board with the “transfer train” and realize that the tradition of old can be modified, tweaked, adapted, and still exist in a way that grows the sport, increases possibilities for quicker turn arounds, and generates a buzz that can quite literally last the entire twelve month calendar. So if I love the sport, the rivalries, the bands, the student sections, the chants, and the insanity of the fanbases....why can’t I fall in love with this as well?
Instead of just investing a short period of time learning about the 17 and 18 year old who will walk onto campus 5-6 months after they sign a letter of intent, you can dig into athletes from across the country who are interested in your favorite program right now, and can be getting reps in those facilities weeks later, not waiting until after their Senior prom. Instead of wondering what that freshman may be able to develop into in two or three years, you can go and grab a proven athlete to contribute today, in a position of need for the upcoming year. That’s the power of the portal. The foundation of the program, I believe, is still built around your recruiting of high school athletes and the guys which joined the program just last week on NSD, but having a rough year of it during a coaching transition or a poor ‘on the field’ performance no longer has to set the program back for a full year, more options for players mean more options for coaches, and those options have helped to level the playing field in many instances.
While the fear was that the portal only allows the rich to get richer, what we’ve seen is that stellar athletes growing tired of waiting their turn at blueblood programs are now moving around to get playing time, and superstars at the group of five level or below are getting a quick option to showcase their skills along side the best in the sport. What was originally framed as a move that would ruin the sport has allowed non-traditional powers like TCU or Washington to quickly elevate themselves to being national contenders with a mix of development and strategic transfers. Ask a Washington fan how they feel about the portal. You’re likely to hear something drastically different from the quotes shown above as players like Michael Penix Jr and Dillon Johnson have them in the college football playoffs in 2023, the same way players like Emani Bailey and Jared Wiley helped propel TCU to the title game along side developed talent in 2022. So how do we get fans, and boosters, and casual observers alike to buy into the portal? Well, a good first step is to have your coaches not only embrace it, but dominate it.
(Part Two of this series tomorrow looks at how Louisville has used the portal on the offensive side of the ball)