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January 26, 2012

Has free agency come to college football?

Star quarterback Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin from N.C. State prior to the 2011 season helped the Badgers earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin's ability to take advantage of a little-used graduate-student transfer rule to land Wilson may have sparked a new trend in college football: free agency.

College football programs have long used National Signing Day to build their programs for the future. But after the success of Wilson at Wisconsin, they now realize the graduate-student transfer rule can help give them an immediate boost in the present.

The rule, which has been around for years, has been amended three times since 2006-07, appeared to be taking off in popularity over the holidays when numerous schools - including Kansas, Rutgers and Arizona - used it to bring in mid-semester transfers.

But if you think this is just another headache for the NCAA, think again. It's OK with the rule - and its recent growth in use.

"The Russell Wilson situation does make it look like a trend," Kelly Brooks, the NCAA associate director of academic and membership affairs, said. "The ability to do what he did was a new exception put in place for [student-athletes like] him.

"You could see more student-athletes taking advantage of it."

Not everyone is excited about it. The SEC does not allow it as a conference.

And one men's basketball coach - at Wisconsin no less - spoke out against it this week.

"I don't think it's a good idea at all," Bo Ryan said Monday during his weekly news conference. "Have never liked the idea of people leaving a program after four years of development at that institution with teammates, with the school and to all of a sudden change and be eligible to play right away. If you make a move, you sit.

"It's creating free agency, and it's creating conversations behind the backs of the institutions and the coaches and his teammates.

"So, it's a terrible rule. It's one of the worst rules I've ever seen."

When the rule was amended in 2007-08, it's intent was noble. If a student-athlete had earned his undergraduate degree but the school he/she was attending did not offer the desired master's program, the student-athlete could transfer to a school that had the program while waiving the usual transfer requirement of sitting out a season.

The rule now allows an graduate-student athlete to transfer for any reason as long as both schools approve.

John Infante, an assistant compliance director at Colorado State who writes a blog for the NCAA, wrote last spring that the rule could fall under the "law on unintended consequences" and essentially create an open transfer (or free-agent) market.

A year later - and after seeing Wilson's huge impact at Wisconsin - that appears to be happening. Here are just a few examples of moves this winter:

Kansas, looking to quickly rebuild under new coach Charlie Weis, got quarterback Dayne Crist, who had graduated from Notre Dame.

Rutgers, which needed to quickly rebuild its offensive line, landed R.J. Dill, a three-year starter at tackle at Maryland.

Arizona, in need of help on defense, landed Akron linebacker Brian Wagner, the top returning tackler in the NCAA.

Dill and Wagner are considered mid- to late-round NFL prospects; Crist's potential is still unclear.

Wagner, who seemingly could help his stock the most since he moved up to a BCS conference school, cited Arizona's biostatistics program as a big reason for his move.

"It's the degree I want, and not a lot of people have it," he told The Tucson Citizen. "I can get a good part of that done during my year here. From a football standpoint, it seems like they have a need for a one-year guy. I'm excited to help."

Crist said the reunion with Weis, the coach who recruited him out of high school to Notre Dame, was the reason for his move.

"We have developed such a level of trust with each other," he told JayhawkSlant.com. "We know that we will always be honest with each other. I understand how he coaches and he knows how I play. We get what makes each other tick.

"You can move past all the introduction stages and really get to football. I understand his offense having played in it for two years. I'm excited to get back and be coached by him."

Dill, in an e-mail to the Washington Times, said a desire to pursue a graduate degree in labor relations led to his transfer, but some couldn't help but wonder if it was a chance to leave a Maryland program that had numerous internal problems last fall under first-year coach Randy Edsall.

Transferring strictly for athletics was a concern for the Southeastern Conference.

Greg Sankey, an associate commissioner with the conference, said the SEC has had a long standing policy of a two-year commitment for transfers: One to prove their academic ability, and if they do, a second where the student-athlete would be allowed to participate in sports.

The SEC decided to allow the exception but quickly had a change of heart after quarterback Jeremiah Masoli used it to enter Ole Miss after being booted out of Oregon in summer of 2010.

The conference found the application of the rule was not meeting its intended purpose and scrapped it after one year.

"After the graduate-student exemption was allowed starting in the summer of 2010, it became obvious pretty quickly that the exemption was not being used for academics or the pursuit of a graduate degree, but as a reason to play athletics for one semester and leave," Sankey said. "The member institutions quickly decided that wasn't in the best interest of the conference."

The NCAA's Brooks is fine with the SEC's decision. And he acknowledges Wilson's success at Wisconsin may have started a trend in other conferences. He doesn't necessarily agree with the term free agency, but he says the NCAA is fine with the player movement as long as the schools involved are.

"The membership is comfortable with it because the institutions involved have to be comfortable with it," he said.

Ironically, he said one of the reasons the NCAA amended the rule was because it feared too many third-party interests would become involved - essentially creating agents and free agency.

But Ryan sounds as if he believes that has happened now.

The total impact of the trend won't be known for years. Potential problems, however, are visible now.

What's to stop schools from recruiting fourth-year juniors, even unofficially? And will coaches now be more willing to pull redshirts off freshmen, knowing they may not be able to keep the athlete in his fifth season?

This much is clear: If a school can benefit so much from one player - as Wisconsin did with Wilson - what's to stop others from using the rule? And using it on more than one athlete?

That's what happened at San Diego State.

The school, which lost its two top offensive players - quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman - got two quick replacements when USC wide receiver Brice Butler and Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz transferred in as graduate students eligible to play right away.

In both cases, it appears the players were searching for a place where they could get more time on the field - something they weren't able to do at their previous schools.

In other words, they were transferring for the main reason athletes have switched schools for decades. This winter, however, they just did it as free agents.

Tom Bergeron is the Senior Editor for RivalsHigh.com. He can be reached at TBergero@Yahoo-Inc.com, and you can click here to follow RivalsHigh on Twitter.



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