From a sheer economic standpoint, when a player leaves a program due to transfer, he becomes sunk cost. All that time spent recruiting -- watching the player develop, building a relationship with his family and/or handlers, getting him on campus, getting him to sign that scholarship agreement, and so on -- is lost value, a whole lot of work for very little reward.
To the college coach, whose finite resources (time and scholarships, to name two) must be allocated efficiently, this dynamic is maddening. And it's only getting worse: More players than ever are decommitting and transferring from their original schools. This sounds somewhat dire. It feels like an negative trend. It is often the subject of quasi-philosophical cultural analysis on the behalf of coaches, who decry our "impatient" society, among other such ills.
And technically, coaches have the opportunity to stop players from transferring. This is not an advisable course of action -- just ask Phil Martelli -- but it exists.
Most coaches don't go Full Martelli (which I think we should appropriate from "Tropic Thunder" for future usage.) Short of that, if there was a situation in which you might expect a coach to at least express some anger and dismay about the state of transfers in 2011-12, it might have come this past week at Virginia.
Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett is smack in the middle of his most successful season at the school. His team is 10-1 and ranked in both the AP and coaches' polls. In a week's time, it will open ACC play. Now is not the ideal time to lose two players to transfer. In fact, it might be the worst possible time. But Bennett, in discussing the decisions of KT Harrell and James Johnson to do just that, seems resigned to the notion that frequent transfers are merely the cost of doing business in college hoops in 2011-12. From the Washington Post:
But times have changed, Bennett said in a teleconference Monday. Players and their families and all their other influences seem to have much less patience now than they used to. Bennett said he’s had at least one player decide to leave his program every year he’s been a head coach, and this season will be no different.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to be free from this issue as we progress in recruiting,” Bennett said. “But I think we’re getting a better handle on what will work here and what we’re trying to get and filling holes, where your initial class – especially when you have six scholarships – you’re trying to get as many guys as you can that you think fit.”
Bennett's situation is slightly different from whatever an "average" transfer issue might be. He's three years into a rebuilding project. His teams' distinct style -- slow-paced and defensively oriented -- necessitate certain types of players that fit better than others. He's received unexpectedly good play from a handful of players, which relegated Harrell (a promising freshman last season) and Johnson (a little-used forward who would have provided interior depth this season) to the bench.
Still, the transfers leave Bennett with just nine scholarship players this season. They'll also force him to play freshman guard Paul Jesperson, who Bennett initially intended to redshirt this season. It's far from an ideal situation, especially with senior forward Mike Scott leading this Cavaliers team to such a promising start. The timing is harsh.
But really, Bennett's right. What are you going to do? If a player is willing to sit out an entire year to try his luck somewhere else, why seek to prevent that move? Sometimes, rolling with the transfer punches is the only recourse. It happens. Oh well.
After all, players only have so much eligibility, and if they think their own finite resources are better spent somewhere else -- where they'll get more minutes, or play a different position, or get along better with their coach, or whatever -- well, what's wrong with that? Given the arcane transfer rules that require players to sit out a year before they can be eligible at their new school and the one-year renewable scholarship system and the simple fact that coaches can leave for new jobs at will, well, players deserve the right to pursue their careers in a similar fashion.
Until we get a comprehensive overhaul of the system -- something that puts coaches and players on more equal footing -- coaches would do well to factor this into their long-term outlooks. The sunk cost of transferred players are never easy to absorb, but they're as much a part of the game now as ever before.