Josh Kendall

What if Alabama decided to raid other schools for grad transfers?

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban looks on from the sidelines against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban looks on from the sidelines against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

As threats go, it was barely veiled.

Alabama coach Nick Saban was discussing his dislike for the graduate transfer rule, particularly allowing players from one Southeastern Conference school to move to another SEC school after they have graduated, when he said this:

“Look, I think we would benefit,” Saban explained at the SEC’s annual spring meetings. “We would benefit as much as anybody in our league if you said you can transfer. Kentucky’s got a good player? We’ll go see if we can get him to come to Alabama.”

Mark Stoops must shiver at the thought of that. In fact, pretty much every SEC team should.

The NCAA this week released facts to go along with the anecdotal evidence that suggests the number of graduate transfers is growing. While only one-half of one percent of NCAA football players last season were graduate transfers, the number of graduate transfers has more than quintupled in the past five years (17 in 2011, 117 in 2016). And there’s no sign of it slowing down.

“Well, what is the intent of the rule to start with? I think the intent of the rule was that somebody was changing schools for academic reasons,” Saban said. “That was why we allowed people to transfer to other places. So now that doesn’t matter. So that’s not the intent of the rule anymore.”

The NCAA’s data says Saban is right. From the NCAA release: “This so-called ‘graduate transfer’ rule was intended to assist academically high-achieving students in pursuing a degree of interest that may not be offered at their undergraduate college. But it has become controversial in football and men’s basketball due to high-profile cases and as data have emerged showing that many transfers in those two sports earn few graduate credits and leave school when their athletics eligibility expires.”

Graduate transfers actually graduate at a lower rate than graduate students who stay at their original school, the NCAA found. The SEC considered banning intra-conference transfers earlier this year and most of its football coaches supported that move, but the school presidents decided to table the issue for at least another year.

Saban, of course, is still stinging from losing Maurice Smith to Georgia.

On one hand it’s self-serving of Saban to argue that a player who might not have started for him shouldn’t go to a school where he was a team captain. On the other hand, Saban is right.

Alabama’s coach has a history of sticking to his roots right up until the point when he doesn’t. Alabama was slow to snuggle up to the spread offense and running quarterback, content to roll out the likes of Jake Coker and win the old-fashioned way. Finally, Saban got tired of looking at the stress other people were putting on his defense with run-pass option plays that he thinks are unfair, so he went out and hired Lane Kiffin and started true freshman Jalen Hurts at quarterback and led the SEC in scoring in 2016.

If Saban does decide one day that he wants to similarly flip the switch and fling the doors open for graduate transfers, the rest of the SEC would basically be a feeder system for the Crimson Tide.

You think Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham wouldn’t have wanted to play a final season at Alabama? What about South Carolina’s Skai Moore? You think the Crimson Tide couldn’t make a compelling argument to just about any star at any other conference school that a year in the crimson and white would be better for them?

“Why do we want that?” Saban wondered. “Why do we need that?”

The rest of the SEC certainly doesn’t.