Recently I said there was nothing politically correct about college recruiting. With the way things are going this spring, I may have to eat my words.
Today, more than ever, college programs and coaches are beginning to embrace the concept of recycling. Unfortunately, what's being recycled isn't really doing much for the environment. Transferring schools is becoming an acceptable way of life and unhappy players are becoming the latest renewable resource.
It doesn't take advanced math to see that transfers have evolved into another class of recruits along with high school and junior college athletes. While there's no official listing or means of tracking the number of players taking a roster detour, just a quick glance at a few major conferences should confirm that these days when the going gets tough … the tough get going -- out the door.
One ACC program has three leaving. A Big East school is losing three from the same class. One Big 12 member has two packing their bags and six athletes who began the season on one Pac-10 roster will finish their eligibility in street clothes or wearing somebody else's colors. That's just four schools and there are 341 more Division I programs to consider.
Several former coaching colleagues who are monitoring all the releases granted told me that there are in excess of 100 transfers this year. One estimated the number as high as 170. It is a census year; maybe the government can help us out with this one. Regardless of the actual number, it's too high.
It's not hard to figure out where a lot of the early exits come from. When you have athletes making commitments before even entering their junior year in high school and circumventing a large majority of the recruiting process, then illusions and reality are eventually bound to clash. With a minimal amount of contact and maybe an unofficial visit or two used as the basis for a personal, academic and basketball decision, you have commitments being made to a sales pitch, concept and image rather than a well researched fit and relationship.
Even some of the players who go further through the process are still letting their emotions or excitement lead them to a program or level of play that inevitably will find them on the bench instead of the floor achieving the vision they dreamed of. A realistic self-concept, both personally and as an athlete, is critical in separating the options that will provide the best chance for achieving success and ultimate happiness from the ones that could lead to a second round of recruiting somewhere down the line. Just because the offer comes from a perennial tournament program or a major conference member doesn't mean you have to say yes. It's too important to let ego and vanity steer your choice.
While the commitments may be coming from the athletes, the recruiters foster the situation by making offers to athletes they've done nothing more with than watch play. Getting to know who a player is, what they might be interested in (if they even know at 14 or 15) or what's going to be instrumental in helping them be successful in the classroom or on the court is secondary to getting that verbal commitment. The hard ball recruiting approach and scholarship offers with tight time parameters create pressure on players and lead to an uninformed and flawed decision-making process.
There was a time years ago when transferring was an emotional and difficult step to take. It was viewed as an absolute last resort taken only after exhausting every avenue to resolve whatever difficulty the athlete was facing. At the same time, other schools were skeptical about taking transfers and not so quick to provide the open arms that seem to waiting for them at the drop of a hat today. There's no incentive to go the extra mile to make things work. In the first program I worked at we actually made a transfer pay her way the first year to prove that she was serious and wanted to be there. That approach now would pretty much eliminate any school from the transfer derby.
Recruiters today often keep one or two scholarships in their pocket in case they get the call that someone is unhappy. Ask some of the top Division II programs if they're interested in the growing annual crop of discontented Division I players and you'll see the look of a hungry animal on their faces.
Any stigma or concerns about "baggage" that transfers used to carry is virtually nonexistent. Oh, prospective coaches will do their homework and make sure her name is only on the release and not a probation list but the current level of caution is a mere speed bump compared to what it once was. It may be acceptance; it might be compassion or simply coaching ego, but coaches offer second chances like Uncle Sam offers government funding.
Without a doubt, there are a lot of transfers that are in the best interest of the athlete and the schools involved. However, with schools counting on transfers as part of their recruiting efforts and players rationalizing rash recruiting choices with the "I can always transfer" mentality, the grounds for embracing a decision and taking ownership in both the good and the bad that comes with it is crumbling before the player ever steps on campus.
The reality is that it's too easy and far too acceptable to transfer. I'm not advocating a "Scarlet T" but if the implications or the avenue to changing schools were more difficult then greater detail and attention might be paid to the recruiting decisions on the front end. Make them pay for the year they have to sit out or take away a year of eligibility. Those may be farfetched concepts, but something should be done to raise the bar.
Somewhere along the line the "privilege" of playing the game became a "right". When that happened the opportunity to play college basketball and the responsibility that goes with it lost something and the floodgates opened.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.