Transfer exodus at Colorado unprecedented in portal era
Deion Sanders arrived at Colorado in December with much fanfare and a blunt message to Buffaloes players who had just endured a 1-11 season under the previous coaching regime.
Be ready to transfer, the new head coach told them in his first team meeting.
“We got a few positions already taken care of because I’m bringing my own luggage with me,” Sanders said. “And it’s Louis, OK.”
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Colorado has had a total of 52 scholarship players enter the transfer portal in the five months since the Pro Football Hall of Famer was hired away from Jackson State. The pace picked up rapidly last month.
The spring transfer period in college football closed with 43 scholarship players -- the equivalent of half a roster -- from Sanders’ program having entered the portal since more than 40,000 fans showed up at Folsom Field in Boulder for Colorado’s spring game on April 15.
It is unprecedented turnover in this new era of loosened transfer rules, and almost double that total of the next largest number of players entering the portal among the 11 Power Five programs with a new head coach.
Arizona State is next with 27 scholarships players entering the portal since coach Kenny Dillingham was hired Nov. 27. The Sun Devils had 11 players jump in the portal during the spring window, which ran from April 15-30.
Nebraska has had 23 scholarship players enter the portal since Matt Rhule was hired the day after Thanksgiving.
At the other end, Stanford had 13 players, all graduates, go into the portal after former coach David Shaw resigned, but only three more have entered since coach Troy Taylor was hired Dec. 10.
“There is a strong climate of people come in to try to push as many guys as they can out,” Taylor said. “I did not do that at Sacramento State. I didn’t even attempt to do it here at Stanford. We take what we got, we make it better.”
The deadline for undergraduate players to notify their schools they intend to transfer and be eligible next season passed, but new names were still trickling into the portal as paperwork was being processed.
Players still have time before next season to find a new school, though most teams - other than Colorado - don’t have many available spots. Graduate students can enter the portal after the window closes and be immediately eligible next season.
Transfers in major college football have skyrocketed since the NCAA two years ago removed its rule mandating undergraduates sit out a season after switching schools. A one-time exception for immediate eligibility had been available to athletes in other sports, but not high-profile ones such as basketball, baseball and football.
The names of 2,090 Football Bowl Subdivision football players were in the portal, according to the NCAA. The number of FBS players who have entered the portal during the 2022-23 academic year and found a new school is 1,055.
At Colorado, nine scholarship players went into the portal between when Sanders was hired and the start of the spring transfer period.
“I didn’t kick ’em out; they walked out,” Sanders told reporters after the spring game. But he made clear the next wave of players heading into the portal would include some being pushed out of the program.
“We’ve got to make some decisions,” Sanders said. “That’s going to be on me now.”
As the NCAA defends itself against a federal lawsuit and actions by the National Labor Relations Board seek to give college athletes employee status, Sanders’ roster flip has given fresh ammunition to those trying to dismantle the collegiate amateurism model.
“Sanders is in the process of firing half his team, kicking them off their scholarships because they aren’t performing. That’s employment,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted.
NCAA rules require schools to honor a scholarship if an athlete is essentially cut from the team by a new coach but chooses to remain with the school. That scholarship, however, does not count against the team’s limit of 85 in the FBS.
Southern California used that rule as part of its roster overhaul after Lincoln Riley was hired in November 2021. USC had 23 scholarship players hit the portal from the day after Riley was hired through early June 2022. USC began last season with 38 new players, including 20 from the portal.
NCAA limits on the number of new players a school can sign in a calendar year were also changed last year so coaches can replace players transferring out.
By the time Sanders is done, he could have more than 70 new players on the roster. According to 247 Sports, Colorado already has 35 portal transfers signed or committed to go with a signing class of 20 high school recruits and junior college transfers.
Former Florida State defensive back Omarion Cooper, a former four-star recruit who has played sparingly in two seasons with the Seminoles, was among the latest to jump on board.
“Let’s make history,” Cooper tweeted.
When it comes to college football roster makeovers, Sanders and Colorado already have.