New college transfer proposal — one free move, no strings attached — is gaining steam around the country, and in Utah

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Jayce Johnson (34) as Utah hosts Oregon State, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday Feb. 2, 2019. Johnson transferred from Utah after last season and now plays for Marquette.

Last October, the Big Ten proposed legislation to the NCAA that would allow student-athletes in all sports to transfer once without having to spend a year in residence.

Currently, student-athletes in men’s and women’s basketball, football, baseball and ice hockey have to sit one year upon transferring.

Even before the Big Ten’s proposal, this was increasingly becoming a topic of conversation among coaches and administrators. The Big Ten went about things quietly, so while this was on the radar of folks at universities, this was not a large national conversation until this week.

On Monday, the ACC publicly offered support of the Big Ten’s proposal, stating that it had “unanimously concluded” at its winter meetings that student-athletes should be allowed a one-time transfer without penalty.

The NCAA’s Board of Directors had not considered the Big Ten’s proposal after it placed a moratorium on transfer-related items last November, but with the ACC chiming in this week, the college athletics governing body acted swiftly

The NCAA announced on Tuesday that a concept being considered by its Transfer Waiver Working Group would allow for a one-time transfer without penalty, regardless of sport. After collecting feedback, the NCAA’s Division I Council is expected to have this on the table as part of its late-April meeting, with the goal of having legislation approved in time for the 2020-21 academic year.

“The current system is unsustainable,” Jon Steinbrecher, Mid-American Conference commissioner and Transfer Waiver Working Group chair, said in the NCAA’s press release. “Working group members believe it’s time to bring our transfer rules more in line with today’s college landscape. “This concept provides a uniform approach that is understandable, predictable and objective. Most importantly, it benefits students.”

Whenever the NCAA weighs in on something, anything really, reaction is immediate and generally varied across the college sports landscape. Now consider that this transfer proposal, in theory, could cause a tectonic shift in competitive balance. High-major programs, specifically blue-blood programs, are thought to be the big winners on paper.

If you’re Duke or Michigan State, and you have an offseason roster hole to fill, you don’t need to hope a five-star freshman pans out. You go raid a lesser high-major or a mid-major for a proven commodity. The mids poach the low-major talent, and maybe they poach each other if opportunity knocks. Things would get truly out of control if low-majors started poaching Division II talent, but one thing at a time.

“Until there is a rule change, last I heard it was proposed, so until something’s official and I’ve had time to kind of digest it and come up with an opinion, it’s probably best for me to kind of stay Switzerland on it and keep my views to myself,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said this past week, indicating he was not yet aware of the NCAA’s revised stance. “Stay tuned, we’ll figure it out and see if that’s going to be the case. It’s certainly a common thing when you’ve got close to 800, 900 basketball players on an annual basis that are transferring, so it’s not surprising that there is more discussion about it. I just think it’s important that it’s thought about long and hard. If it’s indeed a win-win for everybody, then I would be for it.”

Krystkowiak went from a non-answer, to a sort-of answer, but all of that was more than what the Pac-12 offered Jon Wilner of The Mercury News, one of the foremost experts on the conference.

“At this time, the Pac-12 has not yet formulated a position on this matter, but do plan to discuss with our Pac-12 Council at our upcoming meetings,” a conference spokesman told Wilner on Tuesday.

The Pac-12’s spring meetings are slated for May, after the NCAA Division I Council is to meet, but that same spokesman told Wilner the Pac-12 “will have a conference position in advance of the NCAA position.”

What about the little guy?

There are two exceptions to the current transfer rules.

One, student-athletes who graduate with eligibility remaining are free to transfer to another school without having to sit for a year. For example, former Utah center Jayce Johnson graduated last spring with one season of eligibility left. He wound up transferring this season to Marquette and was immediately eligible. Two, there is a transfer waiver process that allows for immediate eligibility if there are mitigating circumstances outside the student-athlete’s control. The transfer waiver process has long been under fire as it seems there is often no rhyme or reason as to why some waivers are approved and some are not.

If mid and low-majors are going to be the ones suffering from the new transfer rules, in fairness, it’s not like those programs aren’t already being invaded on an annual basis. Allowing this to go on without kids having to sit for a year would only exacerbate the issue.

A look at the exhaustive transfer list produced by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman last spring will shine some light on this. Of the 875 names on last season’s list, there are at least 50 cases of a low or mid-major player transferring up to a high-major.

“It’ll affect everybody in the country,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said following the Aggies’ 78-58 win over Wyoming on Wednesday, its eighth in nine games as they continue to position themselves for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. “That’s been an ongoing debate. Obviously, it’s been highlighted in the last couple of days. It is what it is, I’m just fine either way. You know what I mean? There’s positives, there’s negatives. I know how we operate our program. I know how we treat our guys in our program.”

Now in his second season in Logan, Smith is presiding over one of the nation’s elite mid-majors, but he has had 10 players leave his program since he arrived. Of those 10, former Mountain West Freshman of the Year Kobe McEwan transferred to Marquette before Smith even coached a game. McEwan sat his one season in 2018-19, and is now getting steady, heavy rotation minutes for a Golden Eagles team bound for the NCAA Tournament.

Smith is currently coaching two guys who, if they ever left Utah State and had a free transfer, would have a long list of suitors. One is reigning MWC Player of the Year and 2,000-point scorer Sam Merrill, who is a redshirt senior, so this new rule will never apply to him.

The other is sophomore forward Neemias Queta, who declared for, but ultimately withdrew from the NBA Draft last spring. Despite injuries over the last six months, his athleticism and defensive prowess mean his ceiling remains an NBA roster. He would be, if nothing else, a quality rim protector at the high-major level.

“I actually love coaching transfers, I love coaching them because they walk in with a chip on their shoulder,” said BYU coach Mark Pope, who made hay with transfers at his previous stop at Utah Valley. “I think they do, and I also love coaching transfers because they’ve been somewhere else and they’ve seen how it’s done somewhere else. They come here because they want to do it the way we’re doing it.”

For what it’s worth, one of Pope’s key rotation guys on his first BYU team this season is Alex Barcello, an Arizona transfer, who won his transfer waiver request for immediate eligibility as a junior.

The in-state voice of reason

One high-profile example of a low or mid-major player transferring up in the last few years is Cane Broome.

An unranked, 6-foot point guard from East Hartford, Conn., Broome had a good freshman season at Sacred Heart, then exploded as a sophomore on his way to being named Northeast Conference Player of the Year in 2016.

That spring, Broome announced he was transferring, which led to schools like Creighton, Cincinnati, North Carolina State and Seton Hall getting in the mix before that season’s NCAA Tournament had even ended. Broome chose the Bearcats. He sat his year in residency, then had two productive seasons, but never had the type of impact he did for the Pioneers.

To his credit, Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina was famously OK with, if not publicly supportive of his star leaving.

Randy Rahe, the head coach of a generally-competitive Big Sky program at Weber State, is on board with Latina’s line of thinking.

“If kids want to leave, they are going to leave and in my opinion, I don’t want them here if they don’t truly want to be here,” Rahe told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m actually good with it. It was heading that way no matter what and if it benefits the players, I’m OK with it. Coaches leave all the time and that hurts the players they recruited and left behind.”

Rahe, who has been at the helm in Ogden since 2006, has always preached culture. If you build relationships with high-character guys, there will be trust and everything will work out in the end.

To that point, Rahe has won 62% of his games over 14 seasons and, most famously, scored big on an underrecruited point guard named Damian Lillard. Rahe and his staff helped Lillard blossom into one of the nation’s premier playmakers, a two-time Big Sky Player of the Year and the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Through all of that, there was little, if any chance, of Lillard transferring up on Rahe.

“What I believe will happen is a lot of good high school players are going to get left behind,” Rahe said. “Transfers will become the top recruiting source for schools now because everyone wants to get old and stay old. You have to nowadays to be successful, and it takes most high school players a while to develop.”

Tribune reporters Norma Gonzalez and Alex Vejar contributed to this story.