DESTIN, Fla.—There comes a time in the course of human events, and goodness knows that includes sports, where a critical mass is reached on a subject—a critical mass that requires change. Sometimes that change is uncomfortable.
The SEC, at its annual Spring meetings at this Florida resort, is facing such a change on the subject of graduate transfers.
The current NCAA rule is not complicated: If a student-athlete receives his or her undergraduate degree and still has eligibility remaining, that student can transfer to another school and be eligible to play immediately without sitting out a year, which the rules for undergraduate transfers require.
The SEC membership, for various reasons, added a clause: Those graduate transfers wishing to transfer from one SEC school to another SEC school would still have to sit out a year before becoming eligible again.
We can debate why the SEC did this but when you strip away all of the nice language, the fact is the coaches didn’t trust each other and wanted some built-in protection from having their rosters raided. They didn’t want to invest three years into a player and then have that player help beat them in his fourth or fifth year.
Besides, at the time there were only a handful of graduate transfers. It really wasn’t a big enough issue to fret about.
Well, guess what? Graduate transfers are now, as my five-year-old granddaughter would say, a “thing.”
And for the second time in three years the most high-profile coach in college football—Alabama’s Nick Saban—is getting beat up in the press for implementing a rule that the SEC, as a group, voted on and approved. And he’s not happy about it.
Here is the issue: Brandon Kennedy, a backup center at Alabama, wants to transfer to Tennessee or Auburn. He graduated last December and has two years of eligibility left. Saban, invoking the SEC rule, denied Kennedy the option of transferring to Auburn or Tennessee and several of Alabama’s future non-conference opponents.
Kennedy’s options now include appealing to a committee at Alabama (which was denied) and then appealing to SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who has the power to grant a waiver. That request, I understand, has not yet come across Sankey’s desk.
Saban, predictably, is getting criticism in the media for not simply letting Kennedy go, which he can do. Last year South Carolina’s Will Muschamp allowed running back David Williams to transfer and play his final season at Arkansas. Head coaches can choose whether or not to invoke the SEC’s graduate transfer rule.
Saban, not without some justification, wants to know why he is again being criticized for simply following the rules. In 2016 Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith wanted to transfer to Georgia and had his request denied by the school/Saban. At the end of the process the SEC office granted the waiver and Alabama got on board, but not before Saban got hammered in the press. Trust me when I tell you some hard feelings still remain on that one.
On Tuesday Saban appeared before the collective media at the SEC Spring meetings and did not back down on his core position: If there is a rule that everybody voted on, he asked, then why am I the bad guy for enforcing the rule?
“Then we should change the rule,” Saban told the media. “I don’t think it should be on me. If we agree at these (SEC) meetings that we’re going to have free agency in our league and everyone can go where they want to go when they graduate, and that’s what’s best for the game, then that is what we should do. Then Brandon Kennedy can go where ever he wants to go. But if we don’t do that, why is it on me?”
Saban is going to always get hammered on these things because he’s the best coach in the history of college football. It comes with the territory. It is also worth noting that 90 percent of the transfer rules benefit the coaches and schools and the optics of all this, as they say in the political arena, are not good.
Given the ever-growing disparity between the financial benefits to schools and coaches compared to that of the students, the college athletics industry should constantly be looking for ways to give athletes more freedom if they can’t give them more money. It’s a no-brainer.
Commissioner Sankey hinted yesterday about how his conversations with his football coaches will go:
“I am one who has said to our membership ‘You need to decide where you want to be on this issue,”’ he said.
One man’s opinion: This rule, however well-intentioned, has outlived its usefulness. Either keep it in place and enforce it without waivers or get rid of it. A college athlete who has done the work to graduate in three years has earned the right to complete his eligibility at the school of his choice, period.
This entire enterprise of college athletics, we are told, is about what is best for the student. Then let the student, with a degree in hand, decide his or her future.