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Kirk Ferentz sees parallels between college football transfer portal and infancy of NFL’s modern free agency
Ferentz believes it’s ‘way too easy for somebody to say, ‘I’m not happy,” but transfer portal also ‘creates some opportunities’
IOWA CITY — What Kirk Ferentz is seeing now in college football has reminded him of a previous era in his coaching career.
It was the early 1990s. Ferentz was beginning his six-year stint as an NFL assistant coach. Modern free agency was in its infancy in the league, which Ferentz said could create a “cannibalistic attitude.”
“The lesson you learned real fast if you’re a coach or a player in the NFL is take care of your backyard,” Ferentz said at Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics meeting Tuesday. “Worry about your backyard. Don’t worry about your teammates. Do what’s best for you.”
Three decades later, Ferentz believes the transfer portal — coupled with athletes profiting off their name, image and likeness — “enhances that environment if you’re not careful” at the collegiate level.
“We’ve created a world right now where it’s just way too easy for somebody to say, ‘I’m not happy,’” Ferentz said. “Or, ‘They’ve got shiny toys and we don’t.’”
While Ferentz sees the parallels between the early stages of the NCAA transfer portal and early stages of modern free agency in the NFL, the NFL’s system has guardrails college football NIL payments do not have.
“One thing the NFL has figured out is that they’ve got even playing rules for all 32 organizations,” Ferentz said. “They all have the same amount of players. They all have a salary cap.”
NIL payments officially come from third parties and details of the deals rarely are made public.
Ferentz brought up two examples of players who left Iowa after the 2022 season to show “what we’re navigating through right now” with the transfer portal and NIL.
The 24-year head coach did not explicitly name names, but his first description uniquely described former Iowa wide receiver Arland Bruce IV.
“It looked at one point like his next stop was going to be Fresno (State), where he might get the ball a couple more times,” Ferentz said. “It just didn’t seem like that was a good deal for him from my vantage point because he was doing just fine with us.”
Bruce instead committed to Oklahoma State — a program that has been in the Top 10 of the AP Poll at least once in each of the last three seasons.
“It worked out for him,” Ferentz said. “I’m happy about that. ... When you enter the portal, there’s just no guarantees.”
Another player — a “defensive player” who is a “great kid, unbelievable kid” — told Ferentz after the season he was interested in going to “a big-time program.”
Ferentz, whose program has finished in the final AP Poll in four of the last five seasons, found the comment “interesting.”
“Jack (Campbell) is such a dumb a--,” Ferentz said sarcastically of the Butkus Award winner and probable NFL Draft pick. “He thought he was at a big-time program and could do big-time things.”
Ferentz learned the undisclosed defensive player received an “NIL package” at his new school.
“And that was my suspicion,” Ferentz said.
Tuesday’s board meeting, held in the Iowa football facility, was not the first time Ferentz has expressed his concerns about the future of college football amid NIL and the transfer portal.
Ferentz said at last year’s Big Ten media day he is “really concerned about the path that college football is on right now.”
He also sees the benefits for Iowa in the transfer portal era, though. Iowa brought in seven scholarship players via the transfer portal since the end of the 2022 season.
“It creates some opportunities as well,” Ferentz said Tuesday.
Three incoming players — quarterback Cade McNamara, tight end Erick All Jr. and linebacker Nick Jackson — were previously captains on Power Five teams.
“I’m talking to 15-year-olds in July, and then you’re talking to a guy who’s 21 or 22 and about to get an economics degree at the University of Virginia,” Ferentz said, referencing Jackson’s recruitment. “A little different conversation.”
To some degree, the portal recruiting timeline also is closer to what Ferentz would prefer the high school recruiting schedule to look like.
“If I were in charge (of recruiting rules), which I’m not, we would do it like the NFL,” Ferentz said.
Instead of recruiting athletes who may be sophomores or juniors in high school, he would wait until the end of an athlete’s high school career, “and then you would assess what it was they did and go out and talk to all the people involved.”
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta does not believe “there’s one single solution” to the transfer portal problems Ferentz identified.
“I say that because if there was, we’d have come up with it by now,” Barta told The Gazette after the PCA meeting.
He does believe the current transfer process is better than the pre-portal circumstances, though.
“If you go back to the old transfer rules, we’ve improved dramatically,” Barta said. “It used to be a student-athlete had to ask permission to transfer. If they didn’t get permission, their scholarship could be withheld. So all of those rules are gone, and that’s a good thing.”