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It’s been almost four years since the words “transfer portal” entered the college football lexicon.
The portal has had a transformational impact for many college football programs since 2018. Many does not include Iowa, though, and that’s not by happenstance.
Iowa was the least aggressive Big Ten school in the football transfer portal in 2021-22, according to 247Sports data analyzed by The Gazette.
Out of the 103 players to transfer to a Big Ten institution this year, only one went to Iowa. The median Big Ten school had six additions via the portal.
Only two players on Iowa’s 2022 roster — tight end Steven Stilianos and walk-on punter Nick Phelps — have suited up for another NCAA school, and both came from the FCS level.
“Our involvement in the transfer portal is probably different than some other people,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said in February.
Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell sees benefits in prospects from high school that transfer portal players don’t have, including not having to break any “bad habits” from a previous program.
“The transfer portal guy isn’t as attractive to me as the high school guy,” Bell said in a June episode of The Gazette’s Hawk Off the Press podcast. “Because I know that I’m going to have time to develop that guy.”
When immediate needs emerge, Bell’s preference is to “look inward” to see who on the Iowa roster can fill a hole.
“Is there somebody here? He may be in another position room,” Bell said. “I’m going to check that before I check the portal because if he’s in the building, that kid understands the culture. If he’s in the building, that transition would be seamless.”
Joe Evans, for example, moved from linebacker to defensive end in spring 2019 ahead of his redshirt freshman season. He has played in 30 of 35 games and earned a scholarship since then.
Not every college football program has the ability to be as patient as the Hawkeyes. Nebraska’s Scott Frost, for example, had to take a pay cut in 2021.
“If I knew I didn’t have time and I knew I needed to win right now, oh yeah, I’m in the portal,” Bell said. “But we don’t have to do that.”
Iowa’s lack of arrivals through the transfer portal also is partially tied to its lack of departures. The Hawkeyes lost six players via the portal.
At one point in January, Iowa was tied for the third-fewest transfer portal departures among Power Five schools, according to Rivals.
Bell took a proactive approach to retaining players in his position group with a message to the defensive line group chat.
“Who’s been approached for NIL to leave Iowa?” Bell said. “Let me know right now, not so I can bang on a drum and say how upset I am, but hey, at least I have an opportunity to try to keep you if I want to keep you.”
A school’s NIL infrastructure also has an impact on the ability to lure talent via the portal.
“If you’re not dealing with NIL in the transfer portal, you can kiss the baby,” Bell said. “You ain’t getting the kid.”
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said an Iowa collective will have an announcement “probably in the next week or two.” Boosters from many other programs have already established collectives.
As Iowa has continued with its relatively conservative approach to transfers, the number of players in the portal has proliferated.
From Aug. 1, 2020 to July 31, 2021, 2,538 FBS players entered the transfer portal, according to NCAA data released in April. That averaged to about 19 athletes per school seeking a new home.
The transfer portal activity peaked in January 2021, when someone entered their name every 90 minutes and 11 seconds on average, according to a Gazette analysis of NCAA data.
The high volume of transfers has created essentially a game of musical chairs in the portal.
About 54 percent of entrants transferred to another NCAA institution, according to NCAA data, and 4 percent withdrew their names from the transfer portal and presumably returned to their school.
That leaves about 42 percent who the NCAA considered as “active entrants” who hadn’t found a new school nor returned to where they were playing.
Former Iowa quarterback Deuce Hogan’s experience in the transfer portal also serves as a cautionary tale. He left Iowa, where he had a scholarship, and ended up at Kentucky as a walk-on.
Some of those risks aside, four years after the start of the transfer portal, it appears to be here to stay.
“The transfer portal works both ways,” Bell said. “The kid may want out because it’s not a good fit. OK, but the football program may want that kid gone, too. … If used properly, it’s a win-win.”
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