After one season in recent years, a Weber State men’s basketball player walked into head coach Randy Rahe’s office with a troubled look on his face after a freshman season of inconsistent playing time.
“Can you believe this, coach?” the player said.
“What’s up? Is everything OK?” Rahe replied.
“Look at this,” the player said, holding up his phone.
The gesture revealed a text message from a person doing the bidding of another college program: “Hey, you didn’t get much playing time this year. I heard you might be interested in transferring.”
In an increasingly familiar exchange for Rahe, he asked: “Well, are we good?”
“Yeah, we’re good.”
“Do you need me to do anything, reach out to anyone about this?” Rahe asked.
The young player’s loyalty was resolute.
“Nah, coach. I’ll just tell them to f--- off.”
Similar scenes play out with regularity, not only at Weber State but at mid-major programs around the country. Despite rules against it, coaches and players say athletes receive frequent messages asking about their availability to transfer.
Perhaps at no other time has general sentiment been more favorable for college players deciding to change schools. The recently instituted NCAA transfer portal allows athletes to transparently initiate the process of changing schools and theoretically allows coaches to recruit them in a straightforward, ethical manner.
But even in an age of policies shifting toward player empowerment, there’s still something relatively odious about sniffing around another team’s player who hasn’t declared any desire to leave their current school.
In an online guide for athletes, the NCAA’s “permission-to-contact” rule is explained like this: “If you are enrolled full time in a four-year school, athletics staff members from an NCAA school cannot contact you or your parents unless they first have a letter from your current athletics director ... If your current school does not grant you written permission-to-contact, the new school cannot encourage you to transfer.”
But mid-major coaches say it happens. Frequently.
HOW POACHING HAPPENS
“If they’re someone who’s a freshman of the year, or an all-league type player especially as a freshman or sophomore ... I’d say close to 100% have probably heard from somebody behind the scenes or someone whispering in their ear,” Northern Colorado head coach Jeff Linder said. “I’d say 90% of those types of players hear it.”
The permission-to-contact rule is clear so, typically, coaches and players say the process looks something like this: a staffer, like an assistant coach or video coordinator, might work through a player’s high school coach, summer-league coach or someone else with a connection to let the player or his parents know a “bigger” school is interested in accepting them as a transfer.
That repeats the same number of times as there are interested schools in a process many call “poaching.” It's against the rules, but difficult to track.
“The transfer portal, I don’t really have a problem with it,” Rahe said. “Kids can just take off whenever they want but, on the other hand, you look at when coaches take off and those players are still stuck to that program, that’s not right either. So I’m all for the kids having choices and having the freedom to do things because there’s a lot of different circumstances that may make that happen ... kids should have the right to take care of their own careers.
“But I do have a problem with people trying to recruit guys out from under you,” Rahe continued — “guys who are already in your program who have no intention of transferring or maybe have never even thought of leaving, and guys are going behind the scenes, third-party guys, trying to open up the door, trying to contact them to let them know whatever school will take them if they want to transfer. I have a real problem with that.”
Many power programs keep tabs on the country’s best mid-major players in the event they’d need instant upgrades to their roster, he said.
Now-NBA superstar Damian Lillard received a continuous blitz during his Weber State career. Rahe said once after a postseason game, assistant coaches of WSU’s opponent stopped Lillard in the handshake line to say “if you want to transfer, we’ll take you.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m not totally worried about it, because I am. We had a couple guys being recruited this spring,” Rahe said. “But I trust the kids we have and know they’re good kids, I feel pretty confident about that. When I first hear it’s out there, it concerns me but, when you sit down and talk to the kids, the concern is over with.”
Jordan Davis, last year’s Big Sky men’s basketball MVP as a senior, felt a lot of pressure after his sophomore season at Northern Colorado, Linder said. The Bears completed that 2016-17 season with a self-imposed postseason ban after NCAA violations under coach BJ Hill. Linder says Davis got the full-court press from other programs, playing on the uncertainty that posed.
Linder, who was an assistant coach on the staff that recruited Lillard to Weber State, said that, like the player who came to Rahe with his phone, some players are more immune to that pressure than others.
“Just like in the case of Dame ... those guys are just cut a different way and are just really loyal,” Linder said. “They’re comfortable enough in their skin, they don’t have to be at a so-called bigger school. They know at the end of the day, they’re going to get coached just as well, if not better, being at the places they’re at. So even though people are trying to put thoughts into their heads, they’re strong-minded enough that they’re not going to get distracted by that.”
Jeremy Senglin, Weber State’s record holder in career points and 3-pointers, said he was contacted every summer during his college career.
“I would have AAU coaches and other people come at me with different ideas about different schools and all that,” Senglin said.
Senglin said he knew his role at Weber was relatively secure and sticking with it was better for his future than risking becoming “just a guy” at a bigger school. He just completed his second professional season, shooting 41.3% from 3 for Nanterre 92 in France, after playing his rookie season for the NBA G League’s Long Island Nets.
“Coach Rahe did a great job of trying his best of keeping all that stuff and all those people out of the way, but there were still people I was close to that had my number and would get in contact when they could, and say what they had to say and convince you of different things,” he said. “But you just have to stay true to who you are and that’s what I did, just stay committed.”
Former Weber State forward Joel Bolomboy said he, too, was contacted by schools, directly or indirectly, every offseason. He was WSU's sixth man during a 30-win season as a freshman. As a sophomore, Arizona coach Sean Miller said Bolomboy "will play in the NBA" after WSU made Arizona sweat in the NCAA Tournament. Weber finished below .500 his junior year, which he said made big schools assume he was "vulnerable."
"Toward the end of my career, it just got to the point where it was annoying," Bolomboy said. "I’d hear from agents or AAU coaches or whoever ... it was like 'man, I don’t want to talk about that, that’s all I keep hearing. I just want to focus on getting myself better and helping Weber win.'
"I understand schools when they do it, they obviously want the best players. But it’s kind of slimy, in a way."
Bolomboy helped WSU return to the NCAA Tournament as a senior and left as the career leader in rebounds and blocks — and, like Miller predicted, did play in the NBA. He was a second-round draft pick of the Utah Jazz in 2016 who appeared in 18 games over the next two seasons between Utah and the Milwaukee Bucks, while also logging big minutes for their associated G League teams.
Bolomboy, who spoke with the Standard-Examiner just after returning home from Russia, played for CSKA Moscow this year, a team that won both the acclaimed EuroLeague and the Russian VTB league.
He said he stuck with Weber State each offseason for the same reasons he originally committed to WSU over schools like Auburn, Clemson and Florida State: he felt big programs just threw their names around and assumed you'd be impressed, while Weber sat him down and outlined a career path for his success.
"(Transferring) wasn’t an option for me. I was smarter than that," Bolomboy said. "It all sounded good but, if I go there, then what? So many factors could play into it, I told myself there was no point in entertaining all that talk."
IMPACT OF GRAD TRANSFERS
It doesn’t always end when a player gets older, either. Players who graduate with a four-year degree but still have athletic eligibility can transfer to a new team without sitting for a season, which is otherwise usually required during a transfer.
While graduate transfers seem less dubious in their ethicality — the ability to leave is clearly allowed in NCAA rules and many argue a player’s commitment to their original school is complete upon earning a degree — it’s no less painful to build a team toward a special season only to see a star leave for greener pastures.
While graduate transfers are within the rules, mid-major coaches say bigger programs skirt the permission-to-contact rules in order to line those players up, too.
“I had players on my team being recruited during the season,” longtime Oakland head coach Greg Kampe told Mid Major Madness in a podcast posted June 10. “I had three kids this year who would become eligible as graduate transfers and they would play good games and go home and get phone calls — people telling them ‘you’re too good for Oakland, you should be playing here. You had 32 tonight, man, we’ll get you here next year.’ It’s turned into an unbelievable mess.”
Oakland, a mid-major program in Michigan that competes in the Horizon League, had high hopes for the 2019-20 season — winning games in the NCAA Tournament, Kampe said on the podcast. Though all three of those players originally released a statement through the school that they would remain at Oakland, Jaevin Cumberland — a 17 points-per-game scorer and 40% 3-point shooter — said a month later he was transferring and left for Cincinnati.
On another podcast posted the same day, former Utah State and Utah player David Collette revealed his use of a third party to facilitate his controversial decision to transfer out of USU two days before the 2015-16 season.
Collette committed to USU under legendary coach Stew Morrill, who retired after Collette’s freshman season. Growing discord after that season led Collette to finally leave, a path he told the Aggie Legends Podcast began after his freshman season by having his AAU coach contact schools.
“Now we go back to at the end of my freshman year when I was getting those offers. He started reaching out to those schools for me. What’s still available, if I leave right now, who’s got a spot available for me. He had talked to the coaches at Utah,” Collette said during the 76-minute episode. “The way I transferred technically was not legal ... I had people communicate for me.”
FIGHTING IT OFF
With rules already clear that contact with a player at another school is not allowed, Senglin says there’s probably not much else that can be done. There’s always an old coach, a friend, someone they can find on social media to start asking the transfer question.
“The NCAA can put up as many rules as they can, but everybody’s going to find a way around them or break them at the end of the day,” he said.
So how do smaller programs ward off endless, rules-discarding pursuits of their top players?
“That’s why I have to show them every day, I can’t have off days as a coach so they know that when the time does come that they have a chance to graduate and leave, or somebody is saying there’s a better opportunity elsewhere, that they can tell that person, ‘No, the best opportunity, the best situation for me is here,’” Linder said.
Rahe said in about three instances when poaching efforts have felt particularly serious, he’s picked up the phone.
“I got a coach on the phone, and I was not happy. I said ‘hey, I heard this was going on, you guys better knock this crap off. He’s not going anywhere but just the fact you’re doing it is not right,’” Rahe said. “Of course, they deny knowing about it ... even if they deny it, at least they know I know.
“When that happens, you can’t tie them to it because it’s all behind the scenes. You can’t really hold them accountable because there’s nothing there that proves it.”