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College football’s unlimited transfers policy is shaking the sport — but isn’t anything new


The men talked a little too loosely on the train ride home. They were in a Pullman car, going from Atlanta to Washington on Saturday night into Sunday morning, and with their job done, they figured they could talk freely. And so they talked … very freely.

The day before, Nov. 2, 1907, the Georgia football team lost 10-6 to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Now on the train up north were three men who had played in that game who decidedly were not enrolled at either of the schools. Four days later, one of their fellow passengers, F.L. Ingram, fired off a letter to Georgia — and several newspapers — about what he heard:

“Two of them had been players on the Georgetown team, and were living in or near Washington, D.C., and the third, with whom I traveled as far as Winston-Salem, N.C., stated that two of the party were not connected in any way with the University at Athens, but were paid $150.00 cash, and their traveling expenses to come to Atlanta to play with Georgia in Saturday afternoon’s game.”

There was more — the men used assumed names and played for other colleges under other names — and it was all true. Grantland Rice a few days later in The Nashville Tennessean blew the whistle. Georgia coach George Whitney fessed up but blamed alumni for arranging for the players, saying he just went along with it. Whitney still was banned from ever coaching again in the South by the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

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It was a scandal but not the only one involving ringers in early college football history. For anyone who thinks these days of NIL and unlimited transfers are the Wild West, just imagine the days of ringers and so-called “tramp” athletes.

The first intercollegiate match of any kind took place in 1852, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale, author Murray Sperber wrote in his 2004 book, “College Sports Inc.” The race was put together by a businessman who wanted to develop a lake area in New Hampshire, and some members of both crews were not registered students at the schools they represented. They were professional rowers who were ringers.

“Thus, in the very first college sports contest in American history, two elements were at play: The event was totally commercial, and the participants were cheating,” Sperber wrote. “The history of intercollegiate athletics has gone downhill from there.”

College football’s unlimited transfers policy is shaking the sport — but isn’t anything new


Joe Guyon, left, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. (AP)

Sperber, now retired and living in the Bay Area, can’t help but observe what’s happening now.

“The current moving around of college athletes for cash strikes me as similar to the early eras when they were called ‘tramp athletes’ and ‘ringers,’ among other accurately descriptive terms,” he said.

Everything is coming full circle.

In the beginning, there may not have been rules about paying players and transferring, but those things were still frowned upon. In 1961, the NCAA made a rule across its membership that players had to sit a year after transferring. But before that, many conferences had the rule: The first instance of the one-year rule was in 1898 when Columbia, Harvard and Penn set it up between themselves. Six years later, a conference informally called the “Big Nine,” which added another school a few years later, put in a similar rule. The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which beget the ACC and SEC, passed a “migratory rule” in 1921 whereby no athlete could play at all for a second school.

“This forever eliminates the ‘so-called’ tramp athlete,” S.V. Sanford, faculty chairman of athletics at Georgia, wrote in June 1922.

Forever wasn’t accurate, as time would show.

But Sanford and others running college football were trying to get a handle on an issue that, a century later, bears witness to the simple idea that if there is competition, people will try to buy the best participants, even if there are rules against that.

In the fall of 1889, football pioneer Walter Camp charged Princeton and Harvard with having players who were paid to participate and bringing back players who had graduated. The next year, Yale accused Princeton of using paid players. Princeton denied it and then proposed outlawing graduate and professional school students, which happened to be what Harvard relied on heavily.

Michigan was accused of using seven ringers in an 1892 game against Purdue. The teams out west often were accused of hiring paid players by Eastern schools, and vice versa. The debate about eligibility rules helped move the Western schools to form the Western Conference in Feb. 1896. By 1901, the “Big Nine” had one transfer rule, very reminiscent of the modern graduate transfer rule: Players had to sit a year unless they were a college graduate entering directly into a professional school, such as law, engineering or medicine.

That became a loophole to be exploited by all.

Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and Michigan coach Fielding Yost were the best at it, as author John Kryk wrote in his book “Stagg vs. Yost, the birth of cutthroat football.” In 1902, two players left Chicago in the middle of preseason camp and joined Michigan.

“There was no national signing day at the time,” Kyrk wrote. “Verbal commitments meant nothing. And there was no rule, or even unofficial code, against recruiting an athlete already working out at a rival’s preseason camp or even enrolled. Such raiding attempts happened all the time.”

John Tobin, a lineman at Nebraska, was going through training camp in 1903 when Stagg sent a Chicago assistant, who had been at Nebraska the previous year, to get Tobin on a train to Chicago. Stagg liberally raided Nebraska and got “grad transfers” from Yale, Washington, Arkansas and several small schools.

Nebraska fought back, getting center Charles Borg to return after transferring to Chicago. Stagg replaced him quickly with a player from Washington.

“The raidees in most cases behaved just as deplorably as the raiders — jumping schools the instant a more appealing offer arrived,” Kyrk wrote.

Michigan, as reported in Kyrk’s book via the school president’s papers, was paying players to come back for another year. There’s also a letter from the captain of the Washington and Jefferson football team to a Michigan player asking if, “Michigan could match the sweet offers he had received from both Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and Cornell in New York — namely, that his full year’s tuition, room and board would be covered if he played football in the fall and baseball in the spring.”

Another of college football’s greatest names was heavily involved in bringing in transfers: Pop Warner, the coach of the Carlisle Indians, brought in players from other schools, especially the Haskell Institute, a boarding school for Native Americans.

Peter Hauser, captain of the 1907 team, is credited with throwing the first true long pass in history, a 40-yarder against national champion Penn, which author Sally Jenkins in her book “The Real All-Americans” called among the “three or four signal moments in the evolution of football.”

Hauser spent his first two years at Haskell, then five at Carlisle and didn’t sit a year in between.

It went the other way: Jimmy Johnson, captain of the Carlisle team in 1903, went to the Northwestern dental school, played there for two years and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Edward Rogers, another College Football Hall of Famer, played at Carlisle from 1897-1900, then Minnesota from 1901-03.

Joe Guyon, also in the CFB Hall of Fame, gained quite the resume by first playing under Warner at Carlisle from 1912-13, then under John Heisman at Georgia Tech from 1917-18.

Clearly, a four-year limit on playing wasn’t always in place, especially at the service academies: Chris “Red” Cagle was a star at Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) from 1922-25, then played four years at Army, where he was an All-American. Earl “Red” Blaik, a future national championship-winning coach at Army, played three seasons (1915-17) at Miami (OH) before playing two years at Army. Harry Wilson, an All-American during his three years at Penn State, played another four years for Army, playing against Navy seven times.

Army and Navy essentially stood on their own and used transfers as they built football powers. Of course, it was an era of loose organization: The NCAA didn’t come into being until 1919, and even then, conferences tended to set their own rules. Then came the World War II era, which saw basically all rules temporarily suspended, and plenty of moving around before and after military stints.

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One of the programs that made good use of that was, ironically enough, Army: Felix “Doc” Blanchard won the Heisman Trophy while at Army from 1944-46. But he spent his freshman season at North Carolina, transferring to West Point because of the war.

Notre Dame loaded up on post-war transfers, such as George Connor, who was a second-team All-American at Holy Cross and then won the Outland Trophy for Notre Dame in 1946.

Oklahoma used post-war transfers as a way to springboard its program: Paul “Buddy” Burris started his career at Tulsa, playing in the Sugar Bowl against Tennessee, and after the war, he became a three-time All-American with the Sooners.

Then there’s the tale of Thomas Edward “Shorty” McWilliams, who finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting for two different programs: Mississippi State in 1944 and Army in 1945. And then McWilliams transferred back to Starkville for three more years.

And lest anybody wonder if money was involved, there were various reports about money involved with these transfers, and recruiting in general, as catalogued by Sperber in his 1998 book, “Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports.”

Time magazine, for example, reported in 1946 that Oklahoma “spent $200,000 to get a good team.” Sport magazine in 1951 quoted Washington star running back Hugh McElhaney as saying he got so much money that, “I can’t afford to graduate.”

Eventually, college football became more organized, and the NCAA’s ability to police recruiting was strengthened. (How much it curbed under-the-table payments can be left to the imagination.) The NCAA passed its transfer rule, which held for decades. Transfers had to sit a year, making junior college transfers the players seen as the most instant fix.

Then came the unraveling: First was the graduate transfer trend, Russell Wilson’s move from NC State to Wisconsin helping popularize that. Then the waiver requests, where lawyers like Tom Mars helped the likes of Justin Fields go from Georgia to Ohio State without sitting in 2019. That pushed the NCAA to institute a one-time exemption, which came into effect three years ago, around the same time as NIL was legalized.

That was jarring enough, but in the past year, all transfer and NIL rules have been rendered moot, pending court cases. And at least at the moment, we’re back to where we started: Pay for play, only now much more legal and in the open.

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How college football’s era of unlimited free transfers works

Sperber has written four books about college sports, including three that focused on the confluence of money, athletics and academics. He looks at all the changes and thinks change was understandable: Whatever one thinks of the claims of amateurism, the money coming into the sports changed everything. But another change, Sperber pointed out, is the time commitment for athletes: their practice hours, workout hours, the time watching film and a year-round commitment.

“It’s way more intense,” Sperber said.

But Sperber is a sports fan, a lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan who sees that team going to the Super Bowl with many of the same players. He’s also a fan of the Golden State Warriors, who rode the same core players to four NBA titles. And Sperber realizes holding on to players is so much harder in college sports now with NIL and transferring.

It’s the battle between players’ rights and the fans’ experience.

“I understand why they do it. But just as a fan, it’s off-putting,” Sperber said. “It’s just not the same.”

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories examining the transfer portal, NIL and their impact on college sports. The spring football transfer portal window is open from April 16 to April 30. Find all transfer portal stories here.

(Top photo of Felix “Doc” Blanchard: AP)





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