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ATLANTA — You can count on Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson for a lot of things, among them running the dang ball on first-and-10, outperforming where his team gets picked in the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll and going for it on fourth down in situations that would make other coaches call for their punter without thinking twice.

But Johnson's other endearing gift is his plain-spokenness in an era when many of his colleagues are afraid of saying the wrong thing. So when the NCAA Division I Committee on Academics made recommendations last week that would significantly loosen transfer rules tied to grade-point averages, Johnson was a natural person to ask for an unvarnished opinion.

"I think it's nuts," Johnson said this week, which echoes what many of his colleagues are saying on and off the record as the outline of a real proposal gains steam at NCAA headquarters.

Here's the bottom line: The NCAA's working group on transfer rules is considering a number of proposals to reform a system that clearly isn't working the way it should, and there are undoubtedly going to be big changes.

One of them is likely to get near-universal approval, which is to remove the ability for schools to restrict where players transfer. Currently, if athletes want to leave their current school, they must receive a "permission to contact" form, which too often leads to coaches or administrators putting limits on where they can go next.

The accepted industry standard has been to restrict transfers within the conference or to teams on the schedule, but often it goes way beyond that. So the easy remedy is to eliminate the permission to contact part entirely and let players go wherever they want to go. Based on several conversations with people informed on the transfer reform discussions, that's probably going to happen and few will object.

"If a kid comes in and wants to transfer, I don't think you should restrict them wherever they want to go," Johnson said.

But where the discussions will get contentious revolves around the Committee on Academics' proposal to allow athletes to transfer once in their career without sitting out a year if they meet a specific academic bench mark.

This idea was put into the discussion last week with a formal recommendation that a GPA between 3.0 and 3.3 should qualify an athlete for immediate eligibility if they transfer based on the rationale that "GPAs below 3.0 are most at risk for taking longer to graduate — or not graduating at all."

If you want to loosen the transfer rules, this makes some sense in theory because of the academic component. But in practice, it could be a big mess.

Historically, I've been on the side of more liberal transfer rules.

The graduate transfer, for instance, is a no-brainer because students who have their undergraduate degrees have earned free agency because they've fulfilled their end of the academic bargain. Any school that restricts a transfer deserves public scorn. I tend to think if the NCAA wanted to just start over with the rule book and proclaim open season for players to transfer without penalty, schools would adjust and things wouldn't look too much different than they do now.

But at the same time, it's not irrational to say, OK, let's slow down here and consider the intended and unintended consequences of such a massive change, particularly when you're going to give the freedom only to students who carry a high GPA.

"(If they adopt this proposal), is it in your best interests to make sure all your guys are under 3.3?" said Johnson, who is only verbalizing what every college football coach is thinking. "If you're allowing a one-time transfer rule and tying it to a high enough GPA or whatever, what are you telling the schools who don't want to lose their guys? What are they going to do, keep them from being a 3.3? You know how people are going to do it. They're going to do what's in their best interests."

Johnson, to his credit, typically doesn't sweat transfers. If a player comes into his office and explains why he wants to leave, he'll sign the papers and wish him luck. But in 21 years as a college head coach, he's also sat in plenty of meetings where a player is leaving because his grasp on reality is out of whack.

If this proposal is adopted, are coaches going to be in a position where they're constantly having to re-recruit their own roster? If there's no consequence to transferring, is sending a message to a player by putting them on the practice squad for a week going to be an excuse for them to get out of town?

"You get a kick out of it sometimes because I'm like, where do you want your release to?" Johnson said. "And they say, I want my release to Texas, Southern Cal and Florida State. And I'm like, 'But none of those schools recruited you.' Then they all end up going to I-AA or whatever and sometimes kids don't understand."

It's a legitimate point, even if you believe that transferring isn't an epidemic or even a problem. Roughly one-third of regular college students transfer during their academic career.

But at the same time, sitting out a year of competition isn't the end of the world.

"It just makes you have to think about it a little bit," Johnson said. "OK, is this what I really want to do?"

There aren't a ton of easy answers here. And as easy as we think it is for kids to pack up and leave, we typically don't consider that it's easier for most of them to stay in situations where they already have comfortable surroundings and social lives.

But the NCAA needs to carefully consider whether it wants a world where the richest schools such as Alabama, Clemson and Texas have staff members devoted to one thing: evaluating players on other rosters who might be transfer candidates.

"It'll be like the NFL, where you'll have someone watching other (teams') players. And if you're smart, you're watching smaller levels and saying, 'Boy, they missed on that dude at North Dakota State,'" Johnson said. "It's just common sense. You can say, 'If those guys are having success there, they wouldn't want to leave.' But how many of those guys would have gone there if a Power Five school had offered them a scholarship?"

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April 12, 2018
 
 
 

 

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