“The Transfer Portal.” The words alone evoke strong reactions from college football fans and coaches alike. Most of them are not positive. So as we hit the 150th anniversary of the first college football game, here is a history lesson from long ago days when players had far more freedom than they do now.
Note: As you read the rest of the column, remember that everything below was well within the established rules of the day.
In the 1950s recruiting was still the Wild West. There was no binding letter of intent, no big ESPN signing day. Securing student-athletes for your school continued all summer long. For some recruits the pursuit never really ended until they started classes in the fall.
In 1957 Mike Ditka was all set for Penn State before an August switch to Pitt, which had convinced the Aliquippa native that he could be a dentist. Pitt had a dental school while Penn State did not. Nittany Lion assistant coach Joe Paterno asked Ditka, a man with massive pass-catching mitts for hands, “Mike, whose mouth would your hands fit into?”
So the Nittany Lions went from adding a legendary player to having to defend him. Ditka did not go to dental school. But without a letter of intent and with ultimate freedom for the student-athlete the entire summer recruiting lasted until just days before Ditka reported to Pitt for his freshman year.
But that story seems tame compared to others.
Would you believe at one time there were “transfer kidnappings?” In the early 1950s, a Penn State alum called Coach Rip Engle to make Engle aware of an excellent athlete from a small town in north-central Ohio. The catch was that he was just starting his freshman year at the University of Toledo.
Engle sent Paterno and graduate assistant coach Steve Suhey to get the kid. On the way out they stopped at the player’s house to talk with his mother. She was agreeable to having her son go to Penn State so the two coaches drove to Toledo. With no idea where to locate the player, they called a Toledo-area Penn State alum whose number they’d gotten from Penn State’s alumni association.
When they reached the alum, they introduced themselves and asked if he knew where they could find the player. There was a small hitch. It turns out the alum was a wrestling coach at the University of Toledo.
With that, the race to find the player was on. After asking around on campus they found him, told him they’d spoken with his mother and grabbed his stuff. They stopped at his mother’s house on the way to Penn State and headed to Happy Valley.
The first day at practice it was obvious they’d made a good steal. So Engle and Paterno told the new player’s roommate that he was not to let the “transfer” out of his sight. A day or two later the roommate appeared at practice without the new teammate.
Engle asked where the new player was and the response was “He’s back at the room. He said he’d be here.”
By the time they sent someone to the player’s dorm he was back on his way to Toledo and gone from Penn State forever.
Now that’s truly a two-way transfer portal.
It seems funny now to think about what the norms were years ago. But the idea of student-athletes jumping from school to school is not new. In 1927 Amos Alonzo Stagg wrote about players at schools playing for one team one week and then showing up under another name to play for another college. Some of these “ringers” got paid to do so.
He described the three types of “ringers” that played for various colleges:
“First those who did not even take pains to register for courses; second those who registered for courses they seldom attended; and third those who registered for snap courses in some department where the work was easy and little or no work was required.”
So even in the game’s early days there were issues of players jumping from school to school where universities had little to no control over them. The game found a status quo for decades but that balance has tilted once again toward a more open type of free agency.
As change happens and unsettles the status quo, it is helpful to understand where the game came from. It is helpful to understand that rules were most often enacted to counter the excesses of the age. As crazy as times may seem now, they’ve been crazier and, as history teaches us, the pendulum always swings back.