Will Rule Change Bring Return Of Wild, Wild West?

Boomer White’s decision to transfer from Texas Christian to Texas A&M after the 2014 season was a shocking move in the sport. He was a starter for two seasons and was coming off a sophomore season during which he was the Horned Frogs’ second-leading hitter and helped lead the team to the College World Series.

After sitting out the 2015 season, White went on to star in 2016 for Texas A&M. He was named an All-American and the Southeastern Conference player of the year, and helped the Aggies to super regionals, where, in a twist of fate, they were upset by the Horned Frogs.

White said his decision to transfer was not baseball related; he was instead looking to finish his college experience at his dream school. But it was also a throwback to an earlier, wilder era of college baseball, one where 4-4 transfers (four-year school to four-year school) were the norm instead of the exception. That was a time when transfers could be the lifeblood of major programs, and assistant coaches were dispatched to Cape Cod and other summer leagues to hunt for players who could transfer and provide an instant impact.

Those Wild West days were put to an end a decade ago when the NCAA changed baseball’s transfer rules, eliminating the one-time transfer exception and requiring players to sit out a year when they moved from one Division I school to another. The rule change, which was made at the same time as the introduction of roster caps of 35 players (27 on scholarship) and establishing that all scholarships must be at least 25 percent, went into effect in August 2008 and was designed to improve baseball’s graduation rate and Academic Progress Rate. Within two years, the percentage of players who had made a 4-4 transfer dropped from 8.4 to 3.5 and the percentage of players who had transferred at all (including those coming from junior college) fell from 26.2 to 22.4.

Now, as a part of a broad effort from the NCAA to reform the transfer process, the rules may be changing again. The working group created to study transfers is exploring several areas of reform. For baseball players, the most significant change would tie access to a one-time transfer exception to a set of academic benchmarks instead of the sport they play. Presently, players in all sports except baseball, basketball, football, and men’s hockey can transfer once in their careers without having to sit out a year.

That potential rule change, which has been sent to the NCAA’s Committee on Academics to review at its October meeting, would give baseball players more freedom to transfer. Any legislation to alter the rule would not come until at least the 2018-19 academic year, the NCAA said in a September release.

White, perhaps the most prominent 4-4 transfer in recent years, said he was taken aback when he first heard the NCAA was exploring the expansion of the one-time transfer exception. And while he admitted it might be an emotional first reaction, he is against the idea.

“I am not a fan,” White said. “I could see it being abused to the extent where there’s no loyalty anymore.”

White is not alone in hoping to see the baseball’s transfer rules unchanged. Many in college baseball fear the return of the one-time transfer exception to the game will also mean a return of the Wild West.

“I think this will open up a can of worms,” UCLA coach John Savage said. “It’ll hurt APR again, it’s going to hurt the integrity of the game.

“It’s about recruiting someone the right way and it’s about developing them. That’s the way it should be.”

Added Ball State coach Rich Maloney, “I think you’d have unhealthy movement (of players). And what does it do to the school that has done the development?”

The rule change has also seen rebukes from prominent men’s basketball and football coaches, but college baseball is more divided. The ending of the sport’s one-time transfer exception, as well as the roster caps, had had the desired effects. The sport’s APR has risen significantly, in the last three years reaching its highest levels ever. Many coaches believe the rule changes also led to the increased parity in the sport that has led to the last five national champions claiming the first title in program history.

But baseball is an equivalency sport with just 11.7 scholarships to be spread among a 35-man roster, 27 of whom can be on scholarship. In part because of that financial aspect, many in the game see more transfer freedom as a positive.

“To not give them more options, it’s not good for student-athletes,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “Families can also look at the financial situation. That was what we lost when we did away with the rule. At least they knew if it didn’t work out they could transfer.”

“In the broader context of students, I’ve always been a proponent of freedom of movement,” added Scott Sidwell, the San Francisco athletic director and chairman of the baseball committee. “If we have an opportunity for students to be amateurs and that’s how we view them and we’re adamant in that stance, there can’t be restrictions on anything they do at the university.”

Transfer reform is an inherently complicated proposition because of how many stakeholders there are in the situation and the wildly different ecosystems in which each sport operates. Baseball has a unique, complex relationship with its professional league, one where players never have to declare for the draft and can leave coaches scrambling after a draft-day surprise. It also has the most robust junior college ranks and a summer ball scene that has only grown larger since the days of coaches recruiting the Cape.

These are not new issues for college baseball. The debate used to dominate the sport so much so that, in 2005, Dave Keilitz, then the executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, told Baseball America, “I’m trying to think of the last time we had a Division I business meeting and it wasn’t discussed.”

This time, however, the NCAA is examining transfer reform for all students, not just in baseball. The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which is playing a key role in the debate, in July came to the consensus that it believes “all sports should have uniform transfer rules.” So, at least for now, baseball is along for the ride along with every other sport.

Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen is well versed in the debate. Before becoming athletic director last fall, he spent 17 years as a head baseball coach, working both before and after the one-time transfer exemption’s elimination, and he was once a transfer himself, moving from Birmingham (Ala.) Southern, then an NAIA school, to Mississippi State after his freshman season.

Cohen said it is important to him that players can seek out the best opportunity for themselves in all sports. But he also knows the reality of baseball’s last experience with the one-time transfer exception was not idyllic.

“What you’ve had in the past is coaches hanging out in a place like the Cape Cod League, keeping (scholarship) money back and waiting for a so-called mid-major player to pop up,” he said. “Even though they couldn’t contact them directly, they just decided to transfer and some of these schools had scholarship aid available. That was the wild, wild West back then. I think the rules are currently in place to prevent that from happening.”

Beyond the specter of the return of recruiting summer leagues, coaches are also concerned about adding another obstacle to the already difficult task of roster management. With caps on scholarships, roster size and the minimum percentage of a scholarship, coaches are already juggling a difficult equation. If transfers start to increase, planning becomes more difficult. Over-recruiting, already a touchy subject, could increase as coaches attempt to avoid being caught shorthanded by an unexpected transfer.

Because the roster caps, minimum scholarship and transfer restrictions were all introduced at once, some believe the removal of one should lead to the lifting of the other restrictions. The ABCA in the past has found a majority of its Division I membership favors eliminating the 25 percent scholarship minimum and the limit of 27 scholarship players per team.

But the other proposed rule changes have not gained much traction, and it seems unlikely that transfer reform would change that.

“If you look at the success Division I baseball has had since implementing the rules, it’s really helped,” Cohen said. “It has helped protect some Division I rosters. I think the very nature of college baseball has improved since that happened.

“But I will say there should be opportunity for student-athletes to find the best situation. I clearly understand that model. It’s very difficult to balance those two.”

As the NCAA examines its transfer rules on a macro scale, baseball’s specific complexities may be lost among bigger questions.

“If you look at the sports that are restrictive as it relates to competition, why is it different for those students versus soccer, volleyball, golf, tennis, swimming?” said Sidwell, who transferred from Brown to Tulane during his baseball playing career. “What’s the difference? Why is their ability to transfer different than someone else’s ability? It’s hard to rationalize.”

White said he sees both sides of the debate and thinks the return of the one-time transfer exception would have positives and negatives for both players and coaches. He petitioned the NCAA for an exemption to be able to play immediately after transferring, but he knew it would probably be denied, which it was. He didn’t think much of it at the time, he said, because he understood the rule and thought sitting out a year would be worth it.

“The rules were the rules and I think there’s a good reason for it, because I could have come in and impacted an A&M program right away,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been fair to TCU, it would have been unfair to other schools in the SEC and I think that would have been done a lot more often if that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Whether White’s prediction has a chance to come true or not, remains to be seen. The transfer reform debate, quiet for a decade, continues in college baseball, still without any easy answers to a problem that isn’t going away.

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