The subtext of the impressive turnaround Coach Kim Mulkey executed at LSU, culminating in a 2023 women’s basketball national championship, should serve notice to coaches. It should be telling them that no matter what level they coach at, and regardless of their sport, the transfer portal is here to stay.
Yes, you’ve got to have a great coaching staff. You have to be a superior strategic coach, and a developer of individuals. But the question has been answered when it comes to the question, “can I build a winner by collecting transfer student-athletes?”
Resoundingly, the answer is ‘yes’.
Less than 48 months prior to winning their program’s first title, the team won only 9 games in the 2020-2021 season. Using the Transfer Portal, Coach Mulkey assigned half her team’s roster spots to transfer players from other programs, while at the same time recruiting freshman talent that, if all goes according to plan, should reap more benefits for LSU down the line. But in the near term, the transfers were key…most of the championship season’s starters were originally playing at other universities.
Bring it all back to recruiting now:
If I’m a coach reading this, and I want to try and duplicate the approach I just watched the coaching staff at LSU pull off, I need a plan. There are lots of different ways you can do it, of course…and, I’m not saying that every coach has to do it. Some don’t, pointing to the difficulty in developing the kind of culture and team unity they highly value that comes with a revolving door of student-athletes coming and going. But if you do want to build a plan for transfer portal recruiting – and eventually, I’d make the case that it’s going to be hard not to – there are some emerging principles that we see becoming the mainstream when it comes to the Portal, and the student-athletes deciding to enter it that may just be an ingredient in the secret sauce you’re looking to add to your program:
The NCAA Transfer Portal, and the act of transferring in general, is now the norm in today’s sports culture. You can philosophically disagree with the ease of transferring today, but you can’t deny it’s happening. You can’t deny that programs are instantly getting stronger through the process. And, you can’t deny that the process is changing the overall scope of what recruiting means, and how programs are being built. We’re not going back, which means coaches need to develop a concrete philosophy as to what their approach will be, and what percentage of their program’s roster (and scholarship money, if that applies) will be set aside and devoted to transfers. I see the best coaches in the business across sports and division level doing it, which tells me you should be doing it also, if you aren’t already.
It’s up to you to prevent your athletes from transferring. That may be an unfair burden for you to take responsibility for, but let me explain: The better you, as their original coach and recruiter, tell your story, offer transparency, and continually ‘recruit’ your student-athletes even after they’re a part of your program, the more unlikely it will be that you will lose a significant number of young men or women on your roster. Your connection with them and truthfulness with them while they’re on your roster will greatly increase your chances of keeping them on your roster, and off of your competitor’s roster. I will also place an increasing amount of responsibility on your athletic department and athletic director(s) when it comes to that continuing recruiting. Yes, part of your job description includes the title of cruise directors. Don’t shy away from it, embrace it – those who do it best won’t have to sweat the off-season, and wondering how many athletes will be leaving via the Portal.
If you are going to recruit transfers, they still actually need to be recruited. One of the early criticism of coaches from student-athletes who go through the transfer process is that it’s too heavy on text and phone call conversations, and light on the actual recruiting process itself. Even through the decision making timeline of transfers is incredibly short – averaging a few weeks to just two or three months, at the longest – they are still looking for where they fit best. In fact, I’ll go one step further: Transfer student-athletes are transferring because they are trying to solve a problem; not enough playing time, too far away from home, too close to home, doesn’t feel like home, the coach lied to me…there’s a reason they’re making this switch, and I now (as their next prospective coach) need to explain why my program is the answer to their problems. Individually, explained in detail, with evidence or my strong opinion. In writing, done quickly. Each individual situation is unique, but that’s the initial roadmap we’ve seen be put in place most successfully throughout college athletics at the start of the Transfer Portal phenomenon.
Goal number one: Find out the ‘why’ behind the transfer. It’s not impolite to ask. In fact, they’re looking for a new coach to lead them to the reason they should choose you. And as I pointed out a moment ago, the whole thing happens quickly. There’s no time to wait patiently for them to reveal what’s going on when they’re feeling ready. Nope. Coach, you need to take the lead, do the autopsy, diagnose the problem, and offer the solution or solutions. They are now, more than ever, looking to be lead.
The tough question: What do you tell your existing roster of student-athletes? In asking that, I’m not suggesting you make up a lie to tell them, or to gloss over your intent to bring in more experienced, taller, faster, better competition for starting spots. What I’m saying is that you need to explain your program’s philosophy towards bringing transfers in, and why it’ll be a benefit for the program…and, more specifically, for the athletes that will be challenged for playing time or prominence because of it. This specific transfer-related topic is the one many coaches are struggling to answer or define, but it’s important you come up with a philosophy that helps to define it for all involved.
Yes, the NCAA Transfer Portal is here to stay. Yes, it is impacting your sport – even at smaller non-scholarship schools, by the way (many D1 student-athletes are chosing to transfer to a lower division level school). Your responsibility as a coach and leader of your program is to develop a working philosophy around those five transfer portal realities, and how your program will approach them successfully moving forward.
The Transfer Portal, among other relevant topics in today’s college recruiting landscape, is the focus on our upcoming virtual National Collegiate Recruiting Conference this summer. We’ll be letting you hear from coaches, authors and an array of speakers on this and other topics that center around the best ways to build programs through effective, next-level recruiting. Watch the video with your staff, hear from the experts, and use the information to build your next recruiting plan. Click here to make sure you’re registered and on the list!