EdgyTim - Why Northwestern has had the fewest transfers during the portal era
{{ timeAgo('2021-04-15 12:04:05 -0500') }} football Edit

Why Northwestern has had the fewest transfers during the portal era

The days after the Big Ten championship game sent shock waves through Northwestern's fan base.

On Dec. 20, just a day after the Wildcats lost to Ohio State in Indianapolis, Isaiah Bowser, Gunner Maldonado and Malik Washington entered the transfer portal. The next day, they were joined by Eku Leota and Kyric McGowan. Eventually, a total of seven Wildcats had announced their intention to leave (though Washington eventually changed his mind and came back to the program).

Fans were worried that the departures indicated potential problems within the program. Worse, they seemed like surefire signs that head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was being pursued publicly by NFL franchises, could be on his way out.

It turned out, however, that fans had nothing to worry about. Fitzgerald eventually signed a contract extension that will keep him in Evanston through 2030.

And those transfers? They were false alarms. Looking back with a few months of perspective, it’s apparent that everything is just fine at Northwestern.

While transfers are now a fact of life in college football, Northwestern has experienced fewer than any other Power Five program. Since the transfer portal was established in 2018, Northwestern has had 14 transfers, including the seven who left in this cycle. That’s the lowest number in the nation.

To put that number in perspective, Kansas State has the most transfers in that span with 90, meaning the “other” purple Wildcats have lost more than six times the players Northwestern has. A total of 23 Power Five programs have averaged at least 14 transfers each year.

In the Big Ten, five programs have had more than 50 transfers in that same three-year span.

Take a look at the transfer numbers across the conference, which include both scholarship and walkon players.

Transfers from each Big Ten school over the last three years
School Transfers

Maryland

62

Penn State

62

Michigan

60

Rutgers

59

Nebraska

58

Illinois

38

Iowa

35

Indiana

34

Purdue

33

Michigan State

31

Minnesota

31

Ohio State

31

Wisconsin

21

Northwestern

14

It’s important to point out that coaching changes tend to skew numbers higher, as several players typically move in and out of a program during a regime switch.

But it’s not consistent. Among the five most transfer-happy programs in the Big Ten, three have experienced coaching changes within the last three seasons: Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers. However, two of them – Michigan and Penn State – have had their coaches in place for at least six years.

So why does Northwestern have such a low number of transfers? What is Fitzgerald’s secret sauce for keeping players in Evanston?

Rivals national columnist Mike Farrell said he was “not surprised at all” that Northwestern is the best in the country at player retention. Why? “Because kids who choose Northwestern usually make a decision for the long term with academics heavily weighed in,” he said.

There is definitely something to Farrell’s theory. Many of the so-called “academic schools” boast among the lowest numbers in their conferences. Stanford (23) has the fewest transfers in the PAC-12, and the third-lowest total in the nation. Vanderbilt (33) has the second-lowest in the SEC and Notre Dame (29) the third-fewest in the ACC.

Of Northwestern’s seven transfers this year, five of them were grad transfers who already had their degree. That diploma is what they came to Northwestern for, and they stayed in Evanston for the three or four years it took to earn it before moving on.

But Farrell’s second thought about what Northwestern has done right really hit the mark. It’s about the culture that Fitzgerald has established at his alma mater.

“Coach Fitz sells a family atmosphere, kind of a low-key Dabo Swinney approach, and that leads to a family feeling and loyalty,” said Farrell. “He’s fair, and he’s very good at creating team unity.”

Farrell’s example of Swinney, the head man at Clemson, is spot-on. It might surprise people to learn that the program with the second-lowest number of transfers is Swinney’s. After all, Clemson is a dominant program that has won two of the last five national championships and is very seldom mentioned in the same breath with Northwestern. But the fact is that the Tigers have lost just 20 players through the portal over the last three years.

Swinney, like Fitzgerald, has established a family atmosphere within the Clemson program. Quarterback Hunter Johnson, who transferred from Clemson to Northwestern in the days before the portal, said as much after he arrived in Evanston in 2018.

Fitzgerald talks endlessly about the fit that’s so important in recruiting players to Northwestern. He’s an expert at identifying the characteristics he’s looking for in high school prospects, so that after they sign, they are quickly absorbed into the culture after they arrive in the locker room.

It also helps that Fitzgerald has so much continuity on his coaching staff. Defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson has been coaching at NU since 2006, while defensive line coach Marty Long and tight ends coach Bob Heffner came on board in 2009, and wide receivers coach Dennis Springer joined in 2011.

But even the new faces on the staff are familiar ones. Of the Wildcats’ shortest-tenured coaches on the sidelines, four of them – new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, running backs coach Lou Ayeni, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle and special teams coach Jeff Genyk – either played or coached at Northwestern.

The bottom line is this: if a player signs with Northwestern, chances are the coaches who recruited him will be there when he graduates. And he will graduate. The program has led the nation in Graduate Success Rate (GSR) for the last three years running, mostly recently with a 98% score in 2020.

Some might point to Northwestern’s recruiting rankings – which are generally in the 50s nationally – and say that the Wildcats’ transfer numbers are low because they aren’t recruiting the caliber of players that elite programs are. The thinking is that the schools that recruit the best will have the most turnover because players get recruited over and, with their path to playing time blocked, look for opportunities elsewhere.

That might be the primary reason that Alabama is No. 2 in the nation with 85 or that Michigan is near the top of the Big Ten at 60. But Clemson’s appearance in second-to-last place pours cold water on that theory. Both the Tigers and Ohio State have done a very good job of holding onto their players despite the increased competition, and those programs recruit as well as just about anyone in the nation.

Transfer season is part of the college football calendar now, like the early signing period or spring official visits, two other developments that have altered the recruiting landscape in recent years. It’s here to stay.

For Northwestern, player retention will continue to be critical to the team’s success. While recruiting has improved in recent years, they will still be a program that relies on developing players over time.

Fitzgerald has proven that he knows how to run the type of program that keeps players in Evanston – and that he knows what to do with them when they’re there.