Ben Grisham wanted more playing time. Jon Still wanted a higher level of competition.
Each player found what he sought by finding a new school over the summer. Both look likely to start for their new schools this spring. Neither had to sit out a year because of the NCAA’s transfer rules, which allow players in sports other than Division I-A football, men’s basketball and men’s ice hockey to trade one school for another without missing a season, as long as the coach at the former school grants the player a release.
Whether that should continue is suddenly a hot topic in college baseball. The transfer rule has always been the subject of steady debate, but it has become a major issue in the wake of the NCAA’s new Academic Progress Rate guideline, which measures the progress of students toward graduation. Baseball, football and men’s basketball were the only three sports with average APR scores below the NCAA’s minimum requirement when the figures were initially compiled.
About 23 percent of baseball teams fell below a score that equates to a 50 percent graduation rate–the point at which schools could be penalized by the loss of scholarships in the future–and many officials blame the transfer rule for the problem.
Grisham was a two-way star at Senatobia (Miss.) High but found himself buried by the depth at Mississippi State. He managed 29 at-bats and one inning on the mound during two years in Starkville before realizing that he wanted more. Coach Ron Polk, an outspoken proponent of the current transfer rule, granted his release and he went to Memphis.
“Coach Polk was fine with it,” Grisham says. “He said, ‘I just want you to be happy.’ If I had to sit out a year, I might not have considered (transferring) as much. I feel sorry for sports that don’™t let you move without sitting out.”
Grisham has earned at least a platoon role in the outfield and should also log innings as a pitcher this season for the Tigers.
Still’s situation came about in the opposite way. He batted .305-8-48 for Stetson in 2005, but decided it might be best for his professional future to leave the Atlantic Sun Conference. About two weeks into his summer in the Cape Cod League, Still got his release from Stetson coach Pete Dunn and settled on North Carolina State.
“One of my goals was to sign somewhere that was a step up from Stetson,” Still says. “It’s a higher-profile league with better facilities, and (N.C. State assistant) coach (Tony) Guzzo is a really good catching coach, which was a big thing for me.
“Obviously it wasn’t the best news (Dunn) had heard, but I really respect him in that he gave me an outright release. If he wouldn’t have given me a release, I would have really had to think about it.”
Dunn appreciated that N.C. State coach Elliott Avent called him before he started recruiting Still. “I have a good relationship with Elliott,” Dunn says. “He was up front and called me. I do not feel in any way that Jon was recruited away.”
Coaches have the option of declining a player’s release request, forcing him to sit for a year, or they can grant a release on the condition that a player does not transfer to a particular school.
Debates over transfers in college baseball have gone on since the APR acronym applied only to the credit card offers players received by mail. “I’m trying to think of the last time we had a Division I business meeting and it wasn’™t discussed,” says Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association.
The issue runs deeper than simply a transfer’s impact on APR, and it doesn’™t cleave cleanly along geographic, climactic or demographic lines like the change-of-season plan or changes in postseason play.
But more coaches and administrators began thinking about transfers in terms of APR since its introduction in February 2005. Skip Bertman, who became Louisiana State’s athletics director in 2001 after winning five College World Series titles in 18 seasons as baseball coach, always supported transfers but now wants the exception abolished.
“Originally this rule was very good, and now it’s very bad,” Bertman says. “Baseball is near the bottom in APR and that’s ridiculous because baseball players are very good students.”
The NCAA baseball committee studied the transfer rule for two years and decided not to make changes. A special committee headed by NCAA managing director of baseball and football Dennis Poppe sought and received APR relief for players in good academic standing that leave school for professional careers, but a similar case for transfers was denied.
The West Coast Conference has proposed legislation to remove baseball from the sports covered by the transfer exception. WCC athletic directors believe a correlation exists between baseball’s high transfer rate and its low APR and graduation rate, and feel limiting transfers could help bring those indicators up. NCAA data from the 2003-2004 academic year show 27 percent of Division I baseball players had transferred at least once, compared with 26 percent of men’s basketball players and 14 percent of football players.
“The culture of college baseball is that student-athletes transfer much more freely than in other sports,” Santa Clara athletic director Dan Koon said. “That coupled with the impact on graduation rates in baseball has prompted us as a league to see what we can do. By making it more difficult to transfer, you increase the student-athlete’s commitment.”
But plenty of people still support the current transfer rule, and most supporters point to baseball’s limit of 11.7 scholarships.
“If we have full scholarships and a boy wants to transfer, he should sit out,” Polk says. Otherwise, Polk and others argue, how can you limit a player’s ability to switch to a place that might offer a better situation?
Southern California coach Mike Gillespie is among those on the other side. He sees the liberal transfer rule as an opportunity for recruiting abuse, where a school might sign 25 players and conduct fall practice with 40 or more players fighting for roster spots as if it were spring training. Players that don’™t make the cut can go play elsewhere because the exception allows them to switch schools at the semester break.
“It allows a coach to run guys off,” Gillespie says. “No matter how you couch it, that’s what’s going on.”
Gillespie understands that his stance on the transfer rule might seem hypocritical, because his Trojans have benefited from transfers such as Mark Prior and Barry Zito.
“It’s a bad rule, a bad situation,” he says. “It has fostered sneakiness and recruiting out of our summer programs.”
Sometimes a player or parent initiates a transfer by shopping around for an upgrade. Other times coaches do it, offering better scholarships, more playing time or an opportunity to play in a better program. In college summer leagues such as the Cape Cod League, coaches sometimes recruit players as if they were professional free agents.
To avoid direct contact, sometimes intermediaries such as a scout who’s a friend of an assistant coach might communicate an opportunity to a player. And sometimes, summer league teammates will try to convince each other to join up at the same school.
“That is a real concern, a real problem,” Keilitz said. “It’s a real negative for college baseball.”
Canisius coach Mike McRae signed Canadian righthander James Avery during his time at Niagara. Avery went from a 29th-round pick out of high school to a fifth-rounder after three seasons with the Purple Eagles. As Avery developed, several coaches approached him in Cape Cod.
“I kind of go either way on the rule,” McRae says. “The option should be available, because kids make some poor choices sometimes. But I don’t like some of the stuff that goes on in summer ball.
“If I spend a year developing a kid, helping him get in shape and teaching him a secondary pitch and the people are like, ‘Where did you find that guy?’ I didn’t find him.”
Auburn coach Tom Slater has dealt with the issue from both sides. He was an assistant at Auburn and Florida, but was a head coach at Virginia Military. He says a player’s commitment to his school is directly related to his experience there.
“You’ve got to be proactive,” he says. “I told my players, ‘You’re going to have a good summer and somebody’s going to approach you to transfer.’ I address it then, before they left and said if anyone wants to transfer, tell me now. If you call later for a release, you’re not getting it.”
McRae suggests a window of time for players to alert coaches that they’d like to transfer, possibly before the players leave for the summer. He reasons that if a player was forced to cut his ties to a program then, he would assume some of the risk and other schools wouldn’t simply try to outbid the player’s current school.
Failing any rules changes, though, policing transfers simply becomes a game of trust among players and coaches, and coaches and other coaches.
“Technically, if I want to go to a game in the Cape, there’s no rule that says I can’t–nor should there be,” Memphis coach Daron Schoenrock says. “I do find it funny that coaches always seem to be checking up on their guys in the Cape rather than in the MINK League.
“We should be able to go watch our guys in the summer if we want to. But you shouldn’t be using that as an opportunity to go find guys you can get to transfer. There’s really no way to create checks and balances besides banning guys from going to games. But some guys would still be there hiding behind lamp posts.”
Schoenrock hit on why the transfer rule has flared up again as such a hot topic. The sport has not policed itself, causing the rules to be abused. The APR has given coaches and administrators cover to ask the NCAA to do the policing for them.