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Overreaction Monday: The Transfer Culture and Iowa Athletics

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The transfer culture in college athletics has exploded. Iowa football and Hawkeye hoops have taken slightly different approaches to the changes.

Iowa v Cincinnati
Fran McCaffery doesn’t like the college transfer rules, but he needs to start taking advantage of them.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

868

That’s how many college basketball players have opted to transfer in 2019. That’s almost a third of all players nationally. It’s an astronomical number and one that catches a lot of attention.

But the transfer hysteria isn’t just limited to college basketball. More than 13% of college football players will transfer this year. And while that number seems small, that’s only because our minds have been skewed by the incredibly high number of transfers in college hoops.

And while the raw numbers are lower for football, the impact may be even bigger. While we all think of the frustrated bench warmer who has opted for more playing time, more and more we are seeing high profile players, especially quarterbacks, opt for greener pastures when things aren’t going swimmingly.

There’s been Jalen Hurts departing Alabama for Oklahoma when he was unseated by Tua Tagovailoa, and Clemson starter Kelly Bryant heading to Missouri after he was beaten out by Trevor Lawrence, and former #1 overall recruit Justin Fields leaving Georgia for Ohio State after Jake Fromm cemented himself in the starting role. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What’s notable about the football transfer phenomenon is the number of high profile players leaving big time programs and not landing at a lower tier school, but bouncing to an equally blue blood program. Even those that do drop down a notch seem to be getting waiver to play immediately if they can show they had a coaching change or assistant coaching change or - gasp - they weren’t going to start.

College athletics has a transfer problem.

The symptoms of that problem have not gone unnoticed in Iowa City. This spring, the basketball team has seen a pair of players opt for the transfer option. Isaiah Moss even falls into that rare category of players who were slated to start and still chose to leave.

There are, of course, a number of transfers on the football side as well. But football is a sport where a single player has less of an impact and we certainly didn’t see any starters depart from Kirk’s group.

Perhaps more notable than the players leaving, though is that both the basketball and football programs seem to be looking to bring players in. While that seems out of character for Kirk Ferentz and the football program, it’s actually a bigger deal for Fran McCaffery and Iowa hoops for a couple of reasons.

First, as already noted, basketball is a game where one player can make a significant impact. Obviously a single player can have a big impact in football too, but it’s a completely different world in college basketball. Take, for instance, the case of Murray State this past season. That was a very average mid-major team with a star player in Ja Morant who was able to put the team on his back to make a run into second round of the NCAA Tournament.

One player makes a world of difference. And yet, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery hasn’t been one to really take advantage of the immense market for transfers as outlined above. During his 10 years at Iowa, the Hawkeyes have only brought in one true transfer - Jarrod Uthoff.

Iowa v Gonzaga
The 2014-2015 season didn’t end as well as it could have, but Jarrod Uthoff cemented himself as a great transfer at Iowa.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It was an incredible success with Uthoff becoming a major contributor on one of the best teams we’ve had at Iowa since 2006. While the recipe was just right with Uthoff hailing from Cedar Rapids and having been recruited by McCaffery once before, it’s pretty incredible that the success with him didn’t lead to Fran and Co. dipping into the transfer market more. Instead, they’ve opted to continue looking for under the radar developmental talent to mix with the mostly 3- and 4-star talent Fran has been able to land.

That has worked out OK, but in a world where nearly a third of all players are transferring and Iowa it losing starters looking for more shots, it would be interesting to see what the Hawkeyes could bring in if they were actively looking.

In the past, Fran has indicated that he is not a fan of the graduate transfer rules allowing players to play right away and that he generally isn’t keen on bringing in transfers to take time away from the guys who have been buying time in the program. That makes sense and is a testament to his reputation as a players’ coach. But he is also paid to win games and fans want him to bring in the top available talent, whether they’re high school kids or transfers - despite what they might say about Iowa State’s reputation as a landing spot.

That’s why this offseason is so interesting. Fran finally seems open to the idea of bringing in an immediately transfer player. First it was Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey, who ultimately chose Vanderbilt over the Hawkeyes. Then it was the Hauser brothers from Marquette, who shocked the world last week by splitting up to go to Virginia and Michigan State.

This week, Fran will be hosting a graduate transfer from Valpraiso named Bakari Evelyn. He’s not a household name, but it’s an interesting one. Evelyn averaged nearly 9 points a game last season, but perhaps more telling is the 12.6 he averaged as a sophomore before he had multiple ankle surgeries. If he can get healthy again, he has a skillset the Hawkeyes can really use with the loss of Moss. If not, he’s only taking a scholarship for a season, same as Riley Till.

Perhaps more important than getting the perfect transfer, though, is simply the progress shown in being willing to look there. This season it’s almost certainly a product of the situation, but the same could be said for nearly every program across the country. With Moss and Dailey transferring and the news that Jordan Bohannon is likely to redshirt rather than spend another season playing through injury, Iowa is in dire need of a guard. In the transfer world, that means opportunity and it’s really the first time under Fran when there’s been a clear one for a potential transfer.

If things go well with Evelyn or whoever Iowa ultimately gets, perhaps this is the spark the lights the fire for Fran to start supplementing with transfers. More importantly, perhaps this is the spark that tells transfers Iowa is a potential landing spot.

That type of messaging seems to have happened for the Hawkeye football program. While many a fan pictures and old, out of touch Kirk Ferentz, KF has been relatively active on the transfer market of late. There have always been the JUCO guys, and those are still there as you would expect with a national power like Iowa Western in our own back yard pumping out talent like Nick Easley and Mekhi Sargent, but KF has quietly been nabbing grad transfers and traditional ones for a few years.

The door really opened when a major need presented itself a few years ago at punter. In stepped Central Michigan grad transfer Ron Coluzzi. Coluzzi was a hit with the fans and the staff alike and he performed very well in his only season as a Hawkeye. That experience seemed to open the eyes of Ferentz, who dipped into the grad transfer market again this offseason for a punter. This time it’s 27-year-old Michael Sleep-Dalton from Arizona State.

But the door swings both ways. Ferentz is now open to the idea of taking a transfer and transfers have now seen that Iowa is a place that will take transfers and give them an opportunity. Perhaps that’s why we saw a few surprising new names this past week when Iowa updated its official roster.

The Hawkeyes added some WR depth with a pair of walk-ons this offseason.
Screen grab via Hawkeyesports.com

Jack Combs is a walk-on coming in from Central Michigan. He had also walked on there and as you can see, didn’t do much in his redshirt freshman campaign. However, there has to be something there for a kid from Michigan to depart his team in Michigan for an opportunity in Iowa City. Kids don’t make that decision unless they thinkn there’s an opportunity and that’s something relatively new for Ferentz.

Charlie Jones, on the other hand, walked away from a scholarship at the University of Buffalo to play as a walk on for the Hawkeyes. That is a true testament to the opportunity a player must see to come in and earn a spot in Iowa City.

Charlie Jones was a scholarship player at Buffalo who chose to walk on at Iowa.
Screen capture via Hawkeyesports.com

Jones wasn’t just a scrub at Buffalo either. As a redshirt freshman, he hauled in 18 catches for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns.

He brings with him a skillset the Hawkeyes can use. He’ll have to sit a season at Iowa, but will be available to contribute in 2020 for two more years.

Those two additions likely don’t happen without the success of a guy like Nick Easley, who chose to walk on at Iowa after playing his JUCO football at Iowa Western. Or Kyle Groeneweg, who played at the University of Sioux Falls before transferring to Iowa to become a very solid punt returner. A little success opens the door for more success.

That’s what Fran McCaffery needs with the current situation. It’s not ideal. We would all rather have Isaiah Moss returning and Jordan Bohannon healthy. But their absences will create a lot of opportunities for someone to step up and play meaningful minutes and take meaningful shots. A little success from a transfer here could open the door to new possibilities for McCaffery and Iowa hoops down the road.

It’s a progression the program needs to make if it’s going to keep up. Iowa isn’t likely to be able to recruit at the level of a number of other programs. In college basketball, you need program history to sell or money to hand out. And while Iowa has a little of both, they’ve been reluctant to play by the set of rules schools like Auburn or LSU have chosen. They can keep trying to find diamonds in the rough to supplement their core recruiting, or they can take advantage of the current circumstances to build a reputation as a landing spot for transfers who can contribute.

Here’s hoping we see some success.

Happy Monday. Have a great week. And remember, if things aren’t going well, you can always just transfer.

Go Hawks