Dust settles on Beilein's transfer policy kerfuffle
John Beilein has said that college basketball is in a “dangerous area” when it comes to fifth-year graduate transfers.
“We actually have one in our league,” Beilein said on March 17, the day before Michigan’s season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss in Brooklyn, N.Y., adding, “We’ve got to be careful.”
The word choice, even in the middle of a no-holds-barred critique of the grad-transfer process, was perhaps the most telling aspect of Beilein’s lengthy response. The “one in our league” was a player the Wolverines’ coach knows well: Indiana’s Max Bielfeldt.
The graduate transfer played a successful 2015-16 season with the Hoosiers after an awkward process saw him leave Michigan before his final year despite an open scholarship. Ever since, Beilein has made no secret of his displeasure with the Big Ten’s decision to grant Bielfeldt’s appeal to play at Indiana immediately.
Beilein found out firsthand last week that, indeed, he needs to be careful, and with more than just his words. After restricting Spike Albrecht and Ricky Doyle in their transfer destinations, Beilein experienced a national backlash that resulted in a quick reversal. Though Albrecht was initially prohibited from transferring to Big Ten programs or any opponent on Michigan’s yet-to-be announced 2016-17 schedule (Doyle faced similar restrictions), both players are now free to seek out whichever programs prove the best fit.
Even Beilein’s boss, Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel, has taken the opposite side in the increasingly prominent debate. Manuel was careful to credit Beilein for the reversal, however, seemingly hoping to avoid a perception of authoritarianism in his first few weeks on the job.
“John and I had a conversation yesterday, and we talked about it,” Manuel said Friday before the Michigan football team’s Spring Game. “He talked about his thoughts, and I give the credit to John for coming to the decision, after he thought about it, to go back and make the switch to allow them to transfer and have a release with no stipulations. It was a great conversation.”
Plenty of forces conspired to force the change, from local fan outcry to national media and perhaps Manuel himself. Whether it was internal pressure from the administration or external pressure like Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde writing a Beilein-focused column titled “Height of Hypocrisy,” Beilein was forced to come to terms with a world that sees restrictions on transfers — graduate or not — as out of step with the current college basketball landscape.
“In general, I’m very supportive of grad student transfers not having restrictions,” Manuel said. “Now, we can all talk about the different examples of issues that may arise … But in general, I think one of our first priorities — my first priority — is to help these young people graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree. And I think once you do that, and you still have an opportunity to participate in athletics in your sport, then you should have the opportunity to move another institution if you choose to do so.”
The NCAA’s graduate transfer rules allow players who have completed a degree to play immediately after transferring to another institution and beginning another degree program. The Michigan football team took advantage of the process in 2015, leaning on fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock en route to a 10-win season.
The dissonance between Rudock’s presence and Beilein’s rhetoric led to further criticism, and Beilein’s announcement that Albrecht and Doyle would be free to transfer anywhere came on April 1.
“I am now removing all restrictions regarding their recruitment by other universities,” Beilein said in a press release. “While I have concerns about the current transfer policies as well as potential effects to the landscape of collegiate athletics, we should do what is right for Ricky and Spike as they decide to further their education and basketball careers elsewhere.”
Making the saga odder still is last week’s ESPN report that Beilein had reached out to Columbia’s Grant Mullins, who is prohibited from playing his final year of eligibility with the Lions by Ivy League policy.
That means Beilein might expect further attrition, as Doyle and Albrecht’s departures leave Michigan with four open scholarship spots next year to match its four-member recruiting class. Though accepting an Ivy League transfer doesn’t contradict anything Beilein has said, it would be an odd look to bring Mullins aboard instead of offering the final spot to Albrecht.
Regardless, it appears the precedent has been set, at least locally. As long as the NCAA continues to allow fifth-year graduate transfers to play immediately, Beilein will have a tough time trying to exert influence over where departing players end up.
“It’s not a John Beilein issue,” Manuel said. “This is an issue in intercollegiate athletics.”