Pre-Portal: A History of College Football’s Transfer Controversy & Changes

5-minute read on transfer portal history before the portal

The Transfer Portal has become a significant aspect of college football, with game-changing talent leaving one program for another every year. In fact, four of the last six Heisman winners were transfers. Along with Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL), there are many opinions on what the NCAA should and should not do regarding players transferring from one school to another. However, this debate surrounding college football transfers is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the argument over transfer rules dates back to the earliest days of college football. Transfer portal history cannot be fully understood without the events that took place prior to its inception.

Here is a timeline of key events in the history of college football transfers:

The First Transfer Controversies

Pre-Portal: Transfer Portal History Before the Portal

1898 – Ivy League institutes a one-year sit-out within the group

In 1898, Columbia, Harvard, and Penn, all members of the Ivy League, instituted a one-year sit-out policy for players who transferred within the group. The new rule aimed to deter athletes from switching schools and improve competitiveness within the league.

1901 – Walter Camp disputes transfer eligibility

In 1901, the head coach of Yale, Walter Camp, disputes the eligibility of Oliver Cutts. Cutts had played a significant role in a 22-0 Harvard victory. The incident highlights concern about transfer rules and the importance of establishing eligibility criteria for players.

1906 – The NCAA is founded

In 1906, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is founded to oversee intercollegiate athletics in the United States. The organization plays a crucial role in setting and enforcing transfer rules.

Transfer Portal History: The Anti-Transfer Movement

The Anti-Transfer Movement

Pre-Portal: Transfer Portal History Before the Portal

1923 – Ivy League transfer ban

In 1923, Ivy League powerhouses Harvard, Yale, and Princeton banned all transfers in a bid to keep top players from leaving one program for another. The move signaled a growing concern among college programs about losing talented players to other schools.  This rule was eventually enacted for everyone by the NCAA.

1923 – Knute Rockne’s stance on transfers

Legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne held the public belief that a player’s loyalty should only be to the first team he played for. His stance on transfers reflects a broader debate about the role of athletes in college sports.

1929 – The Belief that Transferring is Dead

The Andrew Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching claimed that the idea of transferring was over with. This implied that it was no longer acceptable for college football players to switch teams.

Transfer Portal History: Post-World War II

The Effects of World War II

Pre-Portal: Transfer Portal History Before the Portal

1944 – The WW2 Transfer Rush

Over a three-year period, hundreds of college football players returned from war. This sparked controversy as many opposed the absolute ban on transferring with players looking to play for new universities following the war. Ultimately, most veterans found new schools, but their situation raised questions about the fairness of transfer rules.

1958 – DEACON JONES: South Carolina State to Mississippi Valley State*

Jones had his scholarship revoked for participating in a civil rights protest. He was fortunate to be given the opportunity to transfer and play by a former coach. This event highlights the important role of transfers in providing opportunities for players to continue their football careers when they may face unfair treatment from their current program. *Mississippi Valley State was named Mississippi Vocational at the time.

1961 – One-year of residence rule

The NCAA institutes a one-year of residence rule for, requiring transfers to be on campus for at least twelve months before being eligible.

Transfer Portal History: FBS to FCS ruling

The Status Quo

Pre-Portal: Transfer Portal History Before the Portal

1986 – TROY AIKMAN: Oklahoma to UCLA

After losing his job due to injury, Aikman transferred to UCLA where he had a standout season, winning the Davey O’Brien Award and finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting. He was later selected as the #1 pick in the 1989 NFL draft.

1993 – New transfer reception (FBS to FCS without losing a year)

 The NCAA institutes a new rule allowing players to transfer from FBS to FCS programs without losing a year of eligibility. This rule provided players with more flexibility and opportunities to play at schools that better suited them.

1996 – RANDY MOSS: Notre Dame to Florida State to Marshall

Moss originally signed a Letter of Intent to play at Notre Dame, but had it revoked after a legal incident. He then transferred to Florida State, where he played one season before failing a drug test and leaving the team. Then, Moss transferred to Marshall, where he played immediately and had a record-setting season, becoming a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

Transfer Portal History: Grad Transfers

The New Age of Graduate Transfers

Pre-Portal: Transfer Portal History Before the Portal

2006 – Graduate transfer rule passed

The NCAA approved a ruling to allow graduate transfers who had earned their undergraduate degree to transfer to another school and be immediately eligible to play. This was as long as they enrolled in a graduate program not offered by the institution they transferred from.

2008 – JJ WATT: Central Michigan to Wisconsin

Watt chose to leave his scholarship tight end position with the Chippewas to walk-on as a defensive lineman for Wisconsin. He became a first-team All-American and a first-round NFL selection.

2011 – Graduate transfer rule takes effect

Although the NCAA had approved the graduate transfer rule in 2006, it was not put into effect until 2011. This rule allowed graduate students who had completed their degree to transfer to a different school and be immediately eligible to play as long as they enrolled in a graduate program that was not offered by their original school.

2011 – RUSSELL WILSON: NC State to Wisconsin

Russell Wilson transferred as a graduate student from North Carolina State to the University of Wisconsin-Madison after his baseball career took off and he found himself in competition for the starting quarterback position at NC State. Wilson had an impressive season at Wisconsin, leading the team to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl appearance.

Transfer Portal History: Transfer Heisman's

The Era of Transfer Heisman’s

Pre-Portal: Transfer Portal History Before the Portal

2014 – BAKER MAYFIELD: Texas Tech to Oklahoma

Baker Mayfield left Texas Tech due to disagreements with the coaching staff and transferred to the University of Oklahoma as a walk-on. He became the starting quarterback for the Sooners and had an outstanding career, winning the Heisman Trophy, leading the team to multiple College Football Playoff appearances, and being the number one overall pick in the NFL draft.

2015 – KYLER MURRAY: Texas A&M to Oklahoma

Kyler Murray transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma after his freshman year. He was the backup quarterback for the Sooners in 2017 before having a breakout season in 2018, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff.

2018 – JOE BURROW: Ohio State to LSU

Joe Burrow transferred from Ohio State to Louisiana State University after he lost the starting quarterback competition to Dwayne Haskins in 2018. He had a historic season at LSU in 2019, leading the team to a National Championship, winning the Heisman Trophy, and setting multiple records along the way.

The Transfer Portal

By late-2018, the world had changed dramatically, including the landscape of college football. To improve the transfer process, the NCAA introduced the transfer portal, a database where players could be viewed by other programs. However, it soon became much more than that.

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