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The Grad Transfer Game

Last week, to the dismay of thousands of Stanford basketball fans and head coach Jerod Haase, All-Pac-12 forward Reid Travis made a surprising announcement.

Travis, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Cardinal last year, was a redshirt junior with one year of eligibility remaining. Last month, he’d entered the NBA draft—without hiring an agent—to test the waters.

The general consensus was that the burly Travis, generously listed at 6-8, would have to develop more of a perimeter offensive game, facing the basket, to make it in the NBA, where power forwards generally are two or three inches taller.

Plus, the move to “small ball,” as inspired by the NBA champion Warriors, has put a premium on long, rangy athletes who can move, defend, and shoot from three-point range, diminishing the value of players in Travis’ inside the paint, “take no prisoners” mold.

So the first part of his Twitter announcement—that he was “returning to college” for his fifth year—was not a surprise. But the next sentence revealed his plan to “grad transfer to another institution, one that will continue to align with my academic and athletic interests.”


Stanford basketball took a significant step up last year, when Haase recruited one of the top 10 freshman classes in the country. Frosh Daejon Davis and KJ Okpala quickly broke into the starting lineup, and Oscar da Silva showed a lot of promise coming off the bench.

Most pundits had ranked Stanford as one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 championship this coming season. Not now.

Travis is expected to transfer to either Kentucky—where he would give new meaning to the term “one and done”—or national champion Villanova, which has been decimated by players declaring for the pros.

Exactly how the University of Kentucky might “align with” the “academic interests” of a Stanford graduate is a subject for another day.

But his case illustrates how the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule has been distorted and abused since its introduction 12 years ago.

Some quick background.

Increasing numbers of athletes are entering college with advanced placement credits and sitting out a redshirt year. As a result, more and more players are graduating before their eligibility expires.

With that in mind, the NCAA ruled in ‘06 that an athlete who’d graduated but still had eligibility remaining could transfer to another school, compete in sports, and attend graduate courses without having to sit out a year.

The NCAA’s intentions were honorable. The rule was originally intended for student-athletes who wanted to pursue a degree that wasn’t offered by their undergraduate institution.

But that all changed in 2011 due to a North Carolina State quarterback named Russell Wilson. Wilson, the future Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl hero, was the Wolfpack’s starting quarterback but also wanted to play baseball. His football coach at the time, Tom O’Brien, insisted that his star signal-caller participate in spring drills. If Wilson didn’t come out for spring ball, O’Brien said, he would lose his starting job to Mike Glennon.

Wilson opted to play baseball and, with his bachelor’s degree already in hand, transferred to Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.

Wilson was one of just 17 football players who took advantage of the grad transfer rule in 2011. In men’s basketball, there were 15 grad transfers that year. But since then, the numbers have gone through the roof.

By 2016, there were 117 grad transfers in football and 87 in basketball.

Why the increase? It’s simple. Players have realized that if they lose their starting job, or if their coach brings in a hot-shot freshman who may challenge them for playing time, they can transfer to another school to play more and get a better shot at the NBA or NFL.

At the same time, football and basketball coaches around the country have realized they can recruit graduate transfers from other schools.

Not surprisingly, the NCAA’s own research shows conclusively that most grad transfers in football and basketball earn few graduate credits and simply leave school when their athletic eligibility expires.

So much for mythical quarterback Joe Suitcase, who transfers from his alma mater Smith College—which doesn’t offer the graduate degree in biochemical engineering he wants to pursue—to Jones State, which does.

In the real world, Joe is transferring because his starting job at Smith is in jeopardy and Jones needs a quarterback.

“In most cases, these aren’t academic decisions,” admitted Penn State coach James Franklin. “I don’t think it’s working the way that it was intended.”

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi went even further. “People are recruiting grad transfers now. People have a recruiting office where that’s their sole duty. They’ll have three guys that are focused on, ‘okay, who are the possible transfers around the country, even 1-AA?’”

Some high profile coaches are not fans of the grad transfer provision.

Nick Saban, who’s won five national football championships at Alabama, said of the rule, “I’m not for having free agency in our conference.”

After learning of Travis’ plans to transfer, Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller told Arizona “It’s the world we live in. I feel bad for Stanford. They invested a lot in Reid.”

Indeed they did. And I guarantee you, Jerod Haase feels a lot worse than Miller.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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