The Transfer Portal remains a hot-button topic in college sports and its impact on Conference USA has not gone unnoticed.
“In three or four years we’ll have this thing figured out and it will make college football better.”
Despite recent conversations concerning the removal of the one-time transfer exemption, Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton offered no hesitation when he voiced his support of the Transfer Portal and the opportunity for players to explore new opportunities for themselves. His sentiments were echoed by peers during the 2022 Conference USA Media Day, reinforcing another reality that Helton framed in a rather honest fashion: “It’s just a part of the college football world we live in now.”
The Transfer Portal became the centerpiece of the national conversation when it was formalized in the fall of 2018. Since then, debates and controversy have followed regarding its implementation and its future.
Years later, not only is the Portal here to stay, it’s become an integral part of how rosters are built throughout college football and has permeated all of Conference USA.
In many ways, Western Kentucky has become the poster child of this new world order. They scooped up Bailey Zappe from Houston Baptist and he led them to a conference championship game appearance on his way to becoming an NFL Draft selection. One year later, WKU has added reigning college football passing yard leader Jarrett Doege and rising Florida A&M passer Austin Reid, among others.
Why the Transfer Portal?
It hasn’t just been Western Kentucky taking advantage of this new avenue for roster building. Programs across Conference USA have followed suit, including coaches making their first run at building a team from the studs up like first-year headman at Louisiana Tech, Sonny Cumbie.
One of Cumbie’s first priorities upon taking the head coaching job at Louisiana Tech was identifying a quarterback to run his air raid offense. Rather than train up a new face, Cumbie went to the Portal, from which he secured commitments from Texas Tech transfer Parker McNeill and TCU transfer Matthew Downing. Both had played for Cumbie before at his prior coaching stops and both had extensive experience with his offensive scheme.
“The thing that is so valuable that they bring is the amount of practice reps, the amount of experience they have in our offense,” Cumbie said of his incoming quarterback duo, adding that “both guys were in situations where they played behind really exceptional quarterbacks and they never had their opportunity be a starter on a consistent basis.”
How does it really work?
For Cumbie, the Transfer Portal expedited the learning curve at the most important position on the field. And the way both McNeill and Downing made it to Ruston wasn’t a coincidence either. Cumbie’s previous connection was integral to his success in adding both players. And while there is some element of the powerhouse programs making their selections from the “best of the rest”, relationships still matter in the Portal world.
North Texas head coach Seth Littrell said it best. “This is still a people business. I think it always has been a people business. Yes. it’s coaching and playing and it’s a sport, but you have to build those great relationships.”
Like Cumbie, Helton had previously recruited Doege when he had transferred from Bowling Green to West Virginia. He didn’t have to start that relationship from scratch this offseason.
The same was true for former Notre Dame safety Litchfield Ajavon, whose first offer out of high school came from then Michigan assistant Brian Smith, who is now the defensive coordinator at Rice. It was no coincidence that Ajavon ended up in South Main after deciding to leave South Bend.
Another recruiting staffer estimated that the vast majority, more than 80 percent, of the most recent class of transfer players had a preexisting relationship with at least one person on staff prior to their recruitment from the Transfer Portal.
In reality, the Transfer Portal might not be as Wild, Wild West as it may have first appeared. If anything, it’s proof of Littrell’s initial supposition. College football is a people business and the Transfer Portal has just extended the relevant timeframe of those relationships beyond the high school years.
Not without its challenges
Throughout media day, the feeling throughout the room regarding the Portal was overwhelmingly positive. “The Transfer Portal has been really good to us. We’ve gotten some really, really good players and some incredible people,” said Charlotte head coach Will Healy. But with the admission of the Portal’s good came a reckoning. The Portal has its challenges too.
Healy is a young coach that wears his heart on his sleeve. It wasn’t long after he lauded the benefits of the transfer system before the mood in the room turned suddenly somber and he moved on to the hardships the Portal leaves behind.
“Each and every year you want a guy to feel like by coming back into your program that you can provide for him at your institution what they need to have a chance to be successful. And when we can’t provide that, it crushes me. We’ve had guys leave. It crushes me.”
Healy remained resolute in his support of the players and their right to explore opportunities in their best interests, but his words hinted at a new challenge brought on by the new environment,
It wasn’t that long ago that a coach would recruit a player coming out of high school and that was that. Once a player was on campus, they stuck around. That’s not always the case anymore. Coaches have to recruit their own roster in much the same way they sought after the same individuals as recruits. Even then, you can’t win over everyone.
Boots on the ground
Although it’s easier to speak of this phenomenon in generalities, the reality of what the Transfer Portal looks like at this level of college football can be seen most clearly through the lens of individuals. North Texas linebacker KD Davis being perhaps one of the most timely and relevant examples.
A team captain, Davis earned first-team all-conference accolades during the 2021 season, his fourth at the school. Widely regarded as one of the best players on the team, Davis was set to return to Denton for his fifth and final year of eligibility through the summer, right up until June 23. That’s when Davis decided to put his name in the Transfer Portal.
What happened next sent shockwaves throughout the south. Davis reportedly took visits to Ole Miss and Texas A&M, meanwhile, he stayed connected to North Texas head coach Seth Littrell and weighed his options. Ultimately he decided to come back for one more year with the Mean Green.
For Davis, the Portal was his mechanism to ensure that he was doing all he could to maximize his exposure in his final year of collegiate eligibility. When it came to his future, he was adamant he would leave no stone unturned.
Although the process wasn’t without strain on Littrell, he said the right things while sitting alongside his star defender during a media breakout session. “He earned the right to be able to make sure this was obviously exactly what was in his best interest for his future.”
The grass isn’t always greener
When asked about his experience Davis began with a cliche; “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.” Then he elaborated.
“You can get the same amount of exposure and things at that level that you can here in Conference USA.” he said. “Everything you want to achieve, everything you want to do, we have the right coaching staff and the right players here at North Texas.”
Not everyone comes back like Davis. And his evaluation of his own future is unique to himself. But the optionality created by the Portal is at the crux of what makes it such a hot-button topic in today’s national landscape. The Portal has its shortcomings, but its intentions were good. Players now have agency over their own college football journeys.
Like Helton mused, someday, hopefully soon, “we’ll have this thing figured out.” In the meantime, it’s going to be messy. But it’s that messy reality that was endorsed and echoed throughout the concourses of Globe Life Field, spoken by players and coaches alike.
The Transfer Portal brings a lot of good to college athletics. It’s just going to take some time to figure out.
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