Graduate transfers give athletes freedom, but are they good for college sports?


Guard Canyon Barry benefited both academically and athletically by transferring to Florida after graduating from College of Charleston last year.

[Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]
Published: Monday, May 1, 2017 at 4:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 1, 2017 at 4:01 p.m.

When Canyon Barry was looking for somewhere to play his final college basketball season, style of play, the coaching staff and opportunity all played a factor in his decision.

Ultimately, though, it came down not to splitting hairs, but splitting atoms.

Florida offered a nuclear engineering master's program, complete with a nuclear training reactor on campus. That sealed the deal for Barry to suit up for the Gators, where he averaged 11.4 points and earned SEC sixth man of the year honors this past season.

Barry's decision is an example of how the NCAA's graduate transfer rule can benefit the student-athlete, both academically and athletically. But not all Division I coaches view it that way. Some see it as a college sports waiver wire, where big-time schools poach promising players who mid-major programs have taken three to four years to develop.

The NCAA has looked into proposals to curtail the increasing number of graduate transfers, including making schools subject to APR sanctions if players don't earn their second degrees and forcing grad transfers to sit out a year like undergraduate transfers. There are close to 70 college basketball graduate transfers on the market in 2017, up from 23 in 2011.

On the flip side is whether student athletes should have the freedom to pursue graduate degrees where they want without penalty. Barry earned an undergraduate degree in physics at College of Charleston, which didn't offer a graduate program in nuclear science.

“I have no qualms about it,” Barry said. “If you have dedicated yourself to school for three or four years out of your life and you feel like it's in your best interest to transfer for a fifth year after you've graduated, I think you should have the right do that. I don't think it makes sense for the NCAA or colleges for punishing students for finishing their degree and exploring their options.”

Certainly, the graduate transfer rule has benefited Florida in recent seasons, allowing coaches to plug in experienced players to fill holes on the roster. After Barry sparked UF to an Elite Eight run in 2016-17, Florida pursued available grad transfers again this offseason and signed Rice swingman Egor Koulechov. The 6-foot-5 Koulechov, who shot 47.4 percent from 3-point range last season, should help mitigate the loss of junior forward Devin Robinson, who declared for the NBA draft.

In football, Florida coach Jim McElwain brought in offensive lineman Mason Halter from Fordham and linebacker Anthony Harrell from Georgia Tech in his first season to help shore up depth issues on both sides of the ball. Last season, McElwain signed Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby as a grad transfer. Appleby started six games for the Gators last season, including UF's 30-3 Outback Bowl win over Iowa.

“It really helped us, how desperate we were on the offensive line when we first got here,” McElwain said before a speaking engagement in Orlando. “We were able to do that and Mason, that really got us through that first season as we tried to develop our offensive line ...

“Austin being able to come in and the way he finished, I looked at that and talking even about the bowl game, I think the positive momentum of that had a lot to do with Austin and his approach.”

Florida reportedly has interest in another football graduate transfer — Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire — this offseason. But because Harrell and Halter failed to meet SEC academic benchmarks two years ago, the Gator football program is currently restricted by the league from taking grad transfers.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he's open to revising the rule during the league's spring meetings later this month. By then, though, Zaire may have already made a decision to go to another school. Texas and Wisconsin reportedly also have strong interest the quarterback.

The graduate transfer rule has brought into question whether the true motivations for players to move are athletic or academic. According to NCAA studies, close to two-third of football and men's basketball graduate transfers don't stay to complete their graduate degree. Instead, most leave after a year of studies to pursue their professional sports careers.

The SEC lifted its ban of graduate transfers in 2014, but not without vocal opposition from former Florida president Bernie Machen.

“If they really wanted to transfer somewhere else, they should sit out another year,” Machen said following the SEC spring meetings in Destin three years ago.

Also vocal against the graduate transfer rule is Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari, who views it as unfair to mid-major programs.

“You have coaches now that are holding kids back academically so they can't graduate,” Calipari told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Is that what we want? I mean, it's really simple. It's awful for mid-major coaches, for programs, and I don't think it's good for kids. I really don't.”

Calipari was sticking up for his former UMass assistant, James “Bruiser” Flint, who lost his job as head coach at Drexel after losing standout graduate transfer guard Damion Lee to Louisville two years ago. Flint, now an assistant at Indiana, said he was blindsided by the departure of Lee.

“My best player decided to leave and everyone was wondering if there were some kind of problems between me and him, did we have a bad relationship,” Flint said. “He was going to a place where he can be on TV all the time and play in front of 20,000 every day, that's why he's leaving.”

Flint said he thinks the NCAA should adopt a rule forcing graduate transfers to sit out a season, like undergraduate transfers.

“One of the opportunities that you can be good is that you build it from the beginning and you can have a good team,” Flint said. “When you lose your best player and you think you are going to have him, it makes it tough for you. And now it's going to the point where you can lose multiple players. For a small school, it can just devastate your program.”

Barry said he has no regrets about his decision to go to UF. The experience allowed Barry to test his skills in a power conference, play in front in big-time SEC crowds and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career.

“If I was a coach, I wouldn't want some of my best players leaving if it was their final year,” Barry said. “I can see both ends of the spectrum, but as a player I see it as a beneficial rule for us.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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