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Death of mid-major basketball? Coaches speak on NCAA proposal for first-time transfer eligibility

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For a few months, anticipation has built toward a May 20 vote by the NCAA Division I Council to decide if athletes transferring from one four-year college to another for the first time should be granted a waiver for immediate eligibility in all sports.

An April 30 recommendation to delay that decision doused some water on the imminence of such a rule change, but the council could still push it through or, via legislation, the NCAA may make the change in January.

The build-up toward the May 20 vote has included much handwringing nationally about the death of mid-major basketball, in particular, worrying that, if players can leave and become eligible immediately, smaller schools will become farm teams for the big programs in the sport.

Mid-major coaches already fight off “poaching” from bigger schools — how coaching staffs directly, or through third parties, make impermissible contact with players encouraging them to transfer to a new school.

“I would say a lot of mid-major coaches don’t want it to pass, for good reason, because they don’t want to be poached,” said Weber State head men’s basketball coach Randy Rahe. “If you get a good high school kid and they’re good as a freshman or a sophomore, they’re going to get recruited out of their program. So many mid-major programs don’t want it.”

But it’s not a total cut-and-dry negative for smaller schools.

“(Poaching) will probably increase but it’s going on, I would say, pretty vehemently right now,” Utah State head coach Craig Smith told the Standard-Examiner. “I don’t know that there’s going to be a crazy amount of increase.”

Basketball teams, even at “high-major” power schools, have 13 scholarships. Most coaches typically play nine to 10 players consistently, meaning three or four players might desire a new home simply to get on the court.

Weber State vs. Sacramento State 08

In this Feb. 2, 2019, photo, Weber State head coach Randy Rahe guides his team in a huddle during a game against Sacramento State at the Dee Events Center in Ogden. Rahe has taken Weber State head-first into transfer recruiting this offseason, and new rules may help determine how easily two of them can become immediately eligible to play.

“A lot of players do transfer from high-majors for playing time, and that can strengthen mid-major programs,” Rahe said. “I know people worry about the death of mid-majors because all the good players will be poached and you can’t develop a guy anymore, but if you use it the right way it can strengthen your program, too. A lot of programs have sold out to that the last few years and it’s worked out well for them. You’re getting kids with experience, older kids, they’ve played even a little at a high level of basketball.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in February that a first-time transfer waiver benefits students. Whether a transfer is for playing time, coaching changes, family circumstances, the athlete realizing they want to be close to home after all — it allows them to have that control over their playing career and their studies.

“A lot of times, in recruiting, a lot of coaches will tell kids what they want to hear. And then when they get to school, especially from a development and a playing-time standpoint, it doesn’t match up with what the coach was selling them on the front-end,” Wyoming head men’s basketball coach Jeff Linder told the Standard-Examiner. “In those cases, I think it’s good for kids to be able to explore other options.”

Smith, preparing to enter his third season at Utah State after four years as head coach at South Dakota, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s easy for a lot of people just to look at student-athletes and say it’s their fault. ... We as a coaching staff try to look in the mirror,” Smith said. “Coaches take some blame in this, too — not developing relationships, maybe not recruiting a certain way, promising kids the world and not delivering it, there’s a lot that goes into this thing.

N Carolina A T Utah St Basketball

In this Nov. 25, 2019, photo, Utah State head coach Craig Smith, right, talks to his players on the bench during a game against North Carolina A&T in Logan.

“It’s important in the recruiting process to identify prospects who can thrive in your particular style of play, or location, or school, or whatever it might be, and understand the types of people you’re recruiting and bringing. And then if they decide to transfer, it’s on them.”

If mid-major coaches are filling rosters with more transfers than freshmen, and high-major coaches are pillaging mid-major rosters regularly, the nature of the sport could change. Recent Big Sky Conference scoring stars like Tyler Hall, Jerrick Harding, Jordan Davis, Jeremy Senglin and Bogdan Bliznyuk — all four-year players who claimed top spots in their programs’ record books — are in danger of becoming a relic of an age gone by.

Linder, entering his first season as head coach at Wyoming after leading Northern Colorado for four seasons, says the first-time transfer rule is likely to cause more transfers but disagrees with the sentiment that all current college-aged athletes are abnormal amounts of fickle and selfish.

“I think there’s something to be said about playing at a place for four years and having the opportunity to put your stamp on a program and a university. I do still think there’s a lot of players out there who want that experience,” Linder said. “Not every kid is looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side, there are still a lot of loyal kids out there. They know you’re putting in the work to get them in a position to be successful and you might not see as many kids transfer as you might think.

Northern Colorado West Virginia Basketball

In this Nov. 18, 2019, photo, Northern Colorado coach Jeff Linder reacts during a game against West Virginia in Morgantown, W.Va.

“Guys in the NBA don’t care about where you played at, all they care about is if you can make them better. ... If you can prove that you know what you’re doing and the kids know that, I still think you are going to see kids stay for four or five years.”

Harding expressed similar feelings in February as he neared Weber State’s all-time career scoring record.

“I see a lot of guys who transfer to different schools and they don’t really get to build that legacy at one school. I always felt like I wanted to be loyal to Weber State and things like that just come when you stay loyal,” Harding said.

Linder said recruiting Division I transfers isn’t a magic bullet for success — some transfers move up or down and do well, and some don’t. For both the players to recruit and how many transfers to target, the right philosophy depends on the team and the school.

“You have to decide as a program how you’re going to put the pieces of the puzzle together, put your roster together, and that’s going to be different for different schools in different places,” Linder said. “Some jobs, it might be easier to get high school kids and keep them, and others it might be easier to get transfers and do well.”

Rahe, who is entering his 15th season at Weber State, said, if pushed for a decision, he’d say he’s for the first-time transfer exception being passed “because it’s best for the student-athletes.”

“I’ve always thought the advantages need to go to the student-athletes. When coaches leave for another job and players get stuck with a coach who didn’t recruit them, and the player wants to leave and they get penalized, that doesn’t make sense to me. That’s always seemed like an unfair deal,” Rahe said.

Rahe and Linder spoke to the Standard-Examiner prior to the NCAA Board of Directors’ April 30 recommendation to delay the decision, and Smith and BYU head coach Mark Pope were interviewed after that recommendation.

Linder, Pope and Smith did not make a declaration for or against the proposed change, but all three said coaches don’t hold much control over if or when such a change happens, so they’ll just adjust when the time comes.

“Whatever the powers that be think is best for all parties involved, we’re going to roll with it,” Smith said.

Pope, entering his second season at BYU after four seasons as head coach at Utah Valley, has made an impact on both programs by recruiting Division I transfers, even when such a tactic seemed, at first, less tenable with BYU’s private, religious environment and its honor code.

BYU’s position in the college basketball landscape makes it less likely to lose top players to transfer, even if a first-time exception for eligibility is passed, while simultaneously being an above-average destination for such transfers.

Pope said his top concern isn’t for the impact such a rule would have on programs, whether big or small, but for the athletes.

Transfer waivers help athletes play immediately in obvious situations where a transfer makes sense, like when a coach gets fired or tells a player he probably won’t find a spot in his rotation.

For other reasons, Pope likened the current sit-out rule to the surgical pause — allowing the athlete to consider if a move is the right thing.

The World Health Organization describes the surgical pause, mandatory in the United States, as a brief break from all operating-room activity just prior to incision where all medical personnel involved in the procedure verbally confirm with each other the identity of the patient, what’s being operated on and what procedure is being performed.

“At first blush, a transfer might look like the best thing for me to do ... there’s always been that push that where I am is hard and if I go somewhere else, it will be easier or better,” Pope explained. “But there’s always been that cost of doing business where you know you have to sit a year, and that’s not ideal. Is that something I really want? It makes you really dig down and think hard about if you’re willing to give a year to transfer.

BYU Pepperdine Basketball

In this Feb. 29, 2020, photo, BYU head coach Mark Pope gestures during a game against Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif. Pope has BYU in pursuit of several Division I transfers, some of which may be able to help BYU right away if a new proposal passes.

“If I was just thinking about individual players and their growth, I may think, in a lot of cases, that might be a really good pause. The transfer sit-out year has certainly offered that in a positive way for a majority of players.”

Pope continued: “I live in the transfer portal and I love coaching transfers. I just hope the people making these decisions are extremely thoughtful and keep the well-being of student-athletes and we can minimize the political pressure and other agendas.

“I don’t exactly know what the best route to go is for the student-athlete, I just want that to be considered.”

Contact Brett Hein at bhein@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @bhein3 and @WeberHQ.

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