Being the runner-up for a football prospect’s commitment often comes with a dose of degradation.
You know the scene: A recruit assembles hats from his finalist schools on a table. The recruit reaches for one hat, acts as if he’s about to commit to that school, before tossing the hat aside in favor of the headwear of his real selection.
Finalist schools not chosen by the recruit – including the school whose hat he tossed aside – typically receive no consolation prize.
That’s evolving, though, as fewer athletes finish their college careers where they start.
With the transfer rate skyrocketing after last year’s NCAA rule change allowed immediate eligibility for all first-time transfers, the incentive to burn no bridges has never been higher. A high school prospect should keep hats of his finalist schools at the ready in case he opts to transfer.
Transferring athletes may consider a number of factors while selecting their new school, including name, image and likeness opportunities, the chance for a starting role or a program’s track record for improving a player’s NFL bona fides.
But relationships always matter in recruiting, whether that’s recruiting a high school prospect or a transfer. And if a coaching staff has an existing relationship with a transfer whom they recruited out of high school, that offers an inside track.
Consider Georgia tight end Arik Gilbert, a coveted transfer last year. Gilbert signed with LSU over Georgia out of high school as a five-star prospect, but after one season with the Tigers, he transferred to Kirby Smart’s program.
Zach Evans was a five-star running back who visited Ole Miss in 2020 before signing with TCU. After two seasons with the Horned Frogs, he transferred as one of “Portal King” Lane Kiffin’s prize additions for Ole Miss.
Running backs coach Kevin Smith was Ole Miss’ primary recruiter on Evans out of high school. Smith helped persuade Evans to choose the Rebels as a transfer before he departed for Miami’s coaching staff.
For Ole Miss, winning with transfers whom it recruited but didn’t land of high school is part of the program’s long-term strategy.
“It’s always important to keep those relationships,” Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter told me in June, “because you never know when they might come back.”
Even Alabama doesn’t go 100% on signing coveted prospects, but give coach Nick Saban a second chance at winning a prized player’s pledge, and look out.
Cornerback Eli Ricks and wide receiver Jermaine Burton are among Alabama’s marquee transfers whom the Tide recruited out of high school but didn’t sign until the second go-around.
The rate of players transferring should motivate coaches to court top high school recruits whom they’re unlikely to sign. Host the prospect for a visit, build a rapport, wish him well when he signs elsewhere and hope that relationship pays off if he enters the transfer portal a year or two later.
So, although five-star quarterback Arch Manning committed to Texas over a host of SEC schools, don’t denounce him just yet, Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss fans. Remember the long game.
Of course, a school benefiting from the long game depends on a coaching staff sticking around for a while. If a school fires its coach every two years or the coach bolts, it can’t expect to reap the benefit from those runner-up recruiting finishes. And nothing guarantees the athlete will choose one of his old shortlist schools after entering the transfer portal, but those prior relationships provide a window of opportunity.
So, the next time a ballyhooed recruit tosses your favorite school’s hat aside during a signing ceremony, don’t fret. He might wear that hat within two years.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.