LAWRENCE — On a spring day last year, Barry Hinson packed for a road trip. The drive would take four hours, from his office in Carbondale, Ill., to the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Hinson, a basketball lifer, pointed his car north. He had time to kill, and a message to refine.
He had recently been hired as men’s basketball coach at Southern Illinois, and a series of unexpected academic issues in his program had forced this trip. But Hinson, a veteran coach with an affable personality and good ol’ boy charm, was happy to have the ear of the suits in Indianapolis.
There was a relatively new strain of disease infecting college basketball, Hinson thought, and it was hitting home at the mid-major level. Players had begun to be recruited off some campuses and were landing at more prestigious programs. The practice, Hinson says, was one of the reasons for a record number of transfers during the last two offseasons, and he’s not shy about using a one-word term for the trend.
“Poaching,” Hinson says.
“It’s already a mess,” he adds, “it’s just getting ready to be really bad for programs at the mid-major level.”
Hinson’s concerns, of course, are not limited to schools like Southern Illinois, but rather the transfer culture that has become a prominent component of college basketball. According to NCAA research, more than 40 percent of college basketball players will switch programs before the end of their sophomore season. After yearly transfer figures held steady in the 10-percent range for most of the last decade, college basketball has seen a moderate increase during the last two offseasons, with the yearly numbers hovering around more than 400 transfers.
As a result of the movement, the spring has turned into college basketball’s version of free agency, with the list of transfers turning into unofficial waiver wire.
“Schools are recruiting kids right off of campus,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said.
Kansas and K-State have been touched by the transfer trend in the last year. In late April, sophomore Angel Rodriguez stunned the Big 12 by announcing his departure from K-State, eventually landing at the University of Miami, a school closer to his native Puerto Rico.
Kansas picked up two transfers during the spring, including graduate transfer Tarik Black, who will be eligible right away after transferring from Memphis.
Listen to enough coaches, and you’ll hear similar sentiments. The transfer numbers suggest an alarming trend, but few have obvious solutions. Some, such as Hinson, pin part of the blame on a generation of players that have come of age in an “instant gratification society.”
The pattern starts early. Players switch AAU programs; they transfer high schools; they come across a challenge that appears too exhausting — and they bolt for the next opportunity.
“As a society, we are no longer comfortable making our children uncomfortable,” Hinson says.
But to blame the increasing transfers on players is to ignore a gluttonous amount of other factors. The “instant gratification” phenomenon is also prevalent in athletic departments, meaning more coaching turnover and more players stuck playing for someone that didn’t recruit them. And rules changes, such as the exception that allows graduate students to transfer without sitting out a season.
Kansas coach Bill Self and Weber said they’d like to see the NCAA look at the graduate rule, which allows players that have completed an undergraduate degree to transfer to a new university and play right away if they still have eligibility remaining.
“It’s a bad rule,” Self says.
“It’s totally unfair to programs where they’ve worked with kids for four years,” Weber says.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has also weighed in on the matter, saying last year that graduate transfers had the feel of a “hired gun.”
This, Hinson says, is the very practice that he loathes, the idea that a big-time program can swoop in and steal a veteran player from a mid-major team. It’s not just that schools are aware of the rule, he says, but they have now set up systematic ways to benefit from it.
“If you think for one moment,” says Hinson, who worked on Self’s staff at KU from 2008-12, “that there aren’t staff meetings (at major-college programs) taking place in March and April that are bringing up, ‘Who are the best mid-major players out there and do they have the opportunity to graduate in three years?’ Then we are making ourselves look ignorant. That’s happening right now, a lot of places. And if you think for one moment that kids haven’t figured this out, it’s getting ready to be an issue for our level.”
When the phone rang in the spring of 2011, Sam Maniscalco knew he’d be able to live out a childhood dream. Weber, then the coach at Illinois, had offered him a scholarship, and Maniscalco, a Chicago native, would have the opportunity to slip on the same Illini jersey that was worn by Chicago stars such like Dee Brown and Luther Head.
Of course, Maniscalco would also have to say goodbye to the program that had believed in him. He had spent four years at Bradley, becoming one of the top guards in the Missouri Valley Conference under coach Jim Les. And Maniscalco would have ended his career there, too, if not for an injury during his senior season.
Maniscalco received a medical redshirt and soon learned of the graduate-transfer rule. If he graduated from Bradley while sitting out hurt, he’d be free to play his final season at a new school.
“I didn’t know much about it,” Maniscalco said, “the whole fifth-year rule.”
For Maniscalco, the decision was made easier when Les was fired after the 2010-11 season. And looking back, Maniscalco says, he would make the same decision again. His one year at Illinois wasn’t perfect — the Illini missed the NCAA Tournament and he battled injury — but he experienced life in the Big Ten, something he never would have if he stayed at Bradley.
The story of Maniscalco illustrates exactly what Hinson fears — a mid-major impact player jumping to a bigger program. And it’s become more common in the last few years, even among non-graduate transfers who don’t have to sit out.
According to a study by Sports Illustrated, 16 players will be eligible this year after transferring to a program that was clearly stronger than their previous stop. (Example: mid-major to major or low-major to elite mid-major.) That doesn’t include graduate transfers such as Black, who got his degree from Memphis in three years and went looking for more exposure at a marquee program. Black, a 6-foot-9 power forward, found it at Kansas.
“I’m just looking for an opportunity to propel myself into the situation I want to be in,” Black says, “which is to try to get to the next level.”
While KU’s Self says that he dislikes the graduate-transfer rule, he also admits that the Jayhawks clearly benefited from its existence this spring. And this reveals another key disconnect. Coaches say they worry about the graduate-transfer rule, but if the rule is in place, why not use it your advantage?
The same can be said about transfers in general. The increasing player turnover can be viewed as a negative byproduct of college basketball’s cutthroat, big-business nature, but if a talented player is unhappy at another school, why not see if he might be interested in your place?
“Every year, there’s always articles, that says ‘coach on the hot seat,’” Hinson says. “You think other coaches aren’t looking at that and going immediately to the roster of those programs and saying who could we get?
“Let’s get the word out. And let’s start poaching. That happens all the time. And it happens more and more.”
One of the great myths of college sports, of course, is that college basketball players are actually signing on for a four-year career when they ink their letters of intent on signing day.
A small percentage will turn pro before then, of course, and others will transfer, seeking a better situation than the one that preceded. But the larger truth is that a vast majority of scholarships are offered in one-year increments, then renewed on a yearly basis.
From 1973 to 2011, the NCAA mandated that schools dole out their scholarships in one-year doses, a practice that often put the power in the hands of the coach. In 2011, the NCAA changed the rule, giving Division I schools the option to offer multi-year scholarships with the usual stipulations: Stay out of legal trouble; Keep your grades up; and follow the NCAA rulebook.
But not much has changed in the last two years, with most schools remain tethered to the idea of one-year scholarships. Kansas handed out 17 multi-year scholarships in 2012-13, K-State none.
The correlation between scholarships and transfers, experts say, is not directly linked. But the practice has kept the power in the hands of the institution, allowing coaches to push players out of a program after a regime change, and strengthened the idea that financial-aid agreements between schools and players are short-term relationships.
“If we sign a kid,” KU’s Self says, “more than likely, we’re gonna offer him a career.”
Offering multi-year deals, Self says, probably wouldn’t cut down on transfers. Players could still leave at their own volition, and the current structure would ultimately remain intact.
But the offering of more multi-year scholarships could go a long ways into solidifying the notion that schools and athletes are investing in each other for the duration of a college career.
Sometimes, though, strong relationships don’t matter, either. When Weber arrived at K-State, he built a strong rapport with Rodriguez, a talented point guard who had been recruited to K-State under Frank Martin. Rodriguez flourished, leading the Wildcats to a share of the the Big 12 regular-season title, their first since 1977. But in the end, it didn’t matter. He left K-State this spring, saying he wanted to play closer to home.
“It is a little unusual,” Weber says. “… I’m not sure all the other stuff that was involved, but I guess I gotta respect that part of it and wish him the best.”
Then there’s the case of Jon Ekey, a Kansas City native who spent his first four seasons at Illinois State. Ekey, Hinson says, would have been one of the best players in the Missouri Valley next season. Instead, he’ll spend next season at Illinois, a graduate transfer in the Big Ten. Hinson doesn’t blame Ekey, of course. The coach that recruited him to Illinois State, Tim Jankovich, is gone now, and Ekey had the chance for a fresh start.
But here it is, Hinson says, another player snatched from a mid-major. Another cycle of college basketball free agency.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hinson say. “I’m telling you, it’s getting ready to be a mess. … We don’t need to be a farm system or a rookie-league for the BCS programs.”