Mike Gundy and the Unintended Consequences of New Transfer Rules

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Unintended consequences – two 50-cent words to describe luck and fate – are often cited when actions are taken to derive a certain outcome but another, sometimes opposite, outcome occurs.

Those two words – unintended consequences – were often used during the Bowl Championship Series era in college football. Every time a flaw was discovered in the BCS rankings/selections methodology, a rule would be changed with two typical results. One, it did not change the history of the previous flaw (duh) and the new rule would often create another flaw or flaws (double duh).

The BCS was run by conference commissioners who are best at squeezing extra millions from their television partners. College football rules are created by the NCAA, which can’t check any competency box on its resume.

When rules are influenced by the control freaks (aka college football coaches), the chances are high that unintended consequences become a dumpster fire.

Monday’s news dump (in both the political and sports worlds) overwhelmed any 18-wheel trash truck. The headline that was most interesting came out of Stillwater, Okla.

Less than 48 hours after Oklahoma State crashed to earth in a 41-17 home-field loss to Texas Tech, Cowboys senior wide receiver Jalen McCleskey announced he would redshirt the remainder of the season and transfer at the semester.

And here’s where a new rule this season, proposed and pushed by the coaches, is likely to have UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES (capital letters intentional). The rule allows for players to be able to participate in minimum of four games and still preserve a redshirt season.

The rule was at first thought to be aimed at freshmen, who are typically the candidates for a sit-out season. The intent from the coaches was that allowing four games in one season, counting it as a red shirt while preserving four full seasons, would help with roster flexibility and also allow for freshmen to gain in-game experience. Before this season, red shirt seasons were basically served as practice fodder on the scout team and a chance to bulk up at the training table and in the weight room.

But it appears the crafty coaches have been out-maneuvered by their rule. The four games/red shirt rule can apply to any player in any class.

“As we go forward with this rule, it may be something we need to look at,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said Monday after being told of the McCleskey news. “I don’t have the answers right now. I think (this is) something that maybe not everybody anticipated.” 

McCleskey, a three-year starter, played in Oklahoma State’s first four games. He still has a red shirt season available so deciding to transfer now preserves one more season of eligibility. If he earns his degree before transferring, he will be immediately eligible.

Oklahoma State and coach Mike Gundy announced that McCleskey was transferring and he had played his final game for the Cowboys.

“He did not feel good about us getting the ball to him, so he’s decided to redshirt and transfer, so we’re gonna let him sit the rest of the year,” Gundy said at the end of his weekly news conference. “That decision was made this morning … (he) wants to save this year and sit and transfer to another school. If that’s what guys on the team want to do, that’s what we’ll allow them to do.”

Through four games, he had 15 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. As a sophomore in 2016, he led Oklahoma State in receptions in an offense that also featured James Washington. Last season, McCleskey was third on the team with 50 receptions. He’s sixth in career receptions.

McCleskey is from Louisiana and his father is an assistant at Tulane. The usage excuse seems flimsy. Perhaps he wants to play his final season closer to home. Perhaps there are other underlying reasons. No matter. McCleskey’s decision points out the four games/red shirt rule has a loophole that can work to the advantage of veteran players.

If so, a standing ovation is in order for the loophole and those who take advantage.

There have been dozens of stories about coaches/schools blocking players from transferring to other schools. The red shirt rule, when applied to players who transfer, is euphemistically referred to as a “year in residence” which is NCAA for a year in jail. It’s a punitive rule designed to discourage “free agency” while ignoring the fact that coaches can change jobs whenever a bigger contract is offered.

There’s also caterwauling in both football and basketball about graduate transfers who can be immediately eligible at their new school.

There’s irony for any coach who complains. First, who should criticize a student-athlete who obtains his degree. Second, the reason so many can graduate in three years or less is that they’re compelled to stay around campus for summer workouts … and summer school.

Coaches applauded the four games/red shirt rule because, in their minds, it provided them with roster flexibility. The idea is that late in the season, when injuries have piled up, the opportunity to “activate” a player for four or fewer games could be valuable. Coaches often whine and complain that there’s no “waiver wire” in college football like there is in the NFL, with 53-man rosters with a handful of players on the practice squad.

Teams in the FBS can have 85 players on scholarship. Let’s do some elementary roster management math. Quarterbacks – 3; running backs – 7; receivers – 10; offensive linemen – 12; defensive linemen – 12; linebackers – 8; defensive backs – 10; kicker/punter – 2. Your Veteran Scribe barely escaped Algebra I but he can add those numbers and come up with 64. That leaves 31 scholarships, which means you can add almost three players to each of those positions.

The four games/red shirt rule wasn’t about the players. It was about control. Your freshman backup lineman who has to play at the end of a season because of injuries is merely getting more opportunities for injury or head trauma.

And don’t forget that players who leave early for the NFL draft must be three years out of high school.

A player who red shirts theoretically only must play two seasons before declaring for the draft. While more stud freshmen are playing, the four games/red shirt rule gives coaches the flexibility to use those players for four games and then bench them. Two seasons plus four games is better than two seasons.

Coaches wanted roster management/flexibility, they got it. What they didn’t expect is they not only have to manage the fuzzy-cheeked 18-year-old freshmen but appease the grizzly veterans who know an opportunity when they see it.