BOZEMAN — Bruce Barnum needed to know every detail of the NCAA transfer portal.
The Portland State head football coach sought to become an expert on it. To him, it was another recruiting avenue. He simultaneously recognized he needed to learn as much about players as he could before welcoming them to his program.
“It’s kind of a shoot-from-the-hip deal,” he said during the Big Sky’s media day in July.
The NCAA’s transfer regulations have steadily changed in recent years, including the adoption of the one-time transfer rule that allows players to change schools once without losing a year of eligibility.
This has led to more turnover in college football, including at the FCS level. Within guidelines, the transfer portal has become a type of free agency for programs to pick up players, some who may turn out to be stars and others who may debilitate a team.
“It’s a step forward to be able to have players be able to move if they need to,” said Montana State defensive end Amandre Williams, who transferred from Washington in 2019. “But for the guys that want to be a part of the program and invest themselves in the program, I think that’s a great thing to do to stick around for four years. Obviously each situation is different, and some guys feel the need to move on. And if that’s the best case for them, then great, go do that. Go be the player you need to be somewhere else if that’s the case.
“But I mean, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy I was able to transfer and play here. I hope they find the same situation for the guys that do end up leaving and find a team that welcomes them as much as the Bobcats did for me.”
Northern Arizona head coach Chris Ball said he’s “back and forth” on his approach to the portal.
Either way, he seeks for his coaches to prioritize maintaining positive relationships with players so they don’t feel the need to leave. This is similar to the stance MSU head coach Brent Vigen has expressed.
Ball said some of the Lumberjacks’ best players developed because they were at NAU since they graduated high school and remained despite the tribulations they faced. That is how he wants to evolve a program.
“I’m old school on that,” Ball said. “One of the great things about college football is it’s adverse and you learn to handle adversity so when you get out in the real world, you can handle if you ever get fired from your job or if your marriage isn’t going right or if your kid is sick and you have to make sacrifices.”
NAU hasn’t completely refrained from turning to the transfer portal. But, Ball said, transfers need to adjust to the culture of the program quickly or else they won’t easily see the field. Returners, the coach added, have done well in holding those newcomers to a high standard.
“You’ve got to play the game,” Ball said. “We’ve gotten burned on the portal and then we figured it out real quick that if we find a guy in the portal, we don’t talk to the coaches a whole lot. Call the strength staff, we call the trainers. We call people who’ve been surrounding and seeing them outside of the football realm, and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins recognized players should have the right to choose anywhere they want to go. For a variety of reasons, a program may not be right as time goes on, or as an athlete grows older, perspective may change on a decision that athlete made at 18 years old out of high school.
Hawkins recalled telling Keelan Doss, a stellar wide receiver for the Aggies who had the option to transfer or to attempt to play in the NFL before his senior year, that he would support Doss, whatever he chose to do.
“I don’t get why an AD can leave or a football coach can leave but a player can’t leave,” Hawkins said. “Why can’t that person readjust their lives? So to me, I’ve kind of been an advocate for this for a long time and a proponent.”
Hawkins said the Aggies likely wouldn’t be affected much by the transfer rules. On top of their success — they’re ranked No. 9 in the FCS — Hawkins believes the quality of education at UC Davis helps retain players.
Hawkins encourages players to take agency in their own lives. However, he prefers they stick around so the Aggies become more cohesive. He also noted he doesn’t want to overly rely on the transfer portal because it “messes with your whole culture.”
“I’m not into getting a bunch of hired guns,” Hawkins said. “You have to fill in sometimes, and sometimes there’s some gaps in your depth chart where you’ve got to go get a player that’s been somewhere else, but I don’t see us being a big portal team down the road. I really don’t.
“What about the young dudes that are paying their dues, working hard, playing scout team, putting in their time and developing, and then it’s their time to go and you get a hired gun, what does that do? I don’t like that.”
Sacramento State head coach Troy Taylor said new transfer rules were “a long time coming.” He simply wants to find ways to adapt.
“Giving the athletes a freedom to put themselves in a situation that they feel is better for them,” he said. “There’s going to be guys who feel they have a better opportunity somewhere else.”
That includes Munchie Filer, a graduate transfer cornerback from MSU who is now playing for the Hornets. Daron Bland, a first-team all-Big Sky defensive back in 2019, transferred from Sac State to Fresno State. So the Hornets coaching staff looked through the portal and found Filer, who sought to leave the Bobcats during their coaching transition.
Taylor isn’t sure if transfers between Big Sky teams will happen often. It depends on the situation.
But he wants to be wary of older players because they may have developed expectations that don’t fit in with the Hornets. And if they don’t play right away, Taylor added, they could become frustrated and affect the team’s dynamic.
“You’ve got to be careful. You want to make sure you’re bringing the right people that fit into what you’re doing in your culture,” Taylor said. “You’re not always going to be right, but it’s certainly more than just, ‘Can a person play?’ Our culture, we protect it pretty heavily so we’ve got to make sure the person is going to be a good fit and it’s not just a matter of a board game where you bring in pieces.”
“Culture isn’t just part of the game,” he added. “It is the game.”
Taylor said the transfer portal is an effective way to fill in gaps on a roster. But he too wants to rely on high school recruiting. Transfers can learn about the program’s expectations from those who have been around for years.
When asked if he thinks the transfer portal could benefit or hamper the Hornets, Taylor said he doesn’t think of the situation in that way.
“You can sit around and whine and complain about it all you can,” he said, “but this is what we’ve been dealt.”