The standout running back from a Group of 5 program got an unsolicited call from a coach at a Power 5 program.
The coach made a promise: Come here, and we can make sure you make the most of your name, image and likeness.
And he put a number on it: $200,000.
The problem? This particular running back wasn’t one of the more than 1,000 FBS scholarship football players who entered his name in the transfer portal during the past year.
“It’s a reality,” a Group of 5 assistant coach told The Athletic this month. “(Tampering) is going on right now.”
Roster management never has been more difficult in college sports. In April, the NCAA eliminated the requirement for first-time transfers to sit out a season before resuming their playing career. Three months later, athletes were allowed to monetize their name, image and likeness for the first time.
The power balance in college athletics has shifted, and college football is in the midst of a never-before-seen roster turnover tornado.
None of the coaches The Athletic spoke with on the condition of anonymity for this story oppose free transfers or NIL, but the two seismic rule changes have combined to create an environment they feel is untenable and, on the issue of transfers specifically, could end up hurting the careers of more players than it helps.
Like it or not, it’s the new reality in the sport. Every coaching staff is wrestling with how to answer one question: How do we keep our players out of the portal?
“That’s the golden question right there,” a Group of 5 head coach said.
The portal launched Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III’s career into the stratosphere after he left Wake Forest, and it turned Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams into one of the sport’s biggest stars after he left Ohio State. At Kentucky, Wan’Dale Robinson’s production in 2021 surpassed what he did in two seasons at Nebraska combined.
But the portal isn’t a fairy tale for everyone.
As semesters begin across college campuses, just more than 50 percent of players who have entered the portal have announced new homes. The longer a player is stuck in the portal, the more questions coaches have about why, like when a house is stuck on the market for months on end.
“The portal was invented for Joe Burrow-type guys. It’s not a bad thing,” a Group of 5 assistant said. “It’s just like anything. We have to educate our players about the tool and if it’s best for them.”
And the tampering issues have become more commonplace, pulling players into the portal often with promises that may not be fulfilled. With just six months of data on NIL money, both sides of the equation are still guessing what’s to come.
“It’s been going on awhile, but it used to just be grad transfers. I had a player at (his previous school) and people called his mom, they called his coach and called everybody to try and get him to transfer, but he ended up staying,” the Group of 5 assistant said.
Now, however, with nearly every team’s entire roster having the ability to leave for another school and play immediately, those calls are happening more often than ever.
“Some guys getting these deals in the SEC are making good money. There’s definitely tampering going on,” a Group of 5 coordinator said. “But I don’t think anybody knows the rules. The NCAA’s loose approach with it is good and bad. They’re trying to not get caught up where they’re making a bunch of decisions of what is right and wrong, but at the same time, the reality is even if the NCAA came down on schools for tampering, they’d just go through a high school coach or handler or whatever to make deals.
“Guys are seeing comparable type players get in the portal and get better offers. They feel like the grass is greener, and it’s risky for some guys. It’s paid off for some.”
At the American Football Coaches Association’s national convention this month in San Antonio, representatives from the NCAA attended a meeting of the FBS assistant coaches’ committee, and tampering with players not in the portal was one of the most contentious issues.
“The NCAA basically said there’s not a whole lot we can do about it, unless we restrict a player’s ability to do something,” a Group of 5 assistant said. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and they don’t have a lot of good solutions. This is my 19th year in coaching, and this is the most uncertain and uneasy I’ve ever felt about the direction we’re headed.”
One suggestion the committee pitched to calm some of the transfer chaos: Giving players a two-month window after the regular season and after the spring semester to enter the portal, which would better allow coaches to project their numbers and fill them through recruiting or backfilling in the portal. In the sport’s current state, an entire position group could depart for any reason and leave a gaping hole in any roster.