- ESPN staff writer
- Joined ESPN in 2011
- Graduated from Central Michigan
TWO OF THE most hectic months of Brian Kelly’s coaching career were this past November and December.
On Dec. 3, LSU played in the SEC championship game. Two days later, the transfer portal opened. He had to prepare for the Tigers’ bowl game, create a strategy for the portal — between his own players entering and players he coveted — and finish off the 2023 recruiting cycle all at once.
“The real key here was, how can we build in during the month of December an opportunity to try to do all three of those things without them overlapping?” Kelly told ESPN.
The transfer portal, a database that allows coaches to contact student-athletes who wish to transfer, has become a staple of the college football landscape since it launched in fall 2018.
In the 2018-19 cycle, there were 2,405 NCAA football players that entered the portal, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That number skyrocketed to 5,592 players last year and to 6,202 from August 2022 through January 2023. This past December alone, 2,729 people entered the portal.
The NCAA enacted transfer portal windows for the 2022-23 academic year to try to regulate when players were allowed to enter the portal: a 45-day window from Dec. 5 to Jan. 18 and a second 15-day window that runs from April 15 to 30.
But while the windows were intended to add structure, many coaches and personnel directors from various conferences said dealing with the continuous balancing act of the portal, recruiting classes and bowl preparations, all during the holiday season, made for too much at once.
“December makes for an interesting time,” Florida State personnel director Derek Yray said, “and I don’t necessarily know what the answer is to it.”
With the spring portal window opening Saturday, coaches spoke to ESPN about how difficult navigating the first window was, the concerns they have about the calendar and what should change going forward.
PRIOR TO THE transfer windows, student-athletes could enter their name in the portal whenever they wanted. That led to players transferring right before or during the season, and without any safeguards from knowing when a player could transfer, it became increasingly harder for coaches to manage their own rosters.
Enter the transfer windows, which brought a mix of definition and chaos to the process.
Retaining a team’s own roster has been a major piece to the puzzle that has coaches and personnel directors concerned. Penn State personnel director Andy Frank said the windows indirectly encouraged people to watch opposing rosters closely during the season to evaluate which players could help their own future rosters.
He also said the windows shut down the entire recruiting and scouting departments while they also tried to balance the early signing period (Dec. 21-23) for high school recruits. Rather than having only prospects on campus to visit, the staff was also hosting transfer visitors, scouring the portal to find players to help fill needs.
“We were in favor of there not being windows and I’d say coming out of it, I’d still be at that place,” Frank said. “I don’t know if I’m a fan of the windows, because one of the goals was to condense the process down into a smaller window of time. I actually think that causes more problems than it solves.”
Adding the transfer portal windows to the month of December, when recruiting, bowl season and the coaching carousel all come to a head, has made it more hectic than ever.
“You can end up in situations like we did,” said TCU coach Sonny Dykes, who coached the Horned Frogs to their first College Football Playoff berth. “We had five official visits the week of the national championship game and you’re trying to get ready for that game. At the same time, you’re hosting transfers and it’s just a very chaotic time for everybody.”
Yray said he was with Florida State coach Mike Norvell on the road during the month of December. “I think we hit about 13 states in eight days,” he said. Despite that, he liked having the window’s structure and thinks they served their purpose.
“December, you’re going to have to sacrifice somewhere no matter how much work you put into it,” Yray said. “So, I do like the windows that they’re defined, but I also think there’s a better way. I just don’t know what that necessarily is to make it work in December.”
SEC FOOTBALL COACHES met in mid-February to discuss a variety of topics from the year and tried to come up with mock solutions with the transfer portal, one of the highly contested subjects, Kelly said.
They came up with a hypothetical proposal that they felt made the most people happy: Teams would focus on their high school recruiting classes first and then move onto transfers. Kelly said some coaches don’t want transfer portal decisions to impact the incoming freshman class, so if they know which recruits they have coming in, they can use the transfer market to fill holes.
“We don’t want to move the signing date back any further because then you have visits and coaches working in July, so that was a nonstarter,” Kelly said. “We would stay with a December date, then maybe a couple of days later, that’s the transfer portal [window], and you get to work on that. So you put one behind you, then you get the next one in front of you and now you can manage those two things.”
One issue with that, Yray noted, was that while teams would know which incoming freshmen would sign, they wouldn’t know which players would be transferring out of their programs.
“I think you still have to know who’s leaving your roster before you sign those high school guys, or any of the transfer portal guys,” Yray said. “If you move the date of the transfer portal back, for us, we start class usually the first week of January. So, our ability to get them into school on time, so they can start on time and start workouts, that’s important for where the date currently is.”
Dykes added that the NCAA rules put in place were initially geared toward making graduation more accommodatable for athletes, especially when it comes to transferring over academic credits — “It’s not like we wave a magic wand and all the sudden a kid is in school,” Frank said — and enrolling in classes at their new schools.
“All of the sudden it switched, overnight really, and you don’t hear anybody talking about graduation anymore,” Dykes said. “So, I do think that we’ve got to study these things and make sure that we’re doing the best thing for the student-athletes, because in some cases we feel like we are, but we’re not if these guys aren’t graduating.”
Another option could be changing the recruiting calendar if the NCAA leaves the portal windows the same. After all, the early signing period has been around only since 2017. Yray and Frank both mentioned the idea of implementing a rolling signing period, which would start at a certain point in high school but would allow a prospect to sign whenever they had a committable offer.
“The problem with the later you go with that is, whenever the first date is that you can sign, that is going to become the signing day,” Frank said. “We saw it with the early signing period, right? We call it the early signing period, but that’s the signing period now because it’s the earliest they can do it.”
Frank has a point: 276 recruits ranked in the ESPN 300 signed on the first day of the early signing period in December. Entering the February signing day, only seven ESPN 300 prospects were still uncommitted.
A 12-team playoff is coming in 2024, and while its format is set, what the schedule will look like is unclear. The broader college football landscape is ever changing, and the calendar is just one thing that is impacted.
Some coaches believe the NCAA is headed for a collision course with antiquated rules and a changing atmosphere. Some believe the way to avoid disaster is to blow it all up and rework the rules altogether.
“We need to start over and say, ‘Hey, these are the pillars,’ and we have to look at it very holistically,” Frank said. “I think the thing that’s holding up wholesale changes, which I think eventually will happen, is I think we’re heading towards collective bargaining in some form or fashion. What it looks like, I don’t know, but I think we’re heading towards it, and once we figure that piece out, you rework the whole calendar and start over.”
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