Nick Saban is a reasonable man. Like all reasonable men, he simply wants what’s fair.
In the past, individual programs had certain authority to dictate where one of their student-athletes could transfer, often placing selective restrictions that kept them from leaving to go play for a rival or a team on their schedule that coming season.
But in August 2016, former Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith successfully lobbied the SEC and Sankey to transfer to Georgia for his final season of eligibility without having to sit the league-mandated year of residency before being able to play.
The move prompted quite the discussion at last year’s SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., where Saban described a proposal by Georgia to make inter-conference transfers easier to collegiate “free agency,” though no conference-wide decisions were made while the NCAA sought to reevaluate the entire Division transfer model in the coming year.
“I’ve never been in favor of free agency in our league. I don’t think that’s a good thing,” Saban said last May. “I wasn’t for it last year. I don’t think I’ll ever be for it. I mean, why should guys leave your team and go play for somebody else and you have to play against them? I don’t think that’s fair.”
Fairness, though, is in the eye of the beholder.
Quarterback Riley Ferguson began his career at Tennessee, but went to Coffeyville C.C. before landing at Memphis. Ferguson said former Tennessee coach Butch Jones wouldn’t sign his release and prevented him from going directly anywhere in the SEC or ACC.
“Most of the time kids are 18 years old – everybody makes mistakes, everybody chooses the wrong school sometimes. That happens,” Ferguson said. “I think there’s positives. There’s pros and cons for letting people be able to transfer and not sit out. I feel like some guys would come in and see the hardships and just want to leave because it was hard and they weren’t playing. For me that wasn’t the case, I just didn’t feel like home when I was there. I feel like guys would just want to up and leave quick if they can just go and play somewhere else right away.”
And this beholder.
Such a change would’ve helped former Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White, who began his career at USF.
“I committed to a school under the impression of we were running a pro-style offense, which that’s what I do,” White said. “So when we made the transition like a complete 180 turn to more of a read-option running quarterback style, that didn’t fit my skill set. Under the current NCAA rules I had to transfer and sit out a rule.
“Luckily, I played as a true freshmen, a true sophomore, I had a redshirt year so it didn’t really hurt my eligibility, but for guys that don’t have that, they’re losing a year because what their coach left? That’s not under their control. Because they decided to change a system? That’s not their fault.”
Interestingly, Greg Sankey thinks there’s a groundswell for change because of perception — better PR for the student-athete’s case.
“I think there’s been a power shift,” Sankey said during his annual Q&A at the APSE Southeast Regional meeting Monday afternoon at Samford University. “The ability for people to communicate that, ‘hey, I’m leaving,’ we’ve seen over the past years in any number of circumstances raises an issue. The ability to control communication, destination, and financial aid upon departure, I think that’s a piece that needs to change.
He went on to say the mechanics are tricky, which is, if anything, an understatement. Just ask the NCAA’s Fearless Leader.
“It’s an interesting topic because it seems like one of the simplest of all,” Emmert said. “How complicated could this be? It’s about students changing schools. And yet I’ve never seen anything that’s quite as intractable a problem as this one because you just can’t get agreement.
“There’s this constant tension between what’s simply the ease for any one party, whether it’s a coach or players or the school, or what’s the right balance between the investments that everybody makes whether they’re individuals or not.”
It’s tense, alright. I’m not holding my breath that a reasonable outcome is just around the corner, but maybe we’ll all be surprised.