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Nick Saban Lost the Battle Over SEC Transfer Rules, but He May Win the War

The SEC will now allow graduate transfers to switch schools in-conference and play immediately, and while Nick Saban's resistance to player movement was part of the impetus for the rules change, few schools stand to gain more than Alabama.

Nick Saban asked for a ruling Tuesday. The Alabama coach got one Friday. It wasn’t the one he wanted, but it it may ultimately benefit him and the Crimson Tide in the long run.

SEC presidents voted Friday to allow graduate transfers to play immediately even if they transfer within the conference. This should end a standoff involving Alabama and offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy, who reportedly hopes to transfer either to Auburn or Tennessee. On Tuesday, Saban said he simply wanted the league to decide whether graduate transfers who transfer within the conference are allowed to play immediately or whether they must sit out a year. The previous rule required such players to sit out a year, but it allowed for waivers that could be granted by the commissioner. That process infuriated Saban, who was painted as a villain for several months in 2016 while trying to use the rule to keep defensive back Maurice Smith from transferring to Georgia only to have the conference grant the waiver.

“If we agree in the SEC in these meetings that we’re going to have free agency in our league and everybody can go wherever they want to go when they graduate and that’s what’s best for the game, then I think that’s what we should do,” Saban said Tuesday. “Then Brandon Kennedy can go wherever he wants to go. But if we don’t do that, why is it on me?”

It isn’t on Saban anymore. Nor is the responsibility for granting a waiver on commissioner Greg Sankey anymore. That likely is a relief for Sankey as well, because in these cases he was going to make one school mad no matter what he decided.

Much of Saban’s anger in the 2016 situation stemmed from the fact that SEC officials waited so long to decide whether Smith would get the waiver—essentially hanging Saban out to dry. Had he known they would grant the waiver, he wouldn’t have fought. Now he knows. Graduates don’t need a waiver. (He also knows after yesterday to check the gas gauge before taking out the boat.)

A coach still could conceivably block a graduate transfer hoping to move this summer, but coaches across the country are about to have that capability stripped by an NCAA rule that will be voted on later this month and will go into effect in October. Under the current rules, schools must grant permission to athletes to be contacted by potential transfer destinations. If the old school doesn’t grant permission, the new school can’t give the player an athletic scholarship for a year. Under the new rules, the old school has no such power. The player notifies the NCAA of a desire to transfer, and any school can recruit that player and offer an athletic scholarship.

Saban’s “free agency” comment is a massive exaggeration, though. Neither Friday’s SEC ruling nor the national rule set to change this month will remove the requirement that undergraduate transfers sit out a year after transferring. No such change has garnered any traction among the schools or conferences as an NCAA working group has studied ways to change the transfer rules. An undergraduate who transfers and wants to play immediately still must obtain a waiver from the NCAA.

One player who will attempt to obtain such a waiver is Van Jefferson, a receiver who transferred from Ole Miss to Florida this offseason. The Gators had been waiting on another SEC rule change before applying for Jefferson’s waiver. They got that change Friday when SEC presidents voted to remove the requirement for the SEC commissioner to grant a waiver if an undergraduate leaves a school facing an NCAA postseason ban for another school within the conference. The NCAA should grant Jefferson’s waiver; it already has granted waivers for six players who left Ole Miss and transferred outside the SEC. The original proposal for that rule also called for schools facing postseason bans to forfeit at least half their share of the league’s postseason revenue in the offending sport, but the proposals were split before presidents voted. The revenue withholding proposal did not pass.

Florida and Texas A&M had co-sponsored the legislation, which was designed to add two more potential deterrents to breaking NCAA rules. They got one of them. “It’s about making sure the risk-reward is in balance. There’s a lot of incentive to be as successful as you possibly can be,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said Wednesday. “And where coaches are concerned there’s a lot of financial incentive to be as good as you possibly can be. I think it’s important that we have guardrails in place to make sure we’re balancing that to keep people from not following the rules.”


So here are how transfers from SEC schools would work under the rules that will be in place come October.

Scenario A: An SEC player graduates and decides to leave for another school to seek more playing time.

Outcome: That player may transfer anywhere and play immediately—even if it’s another SEC school.

Scenario B: A rising junior in the SEC who has not redshirted decides to transfer and chooses a school in a different conference.

Outcome: That player must sit out a season unless the NCAA grants a hardship waiver. He can use his redshirt year and play two more seasons after sitting out. A player who had already redshirted would only have one year of eligibility remaining after sitting out.

Scenario C: A rising redshirt junior leaves a school facing a bowl ban and transfers to another school within the SEC.

Outcome: That player must receive a hardship waiver from the NCAA if he wants to play immediately. If the waiver is not granted, he must sit out one season and would have one year to play after sitting out.

Scenario A should be of interest to Saban, because while it helped Georgia in the Smith case and could help Auburn or Tennessee in the Kennedy case, Alabama could use the new rule to its advantage. Saban suggested as much on Tuesday. “If we allow that to happen in our league, I think it will benefit some schools more than others, and I think we’re one of the schools that it would benefit,” Saban said. “But I still am not for it.”

If he can somehow manage to overcome his strident objection, Saban probably would have his pick of graduates from Arkansas or Kentucky or Vanderbilt should such a school have an accomplished—but not quite accomplished enough to leave for the NFL—player at a position where Alabama needs some experience. That would be great for the player, who would get to finish his career at a program that didn’t think he was good enough out of high school, and for the Crimson Tide, which could fill an immediate need with a proven talent.

Saban probably will get over his resistance to the rule change. Just go back and look at what happened after the 10-second rule Saban and then-Arkansas coach Bret Bielema backed failed to win approval in 2014. Saban had hoped the rule would slow down up-tempo offenses. So what did he do after the rule failed? He sped up his own offense.

Saban didn’t get his way this week, but behind the bluster probably was a plan to turn this development in Alabama’s favor. So the best players at the SEC’s bottom feeders should buckle down in the classroom this summer and fall. If all goes well and they happen to play a position of need, they may get a chance to roll with the Tide in 2019.