Of all the NCAA’s heavy-handed mechanisms of controlling players, the transfer portal is among the most confusing. The 2018 opening of the portal theoretically makes it easier for athletes to switch schools, though it has done little to actually make things smoother for transferring players, which makes sense since it’s an incremental reform from the fundamentally broken organization. Take for example the protracted transfer saga of lineman James Hudson from Michigan to Cincinnati, a process that left both sides unhappy and had the head coaches publicly sniping each other.
Hudson was recruited as a defensive lineman, but Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh shifted him to offensive tackle shortly after he arrived at his first camp. He left Michigan in Dec. 2018 for Cincinnati after he redshirted his freshman season and played sparingly during his sophomore season. Transfer rules still dictate that players must sit out one season, though Cincinnati filed a waiver for immediate eligibility, likely on the grounds that Hudson left Michigan for mental health reasons.
That waiver was denied in May by the NCAA, who noted that Hudson was not transferring to a school within 100 miles of his hometown of Toledo and that there was no documentation of any mental health issues at Michigan. A few months later, Harbaugh claimed players were embellishing depression claims in order to avoid sitting out a full season.
One week after Harbaugh’s comments, the NCAA denied Hudson’s final appeal, which means he will not be eligible to play until 2020. This did not sit well with Bearcats coach Luke Fickell, who spoke to The Athletic in an extensive story about the saga, and blamed Harbaugh and Michigan for failing to support Hudson. Transfer portal rules mean a school cannot keep an athlete from transferring, though it can choose to support or not support an outgoing player’s efforts to become immediately eligible.
Fickell accused Harbaugh of doing the latter:
“Here’s what I believe in the whole waiver process: the number one, most important thing, and all the power, comes from the school that a kid is leaving. No matter what,” Fickell told The Athletic. “(Michigan) didn’t back the waiver. They can say what they want to say, but the only thing they said that was positive was that if the NCAA chooses to make (Hudson) eligible, then they would accept it — that they didn’t have an angle. They are just trying to cover their ass. And I’m really, completely disappointed in it.
“They can say they didn’t undermine it, but they didn’t work to help the kid out.”
Fickell noted that other high-profile programs have written the NCAA in support of their transferring players, which allowed Tate Martell and Justin Fields to be granted immediate eligibility at Miami and Ohio State, respectively. Michigan did not contest Hudson’s waiver request, though according to Hudson’s mother, the school performed some “backdoor underhanding” of the request when it specified it had no evidence to support Hudson’s struggles with his mental health.
Harbaugh spoke to the media Tuesday night, detailing a call with Fickell he had in March. He said Fickell asked specifically about Hudson’s struggles with the position switch from the defensive to the offensive line and that he implied he wanted Harbaugh to lie to the NCAA about it. Harbaugh said Hudson was fine with swapping positions, but Fickell wanted to overplay the tension. “Coach Fickell tried to coach me on how to say it differently,” he said. “Not saying it in that way. I told him, ‘I’m not gonna lie.’”
In the Athletic story, Fickell talked about Michigan’s treatment of Hudson after he put his name in the transfer portal, as the school relocated his roommate as soon as he announced his intent to transfer. Harbaugh confirmed the roommate swap, citing “reports that James’ behavior wasn’t conducive for the best interest of the roommate” as the impetus. That didn’t sit well with Fickell:
“It’s like a junior-high relationship: ‘You broke up with me, so I’m going to tell everybody that you did this, this and this.’ What grown-up does that?” Fickell said. “They responded with a junior-high comeback. I was shocked. Shocked. That if somebody said something about you, that you would then respond back by trying to bash a 19-year-old on things that were hearsay?
The one thing Harbaugh and Fickell can agree on is that the NCAA transfer model is broken. Harbaugh has talked about an ideal system where players would be allowed to switch schools once without any penalty. That’d be a step in the right direction, as it would remove the inherent subjectivity of the NCAA’s decision-making process around eligibility waivers. The only reason these coaches are fighting is because of how vague and sloppy this rule is.