December is no longer bowl season in college football as it has been for generations. It’s not traditional recruiting season even though Early Signing Day has been in mid-December for a few years now.
It’s transfer portal season. This is recruiting season on steroids. Fans got their first true taste of it last year, and the tusk tears both ways. There was jubilation when the Hogs received pledges from former five-star high school recruits Drew Sanders and Jadon Haselwood, but when starters like Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha, who was also a team captain, left for LSU shortly after Arkansas won the Outback Bowl, there was despair amongst the Razorback faithful on par with the team actually losing a game.
A year later, you may still be able to find fans online typing trash toward Brooks and Foucha, as well as former Arkansas receiver Mike Woods, who left the Razorbacks for Oklahoma shortly after spring practice in 2021. Meanwhile, the players themselves seem to support those kind of decisions and harbor no ill will, as the camaraderie after this year’s LSU game showed.
The Transfer Portal Conundrum
Adding new players is always exciting, especially if they have proven college experience as opposed to being a three-star high school recruit who might need a few years to develop. However, there is also the panic of losing players. Important players.
Arkansas has already been dealt the blows of losing receiver Warren Thompson, defensive back Myles Slusher and backup quarterback Malik Hornsby, the latter two of which have announced they’ll enter the portal when allowed to do so Dec. 5. Almost certainly, more Razorbacks will follow them into it. It seems likely, as more players and schools process the reality of the new transfer culture, that schools across the country will see more players than ever attempt to find new homes next season.
All this movement makes being a fan of individual players pretty complicated. Players go from hero to villain and vice versa in an instant like pro wrestlers making face/heel turns. For Razorback fans, it’s a ton of fun watching Trevon Brazile throwing Missouri through the barbershop window, but it probably doesn’t thrill Tiger fans.
There’s no right or wrong answer for how fans should feel about any particular player leaving their program. Just as there isn’t a good way to fire someone or break up a relationship, there’s not a good way to leave. Sometimes it might make sense to more people, as when players who struggle to see playing time at one place take a shot at another. Fans generally have less investment in those players.
When is it ‘Quitting’?
An additional layer of complication comes in with how to best time the departure. It seems to be an unwritten rule not to leave a team before the end of the season. Players like Slusher and Thompson have been labeled as quitters by some, with Sam Pittman saying straight up that they “quit the team.” Slusher has pushed back against that comment, saying he didn’t quit. The word “quit” obviously has negative connotations. It implies the person who quit didn’t follow through on their obligations, or couldn’t handle the needs or tasks required to fulfill their commitment.
Everyone involved should get over that label. Sometimes, quitting is great. Sometimes, it’s healthy. People quit their jobs all over the world everyday, and it’s often the best thing for all parties involved. Once a player is in a college program, there are only so many ways to leave. If a player chooses to leave, the player is quitting, on some level, by definition. A player’s not quitting if they exhaust their eligibility, or the coach tells the player to leave. Every coach is either fired, retires, dies in the position or quits. Perhaps “resigning” sounds more comfortable, but it all means the same thing.
A regular starter or contributor leaving for another school seems to be the biggest sin in the eyes of many fans. Treylon Burks left the Razorbacks without competing in the Outback Bowl last season, but outside of this deranged fan, there didn’t seem to be too much disappointment in his decision. Players eligible for the NFL Draft are now regularly skipping bowl games across the country. Daniel Gafford declared for the NBA Draft before Arkansas played in the 2019 NIT, and it didn’t concern very many people (in fact, most fans appeared to support the decision).
Many argue that leaving during the season is what gives players the “quitter” label, and that makes some sense. Even a player who doesn’t get much time in a game is presumably a regular participant in practices and preparation. But why is it OK for players to miss the postseason games as opposed to regular-season games? In college, all stats from the postseason are counted. Why are fans more concerned about a late-season game on a normal football weekend when the team has been eliminated from any hope of a division or conference championship than they are for a bowl game in which the team is maybe the only game on national television at the time?
Perhaps the answer is that, short of the college football playoff, NCAA Tournament or a rare visit to an elite bowl like when Arkansas played in the 2011 Sugar Bowl, bowl games just don’t mean much to people. There are plenty of problems with the bowl system itself, and regular-season games against teams fans know and hate are what college sports are built on. A one-off game against Penn State, Virginia Tech or Kansas State, even if Arkansas gets to play with the chip on the shoulder by entering as an underdog, doesn’t hit the same way as trying to end an annual streak or claim bragging rights for a year over a rival.
Reasons to Transfer Can Vary
But if a player appears to be in a good situation as a starter or significant contributor, and then leaves for another program, that’s when it stings. Woods, Foucha and Brooks all announced their intention to transfer in the offseason. It’s unfortunate that we rarely get a full explanation from players when they transfer.
It can feel like a player like Slusher is quitting on the program and the fans, but we rarely get a full explanation. Coaches often don’t get into specifics and keep their statements short on players leaving the program. Most players rarely say more than a platitude-filled tweet, although former Razorback captain Rakeem Boyd did later shine light on the COVID protocol-related situation that prompted him to leave with two games left in the 2020 season.
“I was dinged up the whole season, just trying to be a tough ass and get out there,” said Boyd, who dealt with recurring injuries throughout the 2020 season.
“Then after that my roommate got COVID, I didn’t have COVID, but I had to miss games. I wasn’t too fired up about that (and) that’s when I decided ‘Hey, let’s go get ready for the pros.'”
Boyd couldn’t yet cash in on NIL deals, but nowadays players can take advantage of a significantly better NIL deal by moving. It’s similar to players leaving to take a shot at the NFL, but since NIL deals aren’t public, we don’t get to see that. Players could conceivably sign out of high school with the best NIL arrangement they can find, and then move to another school at some point if they can later find a better one.
Or it could be that the player is making a poorly thought-through decision that they eventually regret “1000 percent” like former Hog cornerback Jerry Jacobs (who now plays for the Detroit Lions, so his career turned out alright). In professional sports, players must abide by their contracts, which are open to the public. Everything is much more hidden for college athletes, and they have the freedom to leave a program any year they want, and since they’re not officially paid by the schools, they can stop playing for a team when they want. This will continue to lead to bad feelings between players and spurned fans, as well as spurned coaches and teammates.
It’s fair to ask questions about why a player is leaving even if we don’t get answers, just as it’s fair to feel disappointed when a player decides not to play in a game. There will inevitably be tweaks to the system, but for now this will likely continue, and it could grow to become a more regular thing than we’ve seen leading up to this point – especially when a program has a disappointing season like Arkansas just experienced.
More about the state of Arkansas football here: