'We've opened Pandora's box:' College coaches, staffers sound off on untenable calendar, the lack of guardrails around the transfer portal

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton01/22/24


NASHVILLE — At the annual AFCA Convention in Nashville earlier this month, college coaches, assistants, player personnel directors and recruiting coordinators spent the week interviewing for jobs, networking and giving speeches.

The hordes of logoed polos and bros in spiffy suits also did what many do best: Gripe about the ills of college football’s current landscape. Not that they’re wrong.

The sport’s crammed calendar — the early signing period, the transfer portal window, the coaching carousel, bowl games and the playoffs all happening in the same four-week window — remains a primary source of contention. 

“This is the worst time in the world to have this (AFCA Convention) now. Nobody comes. None of the big dogs are here unless you’re a couple hours away because they’re wearing their ass out back home trying to hold onto their rosters,” one FCS head coach said. 

As the calendar has become increasingly untenable, staffers — from coaches to personnel directors — have reached a tipping point with their frustrations with the ever-changing NCAA transfer portal, specifically. 

At the AFCA Convention in Charlotte last January, coaches complained about the tsunami of tampering, player movement and game of blind speed dating, and a year later, the situation has only worsened. 

In the second iteration of the new 45-day winter window, over 2,200 players have entered the portal this year, with nearly half still uncommitted. With the constant roster churn, staffs are frustrated and exhausted, and their wide-ranging complaints were even louder this January. 

“We’ve opened up Pandora’s box,” one SEC player personnel director said. 

“We’ve totally lost the plot,” said another ACC head coach. 

I spent four days in Nashville talking to an array of coaches and football staffers, most of whom sounded off on the calendar and a broken system with little oversight. Frustrations included the transfer portal window dates, players now being allowed to transfer multiple times, non-binding transfer commitments, NIL as pay-for-play, and of course, tampering. 

Several coaches comp’d the current transfer portal chaos to the Wild, Wild, West, passing along crazy back-alley bidding war rumors and tampering stories too juicy to print. Many coaches believe NIL remains the driving force for the sheer volume of transfers, especially now that players can use their NIL roster value to leverage schools against one another and flip their transfer commitment at any time.

“It’s the biggest shit show,” a former SEC assistant said. “I see all these young guys here and think, ‘Boys, you really want to do this?’”

Said another Group of 5 head coach, “It’s all gone to shit. It’s driving good coaches out (of the business).”

Hours after those comments were made, Nick Saban stunningly retired that afternoon. 

The hot-button issues with the transfer portal

Coaches remain advocates for freedom of player movement, and insisted that the transfer portal itself is not the problem. Instead, their issue is the lack of regulation, minimal guardrails around the portal and the interconnected mess that is NIL

“I think NIL is good, per say. I think the portal is fine, per say. But the two should not be mixed together,” a Group of 5 defensive coordinator said. 

Coaches complained about the difficulty of managing a roster when transfers have nothing binding them to a school until they actually enroll. A national letter of intent (NLI) is being considered for transfers, but just like with the best high school prospects, the top transfers would have little incentive to sign such a document. 

There’s also the whole, pesky school thing, with academic calendars providing advantages or disadvantages for various schools. 

Several staffers advocated “uncoupling” the transfer portal with the academic calendar by having a single window in the spring. The winter window is already too chaotic, many said, and it’s only going to worsen next season when schools are preparing for College Football Playoff games in December and the National Championship isn’t until Jan. 20.

“We’re not sustainable where we are. We’re not doing what’s in the best interest of kids and student-athletes long term,” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee said. 

“There’s not another sport that has free agency start while your season’s going on, and there’s no contracts.”

Said another head coach, “We make good money. But our compliance people can’t even enjoy Christmas because they’re waiting for the next (transfer) email to drop.”

Lashlee, Marshall’s Charles Huff, and several other head coaches who spoke anonymously proposed a lone transfer portal window (think an NFL free agency period) in the spring. Players and coaches would have a month (Huff suggested February, while Lashlee proposed April) to make decisions. The academic calendar would no longer be an issue, as players would finish the semester with their school and then enroll at their new school in the summer. Ideally, a single portal window would cut down on some of the portal overflow and might even lessen problems like bowl opt-outs. 

“It would allow us to have legitimate conversations with players. Why are you doing this? What are you looking for? It would allow some of the emotion of the season to wear over,” Huff explained. 

“People will say, you won’t get your guys for spring ball. But with the extended hours in the summer, we should be able to get them caught up. We can’t have everything, but to get a little more control, a little more continuity, it would help ease some of the tension and stress with bowl games, end of the season, championships, kids making decisions with the NFL. 

“Right now there’s such a rush to make decisions on kids, to bring them to campus or not, in like 24 hours. Like I’d like to look at the fallback of this, how much money and resources have we wasted on official visits and trips on kids we don’t get because it was 24 hours? Like, let’s push (the portal window) back, get the high school kids signed and move the portal window to a less stressful time.”

One SEC staffer pointed out how playoff teams will actually be punished for making the field next season because a deep run would likely result in missing out on hosting transfers. With the current window dates, the longer a team goes in the CFP, the more likely they are to run up against their own school’s drop-add dates. 

“If you win the Super Bowl, you draft 32nd. You don’t draft 105th. You still get a first-round pick. But with the current (setup) your roster for the following seasons are being punished for how long your team plays.” 

The same SEC staffer used the example that Georgia might’ve benefited from not making the College Football Playoff this season because the Bulldogs were able to host some key transfers on visits, specifically comparing UGA’s situation to Alabama. 

Imagine if that person knew then what we know about the Tide’s roster now. 

The day the AFCA Convention ended, Saban announced his retirement, and now the Tide are dealing with the domino effects of losing the greatest coach of all time. The transfer portal window closed on Jan. 2, but in a well-intended, yet disastrous special 30-day transfer window for schools who lost their head coach, Saban’s retirement created a ripple effect where Alabama, Washington and Arizona have all seen their rosters ransacked in the last two weeks. 

If Jim Harbaugh bolts Michigan for the NFL, we could see another whirlwind of player movement, too. 

“We’ve allowed ourselves in college football to talk about feeding players bagels and whether that’s a violation or not, and now here we are with, with this problem on our hands with (the transfer portal) and different playing fields with NIL,” Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule said. 

“I know that what we’re doing right now can’t stay like this forever. I think it eventually will hit an impasse. Anytime you want to have competitive sports, there has to be some sort of structure.”

So what’s a possible solution?

Coaches and staffers alike acknowledged there is no one-all fix for the portal problems, yet unlike a year ago, there was a greater consensus on how to fix many of the issues: Accept the inevitable and sign the players to contracts. Coaches seem finally willing to give up a piece of the pie for great peace during the offseason.

Coaches and staffers were unsure which model was best — from outright revenue-sharing to granting players employee status either with the school or conference — and there are factors like Title IX, a collective bargaining agreement and antitrust that cannot be just hand-waved away, but coaches believe contracts would alleviate many of the problems around the portal and NIL. Just like in the NFL, a player’s roster value would dictate the type (and length) of contract a player could sign.

“We need to think about the whole, and not just the player. What everybody has done is sued to get what they want. The multiple transfers is because West Virginia basketball wanted that player eligible, and that’s great. And name, image and likeness came about because the Supreme Court said it’s not fair to use these guys to not pay them. And that’s great, too. But it’s total freedom, right? I’m not the smartest guy but the only thing I can see is we go to contracts,” one head coach said. 

“We’re asking 18-year-olds to figure this out. When we had a draft, there’s a reason the US Army used to put the 19-year-olds at the front line. Full-steam ahead, right? And we’re asking these kids to make life-changing decisions without any structure.”

Several coaches, including Rhule and South Florida head coach Alex Golesh, suggested models where players could sign contracts of various lengths. Contracts could be set up where players would still be allowed to transfer, but they would have to pay back the money they received if they don’t live out the life of said deal.

“If I had my druthers a player would sign up for a certain amount of time,” Rhule explained.

“He would say, ‘I’m signing up with you guys for two years, or three years or four years.’  Oh, and the academic requirements would probably be improved. At the end of the day, we’re still educating people, and to go to three different colleges and keep moving around, I wanna make sure that kids are getting their degrees and getting real degrees and getting master’s degrees and doing things that affect their lives moving forward. 

“There would be some sort of structure and you wouldn’t be able to just raid other people’s rosters. It’s not like that in any professional sport, and we’re as close to a professional sport as you can think of. Sometimes people say, well, coaches get to leave. Why can’t players leave? There’s not a coach that leaves that, you know, for another job that doesn’t pay a million-dollar buyout. And so there’s always some sort of repercussion, be it financial, be it, whatever. And so that’s what I hope something happens like that at some point in college football.”

Huff was in favor of a system where players would sign a base, universal contract for three or four years, and a portion of funds would also be put in escrow. 

“Every year that you continue to progress towards the final year within your school, if you get the four years, you get the money in the escrow. We need some type of model like that to encourage kids to really think about staying,” Huff said. 

“You can still have your transfer availability, but now a kid’s really got to think about, ‘Okay, I’m in my second year, I’m going to give up X amount of dollars plus my escrow money to go start over.”

No matter the model, coaches argued contracts would solve many of the roster management issues, curb tampering, help players achieve true academic progress and would eliminate much of the messiness around NIL. It would provide a structure and regulation that is desperately needed, coaches said. 

“What is NIL? Is it NIL? Everybody knows it’s not. So why are we playing this game like it’s NIL? Pay the kids a contract. I don’t know what it all looks like with however the legal part works or what revenue sharing looks like, but at the end of the day, if we’re paying kids, they should have a contract,” said an FBS head coach. 

“Like you talk to other head coaches who are keeping spreadsheets and distributing NIL money? Like hold on, the rules say you can’t do that? But there’s nobody regulating it, and with nobody regulating it, like what are we doing? We have to fix all this.”

With a feckless NCAA, the question is who the “we” is to address all these issues.