Coaches bail but transfer rules remain

Less than two weeks after his team throttled Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl — doing so in its fourth BCS bowl appearance in his four seasons as Oregon’s head Duck — visor-wearing spread-offense guru Chip Kelly decided to try his hand at a new head coaching challenge, in the NFL.

On Wednesday, Kelly, who previously interviewed with the Eagles, Browns and Bills about their head coaching vacancies before originally opting to stay in Eugene, reneged on his earlier refusal and decided to take the Philly job, after all — with the Browns and Bills’ positions already filled by Rob Chudzinski and Doug Marrone, respectively.

The move, itself, isn’t one that necessarily came as a shock on a macro level, as Kelly reportedly always had NFL desires, though his abrupt about-face was something of a stunner. And Kelly should neither be slammed for taking the job nor panned for being indecisive, and perhaps, misleading about his next move. We all do what we think is best for ourselves and our families, and many would have followed Kelly’s path if given the same chance.

But Kelly’s choice to leave Oregon for Philadelphia, much like Marrone opting to ditch his alma mater, Syracuse, for the equally frigid comforts of Orchard Park, about 140 miles west on Interstate 90, should open the door to an important discussion about one of college football’s many blatant hypocrisies: If coaches can transfer so freely between teams and opportunities, why aren’t players afforded that same right?

This season alone, we’ve seen more than 10 percent of the FBS coaching fraternity switch jobs completely of their own free will — and that’s to say nothing of the Rolodex of now-ex-coaches who didn’t have a say in where they would (or wouldn’t) be earning a paycheck next season. In addition to Kelly and Marrone, FBS head coaches Gus Malzahn, Steve Addazio, Sonny Dykes, Tommy Tuberville, Bret Bielema, Mike MacIntyre, Dave Doeren, Darrell Hazell, Butch Jones, Willie Taggart and Gary Andersen have all decided to move up — or at the very least, move elsewhere — and take a new job.

The coaching carousel isn’t a new phenomenon, either.

Last year, it was Todd Graham, Tim Beckman, Hugh Freeze, Larry Fedora, Kevin Sumlin and Greg Schiano who did the same thing, leaving one team behind in favor of a prized chance with another — and, in Schiano’s case, one in the NFL. The year before that, Graham, Randy Edsall, Al Golden, Brady Hoke, Jerry Kill and Jim Harbaugh all felt better opportunities awaited them elsewhere, and Harbaugh is now one win from a Super Bowl berth in San Francisco.

And that’s totally OK. Not a single one of these men should be faulted for job-hopping, and in the ever-changing world of college football, coaches like Eddie Robinson, Frank Beamer, Chris Ault, Larry Blakeney, Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno — men who planted their roots at a school and stayed there — are hard to come by. No one should be blamed for taking the best opportunities when they can, because no one knows when the next one will come.

But what of the kids at the programs these coaches left behind? In most cases, players are only allowed to transfer after sitting out a requisite one-year waiting period, and sometimes, schools even dictate where their outbound players may or may not play next — often forbidding them from transferring to a perceived competitor.

I’d understand placing these kinds of restrictions — or negotiating hefty Bill O’Brien-style buyouts — on well-paid coaches tasked with building or maintaining a high-profile program. But to hold unpaid student-athletes hostage in that way, or to otherwise do anything that would make it difficult for them to play where they want to play, seems misguided, at best, and completely reprehensible, at worst.

Sure, there are arguments against the idea of allowing players to transfer between programs without a waiting period, but most of them can be rather easily dismissed as hypocritical or self-serving to the NCAA.

Some say that allowing players to transfer freely would open the door for player poaching and could result in some serious competitive balance issues in an already-imbalanced game. Unheralded small-school stars coming off breakout seasons would suddenly become the object of the big schools’ affection, and the inevitable under-the-table recruitment of these players would call into question the NCAA’s status as a truly amateur endeavor.

But to think that isn’t already happening, or that the NCAA isn’t already looking out for it, would be naïve. The NCAA already has the tools in place to make sure that recruiting only happens once and that tampering isn’t an issue, and it would just be a matter of ramping up enforcement should the rules change.

There are also questions to be asked about the irrecoverable financial investment that a program makes into the recruitment of a player — of course, they also make the same investments into players who never come at all — and there’s a thought that adjusting to adversity is character-building for young players. But who is the NCAA to make that call?

Then there’s a case to be made that allowing players to transfer between schools with no waiting period would be counter to the NCAA’s stated goals. Ostensibly anyway, student-athletes are students first, and allowing them to hop from team to team for the sake of a better on-field opportunity doesn’t jive with that script. But the NCAA’s track record isn’t exactly stellar when it comes to ensuring that a player’s academics are a priority to begin with.

Ultimately, I don’t think loosening transfer rules would necessarily lead to chaos bred from rampant transferring — not to the degree that detractors would expect, anyway. Because, by and large, I believe most kids are happy where they are and most picked their school with a clear understanding of what their role would be when they got there.

Perhaps some players chose a program because it was the only one they ever wanted to play for. Others may have picked their school because that’s the only one gave them a chance. Then there are those who had the good sense to know that an opportunity at a better school or a bigger program isn’t necessarily a better opportunity, and many of them will stay faithful to their current teams — even with lax transfer rules — with that in mind.

It’s a given that there would be some players who wanted to transfer because their team didn’t deliver on promises made during recruitment, and others would look to transfer because they didn’t deliver on their end of the bargain and found themselves sliding down the depth chart. But it’s likely not far-fetched to say the largest number of defectors would probably come from schools that saw a coaching change, and isn’t that the point of this discussion?

For so many players, blue chip or otherwise, the decision to attend one university over another comes down to his relationship with the coach — a man who, in many cases, bonded emotionally with the player and made promises to the family and took the recruit under his wing, often serving as a father figure. If the coach who sells players on a program is under no obligation to stay committed to his school, then why should players be held to that standard? Why should they have to be faithful to a coach and a program that wasn’t faithful to them?

And that’s to say nothing of possible system changes that might come with a new coach and limit a given player’s opportunity to succeed.

The easy answer to this would be to institute a rule that allows players to transfer, without penalty, if their coach is fired or abandons ship, as Kelly, Marrone and others have in the past few weeks. But then where do you draw the line? Often, a recruit’s close ties to a program comes through a coordinator or position coach. So what happens if that person leaves or is axed? Should that be grounds for a player being allowed to transfer, too?

Trying to make that determination seems like asking for a messy and litigious situation to unfold, so with that in mind, the best option is to just open the doors for transferring without a waiting period, across the board. Because doing nothing and treating these kids like objects instead of human beings is shameful. If coaches aren’t going to be discouraged or otherwise deterred from doing what’s best for them, then that same standard and level of acceptance that life happens and sometimes plans change should be applied to players, too.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.