The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football’s new order takes power from coaches. They aren’t handling it well.

Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney has expressed misgivings about transfers in college football. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Lane Kiffin believes “we have free agency in college football.” Dabo Swinney believes the fact there are 2,000 college football players looking to find a school that might be a better fit is “crazy. It’s really sad.” Ryan Day believes players’ rights to profit off their names, images and likenesses are “complicated.”

“For just the sport itself,” said Day, the coach at Ohio State, “The concerning part is that the coaches can’t set that up.”

Imagine, a middle-aged coach not having complete control over the lives of teenagers.

“There’s so much tampering going on,” lamented Swinney, the coach at Clemson, “and so many adults manipulating young people.”

The most upsetting aspect for Dabo: Coaches no longer hold a monopoly on the manipulation.

In signing day shocker, top recruit Travis Hunter goes with Deion Sanders and Jackson State

Here is the old model of big-time college sports: Coaches could recruit kids to one school while actively pursuing a job with another (looking at you, Brian Kelly, and your bolt from Notre Dame to LSU), departing without penalty while their former players would have to sit out a year to make the exact same change. More than that, coaches could seek out more lucrative offers (looking at you, Brian Kelly, and your $95 million) while the players who actually won the games made … nothing.

“There’s a lot of kids whose identity is wrapped up in football,” Swinney said, “and all this does is further that.”

Slow down, Dabo — even in the days after a dizzying early signing day thrust all these issues into the light — and let’s remember one truth here: The old model was broken. Not just broken but wrong. It penalized football players for playing football because an everyday student — a violinist or an actor or a dancer — could wake up one day, decide she or he needed a change and transfer to another school with no problem. It created a $4 billion industry in which the players received tuition, room and board, books and a small stipend — but could in no way participate in the open market.

Brent Venables made $2.4 million as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, then agreed to a six-year, $43.5 million deal to be the coach at Oklahoma. That’s what is provided by free agency and an open market, and no coach has ever complained about it. Yet they’re upset that the players now can 1) get a cut, and/or 2) find some place that might offer them more?

This is moving fast, and the fact that the rules governing both transfers and the ability for players to profit off their names changed over the past year makes it all the more jarring. But it’s far from a disaster, and there’s plenty of time for corrections. The truth is, for all the hands-in-air haranguing by coaches over the past week — “The kids go to where they’re going to pay the most,” said Kiffin, the Mississippi coach — there’s not likely to be 2,000 kids annually in the transfer portal. Together, these changes are a jolt to college football’s ecosystem. Remember that it was an ecosystem in need of electrocution.

Take name, image and likeness. Schools are allowed to educate players about opportunities to profit off their names. They’re just not allowed to provide them. That prevents, say, Ohio State from saying to a prospective quarterback, “If you become our starter, we have this built-in program from Coca-Cola that will pay you $100,000.” The money has to come from a third party.


“People are influencing these kids who are outside the university,” Day said. “And I think, again, that’s concerning.”

Man, football coaches would sooner give up red meat than control. The best players are supposed to universally go to the brand-name programs — but then not be able to enhance their own brands with help from people who aren’t their coaches? Travis Hunter was the top-ranked recruit in the country. On Wednesday, he de-committed from Florida State and signed instead with Jackson State, coached by former FSU cornerback Deion Sanders. Did that shock to the recruiting world come with the promise of money from an outside source? Unclear. But so what if it did?

Put that aside. Day also considers himself a victim of the transfer rules. Quarterback Quinn Ewers enrolled at Ohio State as a freshman this summer. After ending up down the depth chart — Ewers didn’t throw a pass this season — he announced he would transfer closer to his home in Southlake, Tex. This week, he chose Texas.

“You think about all the time and energy and resources that we spend on recruiting and on one individual family,” Day said. “For them to walk out the door, man, that’s a bad day no matter how it works.”

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“There’s no consequences,” Swinney said. “There’s no rules. I’m all for transferring. I personally think we should let them go whenever they want. I just think they should sit a year and then you get that year back upon graduation.”

One set of rules for the coaches. Another for the players. Gotcha.

Here’s an idea, guys. Why not make it incumbent upon you and your staff to provide an environment in which players don’t want to leave? Is there entitlement in some corners of the world? Absolutely. Are there going to be athletes who leave because playing time is immediately available elsewhere, and kids are impatient? No doubt. But the answer isn’t returning to the way it was. The answer is for coaches to develop methods to keep their programs as stable as possible and calmly navigate new terrain.

You know who’s got it right? Nick Saban.

“Basically, what I do is try to adapt to whatever the circumstance and whatever the situation that we have,” the Alabama coach said.

What an idea: read, react and adapt. No wonder Saban has seven national championships.

College football recruiting and college football coaching have a batch of new, unforeseen challenges and fresh, unimagined stresses. Tough beans. Coaches constantly implore their players to face adversity and find solutions. Suck it up, right? It would be nice if — before lashing out about a system that hasn’t yet had a chance to sort itself out — they took a little of their own advice.