MISSOULA – Several players have announced they are leaving the Montana basketball and football teams over the past few months. None caused a bigger reaction than Gresch Jensen.
The quarterback looked like a star-in-the-making when he stepped in as a freshman in 2017. But after spring practice ended in April, Jensen announced his intention to leave Montana and play somewhere else.
The news shocked many Griz fans. But when Bobby Hauck came back to Missoula with a brand-new coaching staff, he expected even more Grizzlies to leave.
“Since January we’ve only lost three guys,” said Hauck. “Coming in the door if you would have asked me what that number might be, I would have said in the 13-18 range. So we’ve got guys that are doing a good job embracing what we want to do.”
Hauck claims the small number leaving the program, even if it includes a significant player like Jensen, won’t make the Griz panic. They have their own transfer in Dalton Sneed to step in under center. But just like in his first stint at UM, Hauck plans to rarely bring in transfers, unlike many other FCS programs that have rosters filled with players that started somewhere else.
“It can be productive short term,” admitted Hauck. “But if you go back to your question about long-term health and continuity of the program, that doesn’t lend itself to that.”
A roster of more than 90 players makes it easier for Griz football to replace a handful of departures. On the basketball court, it’s another story.
Montana’s men’s team has seen five players leave since the end of the season, and four have left the Lady Griz. That includes freshman Karl Nicholas and sophomore Caitlin Lonergan, who both showed flashes of becoming something special.
With basically a third of their teams suddenly gone, two teams that each graduated only a single senior are now busy recruiting to fill the gaps.
“It might change the way you need to operate from time to time in terms of when you’re recruiting — like right now, we’re recruiting in May,” said Griz men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire.
“Lucky for us we just had a recruiting window here in April,” added Lady Griz basketball coach Shannon Schweyen. “You’re looking at other kids that may be transferring that might want to come to your place.”
Every Grizzly coach says they have long conversations with each player that chooses to transfer, discussing the pros and cons of the move. And so does the administration. An exit interview gives UM an honest look into its programs.
“What we really want to make sure we understand is, ‘Ok, what are the reasons for your leaving?’” said UM athletic director Kent Haslam. “Is there a cultural issue? Are there things we need to deal with internally? Are there things that are causing this rush of players to leave?”
The administration heard a few frustrations from departing Lady Griz. Haslam then discussed those concerns with the coaching staff, but he didn’t find anything troubling. The coaches must move on quickly after a player leaves, but they admit the departures still hurt.
“It’s always disappointing,” said Schweyen. “You want them to have a good experience. That’s why you brought them here in the first place. You care about them as people. You hope that their experience is a positive one. Unfortunately when there is 15 kids on a roster and only five get to be on the court at one time, it’s hard to make everybody happy.”
UM coaches admit that each player leaving their program gets lumped into one group, but they do it for very different reasons. For example, the Lady Griz had one player transfer to another school, another leave due to injury, and two chose to stop playing basketball to concentrate on school.
It’s a hot topic across the NCAA, not just in Missoula. It’s an unprecedented time of increased transfers, but everyone has different opinions on why it’s happening.
Some say it’s generational.
“This generation of kids, instead of pushing back and fighting their way out of things, their tendency or instinct is to go somewhere else where they think the grass is greener,” said Hauck.
Others point the finger at an athlete’s environment.
“I find it hard to believe an 18-year-old walks into an office and says, ‘I’m transferring,’ and didn’t have any conversations with anyone from their supporting cast,” said DeCuire. “So high school coaches, AAU coaches, parents, everyone is involved in these decisions. It’s not very often that I see a high school transcript and the kid has only been to one school, so it started somewhere else.”
Or maybe technology has made the biggest difference.
“We’re so much more mobile,” said Haslam. “And it’s so much easier through social media to get a feel for what a place will be like without ever having to step foot on that campus.”
Whatever the cause, the explosion of transfers probably won’t end anytime soon. With growing pressure to give athletes more benefits, the NCAA might make the process even easier in the near future. Traditionally, transfers have to sit out a year before playing at their new school.
Some conferences, like the Big Sky, do not allow players to transfer to another school in the same league. An NCAA committee has looked into eliminating such restrictions and possibly allowing players to switch teams immediately if the head coach leaves a program.
Another proposal could allow any transfer to instantly become eligible as long as they reach academic benchmarks. Haslam likes that option, as long as the school accepting the transfer is held accountable for future academic progress.
“It is absolutely the truth that academically when they transfer, they take a step back,” said Haslam. “That would cause a coach or an administrator to say, ‘If we are going to have some penalties on the back end with low academic performance, are we going to take the risk?’”
UM coaches caution against a drastic change. They fear allowing players to leave and play right away would turn college athletics into a non-stop recruiting battle, with the rich getting richer, and the student-athletes being exploited.
“I’m a big believer in the fact that there should be a little bit of a penalty for leaving,” said Schweyen. “I think it would be utter chaos if everyone is just allowed to transfer and not sit out. You would have people talking to your kids.”
“A lot of coaches would just start looking for the best players at a level below to bring in,” added DeCuire. “You’re going to find a lot of coaches that no longer have to develop players. They’d let us do that for them.”
“I think the rule in football is good the way it is,” concluded Hauck. “I think there should be some penalty. To be able to just take your ball and go home at any time I don’t think is productive in terms of long-term development of people.”
DeCuire has another reason he wants to see the rule remain largely unchanged. He knows it’s hard to convince a player to take a redshirt year, because the athlete hears you don’t think he’s good enough. But transfers have to take that year off, and DeCuire has seen first-hand the benefits. He feels the extra time practicing helped turn current Grizzlies Ahmaad Rorie and Jamar Akoh into stars.