There is no easy solution to the college football transfer mess
Like the poor, bleeding-heart college football writers will be with us always. While their poverty is only sometimes of the physical as well as of the spiritual variety, I think they deserve our charity nonetheless. It must be really hard to devote your life to something that you neither like nor understand. But I don't think I have ever felt as if sports journos were more disconnected from reality than when they all started complaining at the exact same time about how Clemson's head coach Dabo Swinney is a meanie butt for not giving a national championship ring to his former quarterback Kelly Bryant, who quit the team in a huff and later transferred after being benched in favor of the more talented freshman Trevor Lawrence.
Ask any normal person about this and you will get the same answer. If you quit a team — stick with me here — you are not a member of it any longer, which means that when the team in question — the same one you left, voluntarily — wins something — a conference championship, say, or a national title or both — and members of that team are due receive certain honors or awards or gewgaws — rings, for example — you, i.e., the person who quit, will not however be receiving one because you are not, as it were, a member of the winning team. Did I miss a step there somewhere? This isn't hard.
At least Bryant himself isn't pouting anymore. He got that out of his system when he lost the starting job last year. The same cannot be said for another high-profile college football transfer quarterback. Tate Martell fled Ohio State for Miami following the transfer of Justin Fields from Georgia (who, bear with me, left after being passed over in favor of Jake Fromm) only to learn that he wasn't going to be named the starter for the 'Canes either. Now Martell is reportedly skipping practice. There is already talk that he will seek to transfer yet again, perhaps to USC or Texas A&M. Heaven help us.
The college football transfer situation is a complete mess. (Swinney says he's glad his wife didn't have a transfer portal to enter six weeks after they were married to "see what her options were.") Transfers have been part of the game for ages, but until recently it was understood that anyone who changed schools would have to sit out for a year. Now, however, it is increasingly the case that if you come from the sort of background where your parents can hire good lawyers to draft a memo to the NCAA arguing that you have no choice but to transfer, you can probably skip the wait with a waiver. This is especially likely if you are transferring to a college football powerhouse. If your family is poor and you want to leave a blue-blood program for a MAC squad, good luck.
These waivers are ridiculous. They are for one thing grossly unfair — since the applications for waivers are not formal legal proceedings, there is no transfer equivalent of a public defender. And the reasons players are supposedly citing in their NCAA waiver applications — I was unhappy, it wasn't what I expected, somebody else on the team was mean — are mostly absurd. There are a thousand ways of saying it, but most of the time it comes down to one thing: I want to go to a different school because I think I will get more playing time, which will help my football career.
These feelings are totally understandable, especially for quarterbacks, for whom success generally means starting in all or most of a team's games for at least two years. Not every gifted quarterback will succeed on these terms. This is a fact of arithmetic. Take Michigan for example. Shea Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss before the 2018 season, will start for the Wolverines once again this fall. When he graduates, he will probably be replaced either by Dylan McCaffrey, who is currently a junior, or by the redshirt freshman Joe Milton. Likely behind both of them are Cade McNamara, J.D. Johnson, and J.J. McCarthy, recruits from the 2019, 2020, and 2021 classes respectively. Each of these three is a highly rated prospect, especially McCarthy, who is widely considered the single best pro-style quarterback in his class. Milton could theoretically still be at the university in 2022, which would mean as many as four of these talented quarterbacks competing for the same finite number of snaps. But that's never going to happen. At some point over the next four or so years, two or more of these players will almost certainly transfer in search of more playing time at another school. That's just how college football works now.
Jim Harbaugh understands this reality. The Michigan head coach's solution to the waiver problem is that every player should be eligible for a one-time transfer, with no mandatory year off the field and no questions asked. This is eminently sensible. But it still doesn't speak to the essential tension between the loyalties and responsibilities that go with being a member of a team and the ambitions of individual players. Which should matter more and when? Why? This is a question with any number of implications — not only for transferring players but for those who are draft-bound and decide to skip bowl games, for example — but for fans and, well, the liberal sportswriters I was just teasing.
They aren't wrong about everything. There is a certain type of angry fan who loves to get carried away with soppy rhetoric about "the Team," but only holds disloyalty against the people on the field not making money and almost never against the millionaires standing on the sidelines. The coaching carousel is an even bigger joke than the transfer system and it has been one for far longer. If Miami coach Manny Diaz has any issues with Martell's likely decision to transfer again, maybe he can explain why, after serving for two years as defensive coordinator at Miami, he accepted the head coaching job at Temple (whose own coach was leaving for Georgia Tech after only two seasons) last year on December 13, only to resign from his new gig only seven days later and become head coach at Miami. Sometimes it's hard to make up your mind.
Liberal sportswriters aren't wrong about everything.