Midway through Maryland’s disappointing football season, Danny O’Brien already had a plan formulated: The third-year quarterback would make sure to graduate one year early in the spring, at least in part because it would afford him more options academically and athletically if he chose to transfer.
After receiving his release this week, O’Brien will now take advantage of those options. Unlike other players who transfer, he will not have to sit out a year when he earns his degree this spring. Instead, he should be eligible to play immediately at another Football Bowl Subdivision school as long as he enrolls in a graduate program not offered at Maryland.
The graduate transfer rule has been applauded because it rewards academic achievement and empowers student-athletes in a system that traditionally favors the interests of coaches and universities. At the same time, concerns have grown among some prominent coaches who believe college sports may be entering an era of high-profile student-athlete free agency.
“I don’t think it is a good precedent for us to set, and I don’t think it’s good for what we are looking to do,” Michigan State men’s basketball Coach Tom Izzo said in general about the rule during a recent Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “The negatives could far outweigh the positives. I really, really do believe that.”
There was nothing untoward or surprising about O’Brien’s decision to transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. Several Maryland players took issue with the communication style and philosophy of Coach Randy Edsall in his first season; 11 other players also have left the program since season’s end for various reasons. And O’Brien, the 2010 ACC rookie of the year, found himself fighting for his job in an offense unsuited for his skill set and facing the prospect of a third offensive coordinator in three years in 2012.
O’Brien yearns for a fresh start, much like one another former acclaimed ACC quarterback, Russell Wilson, received when he graduated from North Carolina State and transferred to and starred at Wisconsin this past season. In men’s basketball, 15 players have been eligible to play immediately this season because of the rule.
Izzo’s criticism of the process may seem odd to some, considering he recently has taken advantage of it. Brandon Wood, an all-Horizon League guard at Valparaiso last season, graduated from the Indiana school and now is averaging more than 26 minutes per game as a fifth-year senior for the Spartans. Izzo said he and Homer Drew, the Crusaders’ coach last season, communicated during the transfer process and that he had Drew’s blessing. But Izzo remains concerned about the rule, believing that it is neither fair for schools nor players.
“Like it or not, desperate times means desperate measures, and we are going to be recruiting kids off other schools’ campuses,” Izzo said. “I just think you are putting things in kids’ minds now.”
David Ridpath, a sports administration professor at Ohio University and former president of the Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog organization, said the graduate student transfer rule is a good way for the NCAA to show that it cares about the education of student athletes, and that coaches should celebrate the players’ pursuit of postgraduate degrees. Resistance to the rule, he said, is about one thing:
“It is coaches and administrators losing control of the athlete and treating them like property. These coaches are only concerned about keeping these kids under wraps so they can maximize their own athletic utility. At the end of the day, they could really care less whether this kid goes to get his master’s degree or not.”
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams recently told the Associated Press that he believes it is a “really good rule” that rewards players for graduating. But Williams added that he’d only use it to fill a specific need: “We don’t always sit around, having a little meeting, put our hands together and have a seance and try to figure out who is going to leave and have a year’s eligibility left.”
Williams took advantage of the rule in the spring of 2010, after sophomore Ed Davis declared for the NBA draft and freshmen David and Travis Wear unexpectedly transferred. Facing a scarcity of big men, the Tar Heels brought in Justin Knox, who had graduated from Alabama. He played in all 37 games as a reserve for North Carolina last season.
Now so-called free agency has arrived for O’Brien, an accomplished student who has been documenting life goals – both academic and athletic pursuits — since grammar school.
In the first hours after his transfer became public, Mississippi, Arizona, South Florida and East Carolina were among the schools that showed considerable interest. Having spent his early years in Minnesota, O’Brien has interest in Wisconsin. And he may also appeal Edsall’s decision not to clear his transfer to Vanderbilt, which is coached by James Franklin, the former Maryland assistant who was a big reason why O’Brien elected to start his college career in College Park.
O’Brien is expected to visit some schools in the coming weeks before deciding which is the best fit socially and academically, and which team is the best fit athletically. He could be only months away from graduating and directing another school’s offense on autumn Saturdays.
“I am all for empowering the athlete,” Ridpath said. “And if you want to call it free agency, great, let’s call it free agency because they should be able to do what they want to do. . . . If a coach can leave and break contracts anytime they want, then we need to give the athlete more freedom to do exactly the same.”