MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With transfers becoming more and more prevalent across the college football landscape, many are wondering how FBS programs can fill their total scholarship quotas when they are limited by how many grants-in-aid they can award annually.
An FBS program is allowed to have a maximum of 85 student-athletes on scholarship at any one time, and it can add no more than 25 scholarship players in any one class.
Schools don’t have the ability to replace transfers or any others who leave on a one-for-one basis, though, because of the hard cap of 25. Even incoming transfers count towards that 25.
Football is the only NCAA sport with an annual cap, as others like basketball can sign however many they want each year, as long as they don’t exceed the total count – 13 for men’s basketball and 15 for women’s basketball.
Previous articles in this series with Shane Lyons
The idea behind the annual hard cap of 25 is to keep football coaches from pushing players out of their program in order to open up scholarship space for a new crop of signees.
Many student-athletes are leaving on their own, though, transferring to other schools for a variety of reasons. More than 2,600 FBS players entered the transfer portal in the last academic year, an increase of 36% from just two years ago.
West Virginia has also seen its transfer numbers go up lately. It had 15 scholarship members of its 2018 team with eligibility remaining not return for 2019, while it has experienced 20 scholarship transfers from its 2020 roster. That number is right on par with the average for each FBS team.
As the current chairman of the NCAA’s Division I Council, and the previous chair of the Football Oversight Committee, the opinion of West Virginia University director of athletics Shane Lyons matters greatly on a wide variety of topics, including how to handle the scholarship numbers in today’s world of increasing transfers.
“I think there is discussion, but I don’t think the Football Oversight Committee is real anxious to make changes until we see if the transfer numbers settle down a little bit,” explained Lyons when asked if the hard cap of 25 could potentially be adjusted.
“The other thing, and this is coming from an administrator’s perspective, is we need to look ourselves in the mirror and determine why we are having so many transfers. If you have that many transfers coming and going, you had better take a look at your program and try to determine why you have those numbers of transfers.
“You have to look at the math with the annual cap of 25,” WVU’s A.D. added during an exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. “In four years, you can sign 100 kids, and in five years, you can sign 125. Obviously in total you have to get back down to 85. Thus you only have to keep 68% – if you use the five-year number – of the number of student-athletes you can sign. You can lose as many as eight players per year and not fall below 85.”
Lyons hears from many on the football side about the need to modify the annual hard cap.
“Every coach wants relief, because it’s easier for them to justify getting to 85,” noted Lyons, who has been West Virginia’s athletic director since 2015. “But again, as I’ve told our coaches, with the rules that are in place now in terms of the one-time transfer, regardless of the cap, you’re going to have to keep recruiting the young men and young ladies currently on your roster. You can’t bring them here and forget about them. It’s a constant recruitment involving these young people and making sure you include them in your practice plans or game plans or whatever it may be.”
Lyons isn’t necessarily opposed to the annual scholarship limit for football, but he’s not against looking at some tweaks.
“Is that hard cap working? To me the answer is yes,” stated 1987 WVU grad. “Now could there be small adjustments? Maybe. You could possibly look at a four-year cycle, and while the total number is still 100, maybe you get four extra (signees) in that cycle. Use them as you want. That could be because of transfers or because of medicals where kids are no longer able to play or used for those who leave early and go to the NFL.
“I’m not in favor of some of the proposals that are out there, though,” he continued. “I’m not in favor of things like the one-for-one, where say you lose a player to the draft or to transfer, you get that scholarship back. I’m not sure what we’re rewarding in that case. There is a lot of work that has to be done with it, but to jump out of the box and say there has to be something done immediately, I’m not sure we’re there yet. There are a few institutions that are clamoring for that. I’ve gotten phone calls, but which one do you want? Some institutions are upset because they are going to be above 85, because we gave you all the (COVID) super seniors you wanted to keep. But then others can’t get to 85. What do you want?
“One week I did an interview with the media asking questions about kids who can’t stay at a school any longer because that program has exceeded the 85,” Lyons noted. “The next week I’m doing another interview where a program can’t get to 85 because it doesn’t have enough scholarships to get there.”
Certainly the increasing number of transfers across the NCAA spectrum is leading to many of the issues in terms of scholarship numbers. Lyons did say that coaches are going to do what they can to help ensure their current student-athletes are engaged and feel wanted, though some of the grass-is-greener problems he perceives as generational.
“I think we live in a world now from a student-athlete standpoint of instant gratification,” said Lyons. “What I mean by that is it’s a matter of everything in this generation has always been available to them at their fingertips; they want it, and they want it now.
“Whatever the sport may be, they want to be a starter right away. And if they’re not a starter, why am I not getting more playing time? Those are the communications that our coaches are going to have to have with their student-athletes on their roster. They have to lay out the plan about when they’re going to get that playing time. As a freshman, you’re not going to get much playing time, unless you’re exceptional. You’re not going to get the same amount of playing time as a junior or senior, because they are strong and faster. You’re probably going to get there, but it may take a year or two of development.”
Slowing the transfer rate would certainly be a significant way of keeping scholarship numbers high in FBS programs.
(This is part of a series of articles with Shane Lyons derived from his exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. Further stories covering a wide variety of topics will be published in the future.)