In recent years, no trend in college sports has been more loudly maligned than transfers. Every year, coaches lament how many players leave their programs and head to others; every year, coaches feel more and more like they have to recruit their own players; every year, the fuzzy causes (AAU and high school attitudes, a culture of immediate satisfaction, those darned kids today, they just don't know what commitment is!, etc.) are trotted out. Rarely are they convincing.
Which is why the wonky work SI.com's Luke Winn has produced on the subject in recent years has been so helpful. In 2011, we got a better look at movement at the high school level. In 2012, we got a look at "up-transfers," or players who move from mid-majors to top programs by the end of their eligibility.
Now, right on cue, Mr. Winn is back for 2013, wielding a 700-player data set and a comprehensive look at the way transfers move through the modern college basketball landscape. The entire list of conclusions is well worth a read, of course. But there are two points that strike me as the most interesting. The first:
4. [A] 34.3 percent transfer rate shouldn't be considered abnormal ... because a recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that 32.6 percent of all full-time college students transfer. Are college students as a whole transferring too much for their own good? Maybe. But are basketball players transferring far more than non-athletes? That's a definite no.
Viewed from within the sports context, the idea that 34 percent of college basketball players transfer schools at least once sounds crazy -- like a widespread collapse of loyalty, something to be addressed at scale. But we don't raise these same concerns about average college students, just as many of whom transfer. Here's a newsflash: 20-year-olds often regret their college decisions. The grass is greener, or they get homesick, or they figure out they don't actually want to be a philosophy major, or they planned on transferring from the start. (I have one buddy who wanted to go to Notre Dame but couldn't get in out of high school, so he busted his tail for two years and transferred through the back door. Sometimes we call him "Rudy.") Point is, we don't seem to freak out when the student down the street decides his original college choice doesn't suit him. I wonder what makes student-athletes so different, hmm?
And the second:
8. Coaching-change culture should take most of the blame.
We shouldn't be surprised that half of the extra-early committers go on to decommit. Why? During the course of this study (from 2007-on), the average annual rate of turnover in the Division I coaching ranks was 13.5 percent, which outpaces the average annual transfer rate for men's basketball players during the same stretch (10.8, according to the NCAA).
So, let's say a player commits to a school during his freshman year of high school, and goes on to play four years of college ball. In that eight-year span, it's likely that there will be more coaching changes than there are teams in D-I. (Maybe we should be calling that an epidemic.)
This is a massive point.
Never mind pay for play, or whether the NCAA is a corrupt institution on a collapse trajectory; ignore all the radical populist fire-breathing. Right now, in the very world we live in, the sport's very well-compensated coaches are bound to a school by nothing more than a buyout. There is no rule that says a college coach has to sit out a season before he can take over at a new school. There is no rule that requires an NCAA appeal to circumvent, and now coaches are moving more frequently than ever before. Players, on the other hand, are restricted in their movements by their scholarships, which coaches have the power to revoke on a yearly basis in the first place.
For decades this has been the arrangement. Only recently has it drawn extensive scrutiny. You might think this is screwed up, but even if you don't, I think we can all agree that any coach who lectures broadly about the perils of transfers probably isn't saying the same thing to his buddy when Parker Executive Search comes calling.
In other words, we can have this debate. No one thinks high transfer rates are a good thing. But let's at least acknowledge reality. That players leaving schools don't get millions of dollars to do so, but rather a year spent on the bench; that coaches who complain about the mote in the transfer's eye often have a big 'ol steel pipe stuck in theirs. Let's at least be intellectually honest here, huh?