Newspapers across the country now print the list of high school football transfers that take place around their city just like they do the college transfers. A decade ago, this would have been unthinkable. Transfer students have changed high school football, particularly in regards to who is winning many of the games.
Over the past 10 years, high school athletes transferring schools during their high school days have become much more common. This trend is nation wide, not just in the south or in Alabama. While some transfers are for legitimate reasons such as a parent taking a better paying job in another community, many more transfers seem to be for athletic purposes. This is a trend that the education based athletic community finds very disturbing.
"There was a day when we all loved our high school and playing for that school and community was important," one 6A head coach commented. "Players wanted to play for the same team that their brothers and father played for. But that day is just about gone, especially in the bigger schools."
The parents of today want more school choices for their children, and many states and school districts have open enrollment laws and rules. These often conflict with state athletic association rules. States all over the nation have had to loosen some of their requirements on transfers to meet the demands of parents and state lawmakers who want students to have the ability to swap schools and still be eligible to play athletics. The AHSAA in 2020 changed their rule to allow students to transfer without making a bona fide move and be eligible to play junior varsity competition only.
Athletic associations have always had rules to keep students from making transfers solely for athletic purposes. If a student did so, generally they would have to sit out a year. But that battle has been getting tougher and tougher as the population in general has become accustomed to seeing free agents in the pros and transfer portals in college athletics. Many fans of today feel like that if the athlete can better himself by changing schools he should be able to do so.
However, it is really tough on the coach of a small school who has three good athletes and they all in up transferring to a school that they believe will have a better team this fall.
State athletic associations have rules to prohibit coaches and schools from openly recruiting players. Private schools always got the biggest reputation for illegal recruiting with the offer of free or reduced tuition. The AHSAA competitive balance rule was put into effect several years ago for private schools that were having great success with transfer players. This rule has helped to level the field somewhat by forcing private schools to go up in classification as they move toward greater success in the playoffs. But public schools are now getting more transfers and the charges of recruiting are being leveled at them. One 7A coach from the Birmingham area said that recruiting is at an epidemic proportion. "It is threatening the competitiveness of our game," he said.
So why do high school football players want to transfer to another school?
1) Winning - Everybody wants to play for a winner and to have a chance to play for a state championship. At a lot of schools, their team is just not of that caliber. Parents and athletes can become jealous of others who play on those good teams, and that team is happy to have another quality player join up. Coaches want to won and if the speed, size and talent of their team is not enough for them to compete in their classification, they may look to find some transfers to help. Parents are willing many times to change their residence and move to a community where football success is more likely.
2) Exposure - Smaller schools in smaller communities don't get the state media coverage that the bigger schools enjoy. Many parents are more concerned about their son getting that scholarship, and bigger schools that are successful will have more college recruiters around. One 3A coordinator said that, "parents who have kids who are good players see football as their way to pay for college. It is their lottery ticket."
3) Facilities - The schools that have the nice field house, first class stadium, big weight room and a turf field tend to see more transfers. Everyone likes nice stuff. Schools with limited funds just don't have much to offer as they struggle just to pay for their sports program. It is easier to illegally recruit a player if you have great facilities to offer him.
4) Playing Time - This has become a big reason for transferring, much like we see in college. Parents want their children to play and play early in the ninth or tenth grade and often it is about recruiting. Many times they are not willing to be the back up quarterback for a year or two. They scout around for teams that need a quarterback and decide where to transfer. Coaches get a lot of pressure from parents to play their child early. "We live in the world of instant gratification today," one 6A coach commented. "Players don't want to work their way up, they want you to give them playing time now or they will go somewhere else." Some players want to play defensive tackle, but might be assigned as offensive tackle instead. If the coach doesn't agree to make the change, a transfer might be happening soon.
5) Coaching - Schools that have more money to pay better coaching supplements tend to have more coaches and better coaching and parents want their child to have the best training possible. The coaches who have worked in college and might have more ties to the next level are considered to be able to help with more scholarship opportunities. If a parent or player gets upset with their football coach over some issue, it is easy to blame him for shortcomings of the athlete and look for greener pastures. "It is getting more and more difficult to provide discipline for your teams, especially your better players," a North Alabama coach said. "If they get mad about something, they just leave." Some players want to transfer because they hear that at the school down the road, the off season program is not as tough and practices are not as long. Coaches have some slippery slopes to navigate to run a program efficiently without being so demanding that they might run off some key players. Some coaches promise players and parents if they transfer to their school they are better equipped to see that the player gets that all important scholarship.
6) Style of Play - How much does the local team throw the ball? If you are a good receiver but you only get one or two balls thrown your way per game, you might be better off transferring to a school that spreads the offense and throws two out of every three plays. Style of play, particularly offensive tactics, will often cause a quarterback or receiver to transfer schools.
7) College eligibility - Many of the big recruits today want to enter college after their first semester of their senior year. If your school is not willing to help make that happen, a player may have to transfer to a school that can help with that.
8) Play with friends, relatives or other recruits - It is not an uncommon thing that recruits get to know each other at camps and through recruiting trips and think it would be great to play together in high school. Many transfers occur because Uncle Jo wants his nephew to come over and play with the cousins because they are looking to have a good team this fall. Family members are some of the biggest high school recruiters out there.
9) Free tuition - A student who is at a school that is less challenging academically can at times get free or reduced tuition at a private school because of his athletic ability.
10) Better competition - Bigger schools with more quality players make for better competition. It is difficult for a 1A player to sign with a Division I school, often because they may be hard to evaluate because of the poorer game competition level. Players can transfer and better prepare themselves for that scholarship opportunity by competing daily with quality athletes at practice and at games on Friday nights.
Students that live in cities can change school districts without the parents having to change their jobs. They can move into the district and rent a house or apartment. Today many people have jobs where they work at home on the internet. This allows them to live anywhere they like, so a move is not always difficult for athletics.
Parents of outstanding football players get to know each other through park league or travel ball at early ages. They spend a lot of time at games and as the students get older, it is inevitable that a discussion about getting them together on the same high school team results. It is not illegal for parents to encourage others to come and play at their son's school.
If high school coaches contact parents or players at other schools about transferring, that is considered recruiting. It has become very difficult to prove recruiting allegations. State associations don't have subpoena power to get phone records and other proof that they might need to prove the wrong doing. In Alabama, principals must sign the complaint registered for recruiting within the AHSAA, and many administrators are reluctant to get involved in such emotional issues.
State associations all have investigators who talk to all of the relevant parties. The biggest problem when it comes to recruiting charges - parents, players and even coaches will lie about their involvement. If found guilty of recruiting, students will be ineligible, games may have to be forfeited and coaches could face suspension or job loss. Because parents disagree with the athletic associations rules, they often rationalize that is is okay to lie. State associations all over the nation are frustrated with their inability to control recruiting.
Those schools that have set up some procedures to work around the rules and get better players are having more and more success. Coaches who follow the rules and don't recruit are obviously frustrated. "We work hard and try and do it right, but some schools are just in a league of their own. We really don't have much of a chance against those teams," a successful 7A coach said. "It frustrates everyone in our program." Another 5A head coach commented, "we have young coaches who see this and think it is the way you are suppose to win. It has become about recruiting players to your school and about college recruiting and not about teaching toughness and discipline and building teamwork. And the rich just keep getting richer. We have to get a hold on this in some way."
Over the past few years, state associations have tried to come up with rules to address the abuses. One tactic that some associations have used is before any transfer occurs, the school that the athlete is leaving must sign off saying that they do not believe that the transfer is athletic related. If they don't sign off, the student and new school must prove that it is a legitimate transfer in order to be eligible. That at least puts the burden of proof on the student and new school. But that leads to a lot of transfer hearings and a lot of bad feelings between schools. For a committee listening to an appeal, facts, truth, and proof of recruiting are just hard to come by. These boards tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the student rather than punish him in what could be a legitimate transfer.
The AHSAA JV transfer rule is not popular with everyone, but does at least encourage transfers to take place at an earlier age. "I believe that rule just encourages recruiting, not deter it," one Central Alabama coach said.
The recruiting issue has been around a long time and state associations are at work with each other to try and come up with some solutions amid a public that wants more choices for students. The pressure to win on high school coaches is greater than ever, and that leads to some coaches trying to get better players any way they can. But there is no doubt that transfer players have changed the landscape of high school football in Alabama.