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A Necessary Step: Embracing The Transfer Portal

Successful coaches embrace the change.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Transfers have long been a part of college football, but it wasn’t until Russell Wilson’s “graduate” transfer from NC State to Wisconsin that the dynamic changed. Since Wilson had already graduated from NC State, he would be able to transfer and gain immediate eligibility at the school of his choice provided he enrolled in one of the school’s graduate program.

With players now realizing they didn’t have to sit out a year and no longer needed a waiver to gain immediate eligibility, it completely changed the landscape of college football. More and more players began to graduate transfer — and for some quarterbacks, they skipped over the graduate part — making major impacts at their new schools.

The NCAA took it to another level in 2019 with the introduction of the transfer portal, which is essentially just an official database for players who want to explore transferring.

Penn State, throughout all of this, largely sat on the sidelines. During James Franklin’s tenure in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions took in three scholarship transfers: Stanford’s Kevin Reihner in 2015, and Azusa Pacific’s Weston Carr and Virginia Tech’s Jordan Stout in 2019. Reihner, the son of a Penn State football letterman, never cracked the starting unit on the offensive line. Carr suffered a similar fate, never really cracking the wideout rotation. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions found Stout to be a much more impactful player, taking over kickoffs duties immediately.

Other than those three though, Franklin and Penn State looked away at the transfer portal, deciding to focus on their own “homegrown” talent. In fact, Franklin was an outspoken opponent of the transfer portal.

“I think most of these decisions are being driven by football,’ Franklin said in September 2019. “The college athletics that I grew up with was driven based on academics. Don’t get me wrong, the athletic experience was very, very important, but it was in that order. What I’m seeing right now is a little bit of a shift that’s, to me, somewhat concerning.”

Those comments were on top of comments from February 2019, when Franklin said that the transfer portal was an “over-correction” and that it created “free agency” in college football.

Following the 4-5 2020 season though, Franklin’s outlook on the transfer portal changed. He told Penn State fans that the Nittany Lions would be “active” in the transfer portal, saying that it’s “just really part of 2020 and where football is at and where football is headed.”

As it turned out, Franklin wasn’t lying. Since those comments on December 16, the Nittany Lions landed four scholarship transfers via the transfer portal: Baylor running back John Lovett, South Carolina cornerback John Dixon, Duke defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo, and Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie — and this may just be the start.

While many might look at Franklin’s 180 on the transfer portal — from lambasting it to being one of the most active coaches in it — as hypocritical, that would be (and I mean this in the most sincere way possible) dumb. It’s clear that Franklin still isn’t the biggest fan of the transfer portal, as pointed out in his “it is what it is” quotes from this past December. But one of the most important things a coach can do is change with the times, even if he doesn’t completely agree with it.

From the use of social media and graphics in recruiting, to spread offenses and RPOs, the best coaches embrace change. Sure, they might long for the old ways. I am sure if Nick Saban had his way, Alabama would still be dependent upon a power running game and a defense that gives up less than two touchdowns per game. But that isn’t how college football is played anymore. If Saban wanted to keep Alabama on top, he needed to focus on the spread and be okay with a defense that gives up some 40 spots every once in a while — fortunately for Crimson Tide fans, he has.

For Penn State and Franklin, it was a necessary change to embrace the transfer portal. Whether he likes it or not, the transfer portal — and college football free agency — is here to stay. What’s the smarter move: stick to your old ways, while the Big Ten’s premier team is playing for a national championship with transfers at quarterback and running back? Or to realize that the transfer portal can provide the Nittany Lions with impactful players that could help this program get itself over the hump?

After a loss to Ohio State two years ago, James Franklin said that you only grow when you are uncomfortable. Because of that, he was going to make sure that everyone within the Penn State football program (including himself) would be extremely uncomfortable. Fast forward a couple years, and the acceptance and use of the transfer portal is a sign those steps are being taken. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee results on the field — but the acceptance of change is a good sign for a Nittany Lions program that is hoping to right the ship.