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Star quarterback Russell Wilson's transfer to Wisconsin from NC State prior to the 2011 season helped the Badgers earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin's ability to take advantage of a little-used graduate-student transfer rule to land Wilson may have sparked a new trend in college football: free agency.
College football programs have long used National Signing Day to build their programs for the future. But after Wilson's success at Wisconsin, those programs now realize the graduate-student transfer rule can help give them an immediate boost in the present.
The rule, which has been around for years but was amended to its current form in 2007, appeared to be taking off in popularity over the holidays when numerous schools -- including Kansas, Rutgers and Arizona -- used it to bring in mid-semester transfers.
"The Russell Wilson situation does make it look like a trend," said Kelly Brooks, the NCAA's associate director of academic and membership affairs. "The ability to do what he did was a new exception put in place for [student-athletes like] him.
"You could see more student-athletes taking advantage of it."
Not everyone is excited about that possibility. The SEC does not allow. And one men's basketball coach -- at Wisconsin no less -- spoke out against it this week.
"I don't think it's a good idea at all," Bo Ryan said Monday during his weekly news conference. "Have never liked the idea of people leaving a program after four years of development at that institution with teammates, with the school and to all of a sudden change and be eligible to play right away. If you make a move, you sit.
"It's creating free agency, and it's creating conversations behind the backs of the institutions and the coaches and his teammates.
"So, it's a terrible rule. It's one of the worst rules I've ever seen."
The rule's original intent was noble. If a student-athlete had earned his undergraduate degree but the school he or she was attending did not offer the desired master's program, the student-athlete could transfer to a school that had the program while waiving the usual transfer requirement of sitting out a season.
After a few adjustments, the rule was amended to its current form in 2007, essentially saying an athlete could transfer for any reason as long as both schools approved.
John Infante, an assistant compliance director at Colorado State who writes a blog for the NCAA, wrote last spring that the rule could fall under the "law on unintended consequences" and essentially create an open transfer (or free-agent) market.
A year later -- and after seeing Wilson's huge impact at Wisconsin -- that appears to be happening. Here are just a few examples of moves this winter:
Kansas, looking to quickly rebuild under new coach Charlie Weis, got quarterback Dayne Crist, who had graduated from Notre Dame.
Rutgers, which needed to quickly rebuild its offensive line, landed R.J. Dill, a three-year starter at tackle at Maryland.
Arizona, in need of help on defense, landed Akron linebacker Brian Wagner, the top returning tackler in the NCAA.
Dill and Wagner are considered mid- to late-round NFL prospects; Crist's potential is still unclear.
Wagner, who seemingly could help his stock the most since he moved up to a BCS conference school, cited Arizona's biostatistics program as a big reason for his move.
"It's the degree I want, and not a lot of people have it," he told The Tucson Citizen. "I can get a good part of that done during my year here. From a football standpoint, it seems like they have a need for a one-year guy. I'm excited to help."
Crist said the reunion with Weis, the coach who recruited him out of high school to Notre Dame, was the reason for his move.
"We have developed such a level of trust with each other," Crist told JayhawkSlant.com. "We know that we will always be honest with each other. I understand how he coaches and he knows how I play. We get what makes each other tick.
"You can move past all the introduction stages and really get to football. I understand his offense having played in it for two years. I'm excited to get back and be coached by him."
Dill, in an e-mail to the Washington Times, said a desire to pursue a graduate degree in labor relations led to his transfer, but some couldn't help but wonder if it was a chance to leave a Maryland program that had numerous internal problems last fall under first-year coach Randy Edsall.
The NCAA's Brooks acknowledges Wilson's success at Wisconsin may have started all this, but said the NCAA is fine with the player movement -- though he doesn't necessarily agree with the term free agency.
"The membership is comfortable with it because the institutions involved have to be comfortable with it," Brooks said.
Ironically, Brooks said one of the reasons the NCAA amended the rule was because it feared too many third-party interests would become involved -- essentially creating agents and free agency.
But Wisconsin's Ryan sounds as if he believes that has happened now.
The total impact of the trend won't be known for years. Potential problems, however, are visible now.
What's to stop schools from recruiting fourth-year juniors, even unofficially? And will coaches now be more willing to pull redshirts off freshmen, knowing they may not be able to keep the athlete in his fifth season?
This much is clear: If a school can benefit so much from one player -- as Wisconsin did with Wilson -- what's to stop others from using the rule? And using it on more than one athlete?
That's what happened at San Diego State.
The school, which lost its two top offensive players -- quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman -- got two quick replacements when USC wide receiver Brice Butler and Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz transferred in as graduate students eligible to play right away.
In both cases, it appears the players were searching for a place where they could get more time on the field -- something they weren't able to do at their previous schools.
In other words, they were transferring for the same reason athletes have for decades. This winter, however, they did so as free agents.
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