Since 1991, the NCAA has had a year-in-residence rule which required athletes to sit out of his or her sport for one year upon transferring to another institution. Additionally, permission from the current institution was required prior to transfer.
Facing questions about athlete's rights, among other issues, the NCAA altered the long-standing rule in July of 2018, across all NCAA sports.
Then, as of October 15th, 2018, the NCAA made the transfer process more transparent. After that date, universities must put the athlete in the transfer pool within two business days of student notification.
The impact on collegiate softball was immediate, perhaps inflated by the radical coaching changes on the landscape last year. Oregon saw long-time head coach Mike White leave for the Longhorns, which created a vacuum.
There was a massive--and previously unheard of--shift in staff after that, with Melyssa Lombardi leaving Oklahoma for Oregon, Jimmy Kolatis taking the reins at UAB, Jen Rocha leaving Florida for Oklahoma, Central Florida's Renee Luers-Gillespie heading home to lead Iowa while the Knights reached out to California to bring in Cindy Ball Malone... and on and on and on.
There was a ripple effect among players as well.
Ultimately, nine players left the Oregon program after White's exodus. He--and some of his transferred players--made an immediate impact on the Texas program, taking them to the Super Regionals for the first time since 2013 and just the 5th time in program history.
Some of the biggest impacts were in the state of Oklahoma: Oklahoma State's Samantha Show, who transferred in from Texas A&M, because a softball celebrity as her bat flips brought her social media stardom and former Arizona State star Giselle Juarez edged out Mariah Lopez for the Oklahoma Sooner ace spot, based on number of innings thrown in the WCWS. Lopez recently entered the transfer pool and looks to be leaving Oklahoma next season.
Juarez wasn't the only transfer into the Oklahoma pitching staff. They also snagged Shannon Saile, who transferred from Florida International University and she posted a 1.42 ERA and 10-1 record for the Sooners in 30 appearances and three complete games, the first coming April 20 against Texas and the second on May 5th against Oklahoma State.
Both Show and Juarez, like Miranda Elish at Texas, made an immediate impact on their program's post-season run.
The Power of the Transfer Portal
Some pundits predicted the alteration of the transfer pool would turn college sports into the Wild West, while others predicted that it would redirect development in the college programs and handcuff programs who lose players mid-year.
In May, Baylee Klinger, who just finished an All-SEC Freshman season and is a former Extra Inning Elite 100 player--ranked #5 in her 2018 class--entered the transfer pool, leaving Texas A&M behind.
Kinsey Goelz--#34 in the class of 2017 rankings--just wrapped up her redshirt freshman season and is the sixth Mississippi State athlete navigating the waters of the pool.
Opinions abound about the transfers and the plethora of them.
As of today, one college coach reported that there are 663 (and that's not a typo) collegiate softball players in the transfer portal, hoping to relocate to a new NCAA softball program.
Entering the database doesn't guarantee a transfer, but it does indicate that the player can be contacted and will entertain transferring to another institution.
It's a very hot-button issue, as many notable collegiate and travel coaches won't go on record with their opinions yet, if only because no one knows how this massive number of would-be transfers and the impact it's having will ultimately play out.
What Does It Mean?
Opinions are all over the place throughout the softball landscape.
Some say that an abundance of transfers from one institution can indicate a toxic program, which student-athletes feel compelled to vacate for health or safety reasons. Some are saying that the rule will help college coaches be held accountable. One high-level travel ball coach said,
"Many of my former players tell me that the coach who recruited them is not the same coach once the athletes are on campus. That's a sales job, a bait and switch, whatever you want to call it--it's not right and hopefully this will give coaches a wake up call to be genuine and the same person recruiting as you are coaching."
Some feel it is entitlement showing through.
"This is team hopping taken to the next level," a coach said. "No one will trust the process anymore, and it will lead to a definitive change in the sport."
Another high level coach explained his multi-faceted views on the issue:
"When I first learned of the new transfer rule, I initially thought this was going to be great. I felt it was going to make college coaches treat their players better. There are great college coaches out there that genuinely care about their kids but then there are a lot that don’t. No female athlete should be in a situation that has a negative impact on their physical or mental health. Having said that and now seeing everything that is unfolding, there are some really bad parts to portal that I feel are only going to get worse."
"Mid-majors are going to struggle to keep their best players. There is clearly going to be poaching of players by top teams or teams that are deemed to be contenders for the world series and then there will be the kids getting either cut or de-committed to make room for these transfers. It’s already happening."
"How do you tell a girl that plays for your team we are cutting you because we have a transfer coming in? Seems crazy but it’s already happened multiple times already at some really big programs. I don’t know the exact solution but if they don’t fix this, its going to be bad for the sport."
Tony Rico, the head of the national Firecracker organization says that correction is a requirement: "I'm always willing to give something a chance for what it was intended to do," he said. "but like anything else, there needs to be proper management as it comes to life."
"I'm all for the intent, which is to allow players to be happy and for there to be balance, but the reality is that it has created an imbalance in the game right now. It's changed the dynamics of the sport. We're learning as we go and hopefully the NCAA committee can take a look at it and find the balance."
Reasons for Transferring... Is It Worth It?
Players cite numerous reasons for entering the pool.
Some find playing time an issue, to be sure, but some realize their recruiting mistakes and are pursuing a high-level education.
Sometimes the reason for changing addresses is because the players feel they are in a toxic and/or taxing environment, not so different from what one Power 25 school had to deal with a few years ago when an entire coaching staff was ultimately forced out due to allegations of improper relationships between coaches and players.
Whatever the reason, athletes are usually reluctant to come forward to explain why they're jumping ship and the transfer portal offers an escape--without confrontation.
One travel coach said that one of his players was almost "pushed" into the pool.
"One of my players was told she wasn't going to be on the team anymore," he said, requesting to remain anonymous. "After two years, they asked her to sign a notification of transfer form which would have caused her to forfeit her scholarship, clearly not what she wanted."
She leaned on the former travel coach for advice. Eventually she filed an appeal and won, avoiding an $80,000 mistake.
His caution for athletes: "be careful, don't sign anything until you know what it is and what it means or have someone you trust --and who is looking out for you--read it first."
At a showcase last weekend, one college coach said that she had contacted 10 or 15 athletes who had applied for transfer and was surprised at how they're handling the delicate process of leaving one program and trying to enter another.
"They all had reasons," she confided. "But some of them absolutely trashed their current programs. What will she say about my program? It certainly changes my perspective."
Will Recruiting Be Replaced By Transfers?
Some coaches are saying it's cooling off the recruiting process for young athletes as college coaches are more focused on the here-and-now and less worried about the recruiting pipeline to bring in talent.
"The environment is cooling off, for sure," said one championship travel ball coach. "They are less motivated (to recruit) because there aren't as many demands and constraints.
When you eliminate early recruiting and open the transfer pool up like it is, college softball has just created a minor league.
The rich will get richer and the mid-majors will starve. You can kiss parity goodbye. It was decades in the making and unraveling these two rules simultaneously will destroy it."
Some fear that instead of bringing in high school or JuCo graduates, college coaches will now wait to fill needs by simply grabbing an already experienced player from the portal who wants an immediate fresh start elsewhere, for whatever reason.
Goodbye developing young talent, hello quick fix.
Duke Head Coach Marissa Young sees another issue problem for herself and her peers--investing into a young player's future only to see her abandon ship and go elsewhere:
"I have a problem with kids leaving for greener pastures after a coach invests a lot into them: time, money, and development. It can alleviate some problems, like players who aren't contributing can go find a place that's a better fit, but it won't help every player or every school."
"For a place like us at Duke, we can't go and get just anyone because of academic restrictions and other high-end academic schools won't benefit as much either, although it will help programs where kids can come and go more easily."
Where Does It End ?
Maybe it’s an equalizer.
Some athletes don’t realize what it takes to play at that level-whatever level it may be--and when they get there, they want out.
Maybe they were initially oversold by overzealous travel coaches who wanted them to go to a school for the coaches' reasons and transferring will be a way for college coaches to help their players who are leaving find a better fit versus being a non-contributor all their collegiate lives.
Perhaps it's just that the school, the location, the softball program/team, etc. simply isn't a good fit and a player would be happier elsewhere.
Regardless of the reasons, the recruiting and NCAA landscapes are, for better or worse, sandwiched between the headaches that come from the demise of early recruiting and the advent of the transfer pool.
The big question now: can it be tweaked to be what it was originally envisioned to be? Or will it end up, as one top coach predicted, "being the demise of college softball as we know it."