Updated: Aug 1, 2018
Most of the factors in building a quality high school football program from year to year have not changed.
Coaches need to develop players, motivate them to work hard in the offseason, foster chemistry, teach them the various schemes employed, and so forth.
However, more than ever, this offseason has shown that a critical component is protecting one's players from defecting to other programs. Over the course of the last few months, it has only become more intense. There is football season, and within the offseason, there is now a phenomenon in Massachusetts that has taken root more fiercely in other states.
As it is known elsewhere, the name for this is "transfer season."
All the traditional aspects for creating a winning team have begun to take a backseat to coaches putting effort into keeping their rosters intact. Whether it's from a public school to another public school, a public to a Catholic school, or any MIAA program to one in the NEPSAC, it feels like the new normal.
For some, it resembles the movement that has ruled AAU basketball for years. It can also be compared to free agency in professional leagues. Either way, for better or worse, it's how Massachusetts high school football has evolved.
"The fear (exists) that somebody's going to come and take from the program a young man perhaps that you've developed for two or three years, and for some of these schools maybe even before that if they're involved in a youth program," one MIAA coach who asked to remain anonymous told MassVarsity. "Some towns have great youth programs and they work all the way up and they know that they're in their town, then all of a sudden (the players) fly the coop, for lack of a better term, for whatever reason, for the glory that may or may not be there.
"In reality, it's not the reason why young people should be doing athletics in high school. It shouldn't be for the baby prize, because very, very few play at the next level at a very high level."
The basic incentive always seems to come back to that same goal: to earn a college scholarship to a Division 1 team. In a lot of cases, players seem to feel that if they play on a better team, more college recruiters will see them play, and the chance for them to gain that elusive offer will increase.
This, of course, is both a faulty premise and common misconception. That said, the perception has trumped reality.
"It's about themselves. It's not about a team anymore: 'I'm always looking to upgrade myself,' " the MIAA coach said. "I don't see how they're getting any guarantees to go from one school to another, how that's going to benefit them. But that's what they seem to think."
But why, exactly, has this practice become so common?
"There are many things, but one of the things is the old thing of the grass is always greener somewhere else," the MIAA coach said. "It's not uncommon for a kid to see what a pro says or does: 'I'm going to get mine. I'm going to get paid.' So a kid at one school may feel that, 'I'm not getting the reps, that my coach isn't putting me in the position to get to the next level. So I will go to this program where I will be put in the position, because I'm going to go play there because they don't have that position,' or something to that effect."
Another feature is that, as happened in AAU basketball, the players simply know each other as well as people in their own school. The lines between players on the same high school team and those from another town have gone away.
"I think with social media, everybody knows each other and they all follow each other and give them a congratulations when they get an offer or do something," the MIAA coach said. "It's a similar thing where, 'Hey, look it, this guy's over here. If you come, then we'll be this more powerful.' Whether it's a quarterback telling a receiver to come or a running back mentioning it to a lineman or whatever. But it's crazy because there are no guarantees."
Although, for the player, there might not be a downside, depending on the program, the effects can be disastrous.
"I'll tell you, if you have a program from a smaller school, they don't have a large enrollment, but it's a good team, losing one guy can be devastating, because that guy as they call in baseball is a five-tool guy," the MIAA coach said. "That young man might be your tailback, your starting linebacker, a punt returner, your kicker, and now you've got to go out and replace five positions. Larger schools, you might have somebody else that can do some of those things. You lose a starter, it doesn't matter. It hurts. But, especially at the smaller schools, it can be, I think, it can be quite damaging to that program."
From there, it snowballs.
"Johnny sees what Jimmy does, then does it. Tommy sees what Jimmy did and he wants to try it," the MIAA coach said. "It's crazy. I think, not to blame media, I just think that also with social media, it's so much more visible that it becomes more prevalent. I think they see things that go up on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, (players say), 'I want to be that guy.'"
The MIAA's Spring Problem
A good portion of the transfers have come from MIAA teams to those in the NEPSAC (New England Preparatory School Athletic Council) or ISL (Independent School League). There are different modes of governance, and former Millis head coach and current Milford High defensive coordinator, Dana Olson, sees an imbalance.
According to Olson, it stems from the fact that Football Bowl Subdivision or Division 1-a coaches have greater access to NEPSAC players in the spring evaluation period. Combine that with the fact that when an MIAA player transfers to a NEPSAC school, he or she can reclassify, there is little reason, other than the financial commitment, to turn down the lure of going the private route. Reclassification is when a player repeats a year, and therefore has an extra season to impress college coaches. College coaches love it, too, because it acts as a de facto redshirt year before the player even makes it to campus.
But Olson sees it as more of a spring problem, as he told MassVarsity just before the evaluation period ended (once June 1 hits, college coaches can only evaluate players on college campuses).
"What hurts Massachusetts is we're right in the middle of spring evaluation period in an under-recruited state and (college coaches) can't see these kids doing football-specific stuff other than film," Olson said in late May. "These other states that have spring ball and stuff like that, they're obviously getting more offers in those areas because the college coaches can physically go down there and watch them work out, do football-specific stuff. In Massachusetts, that's a no-no. That's called out-of-season coaching. It hurts the kids.
"From a recruitment standpoint, Massachusetts is looked a little down on with level of competition. They think the level of competition is not good. The fact that they can't physically evaluate a kid in a football-specific atmosphere . . . How many Division 1, 1-aa schools have the time to go physically see a kid play in September, October? It's almost impossible. They're going off of film."
The players this rule hurts the most are the borderline prospects, Olson said.
"So unless you have the intangibles, like a Kevin Pyne (of Milford), he's 6-8, he's 275, 280 pounds, it's not a lose-lose there," Olson said. "But you see a kid that's 6-1, 6-2, they're going to be hesitant on the Massachusetts kid. If they see the kid work out and do football-specific stuff, then that would be a huge help, a huge help. I think the offers would be a lot more right now in the spring eval period if they could physically see him."
The MIAA does not sanction, as Olson said, "football-specific stuff," which is why a lot of college coaches come to high schools and watch players run track or an activity of that ilk. A player who plays for a NEPSAC school, though, does not have those restrictions.
"What hurts us in public schools in the MIAA and the MIAA doesn't allow us to do anything out of season," Olson said. "The ISL (schools) are running these showcases, and that's just started."
Olson said that in 2017 he ran a showcase at Millis, but the MIAA did not sanction it. Therefore, coaches came, but no FBS ones were allowed. It was a huge opportunity missed for players under the MIAA umbrella, in his opinion.
"I have no idea (why the MIAA did not sanction the event)," Olson said. "I tried to get approved because I was going back and forth with the NCAA last year to see if we needed that approval. And at the end, a couple schools that I was speaking to said, 'Hey, you need to have this approved by the state governing body of athletics of Massachusetts for a 1-a school.' My (athletic director) at the time went to the MIAA and they were like, 'No.' I know that there's something on the table right now that the (athletic directors) are pushing in the state that let us have contact this time of year for the sole purpose of recruiting, but nothing's been approved."
It does not mean that players from MIAA programs are shut off from getting FBS scholarships. However, Olson contends, it limits the scope slightly enough to push MIAA kids to a NEPSAC school.
"Say you go to (Boston College's) camp. You go to the one-day BC camp, the invite, one day. It's going to cost you 50 bucks, but there's only going to be 10-12 schools there besides BC," Olson said. "Where, last year, I had a showcase at Millis, we had 25 schools there, so there's more opportunities for kids to be seen.
"You go down to these satellite camps. Like, URI's having a camp, a one-day camp in the first week of June. Michigan will be there. There'll be some schools there. But it's not like running a high school camp in the spring eval period saying, 'Hey, were going to put 50 of the top kids in Massachusetts in one spot.' They'll all come. It makes no sense. Through the recruiting period we're in right now, there will literally be schools that fly in, see Kevin Pyne, and then fly out. That's it. But if we said, 'Hey, we can put 50 of the top kids or 75 of the top kids in one place,' and it's legit and it's a showcase, all these big schools would come into Massachusetts and recruit more than the prototypical kid that they have to recruit because he's 6-8, or Kalel (Mullings) up at Milton Academy. So they're hitting, one, two schools."
As Olson said, "There's an easy solution to this. It's just going through the bureaucratic thing to get it done."
At the end of the day, Olson feels the odds become stacked against MIAA players.
"I get it. You can go into New Jersey and in an hour radius hit 32 schools that got Division 1, Power 5 conference recruits," Olson said. "That's not the case in Massachusetts, and a coach isn't going to come in to hit three schools. Hence, that's why the showcase thing would be such a big deal, because we're going to put every kid in one spot. And college coaches have told me a million times, 'We'd love that. We'd love that.' Because they can go down to Florida, watch two spring games, and there'd be 20 recruitable kids in those two games. That's not going to happen in Massachusetts. So if we could put all our recruitable kids in one spot, we'd have 100 college coaches in here, and now these kids get evaluated and they get recruited."
Right now, that's not happening, and Olson's feelings on the subject are clear.
"I've had it up to here with it," he said.
What happens next?
Although there is nothing expressly wrong with players transferring from one school to another, the level it has reached in Massachusetts makes for a bit of an untenable situation for many programs and coaches.
The sobering reality for those who have an issue with it is that the MIAA can only do so much.
"The thing is, the MIAA, of which all the members are actually, they are the MIAA, every school is a self-reporting organization," the MIAA coach said. "So, why would a school who is bringing or has knowledge of someone coming (to) their school, out of their district coming, why would they report themselves? Some do. I know of some year somebody did something. They used an ineligible player by accident. They reported it and they had to forfeit three games. So the MIAA is not staffed with truant officers, detectives, undercover agents to go and find out if this boy who moved from town A to town B actually moved.
"It is, like I said, it is incumbent upon the schools to be. They're the leaders. They're the academic, they're the educational and athletic leaders. They're the ones that are supposed to draw the line. And then the coaches involved are supposed to be also part of the MIAA and its mission."
But good luck waiting for a coach to make that move if a high-level transfer arrives from another program. Some states police it more than others.
"There are some places, there are some states where you can't do anything for three months after you transfer," the MIAA coach said. "So if a young man was to transfer for September, he couldn't do anything until November. Now, that might just expedite the process with a boy. Instead of leaving in June, leaves in December so he can be eligible in the fall. There are some states where you can't play for the first four weeks if you transfer for any reason. And then, as you said, there are places, Florida, it's basically open season."
But open season feels like it has arrived in Massachusetts.
"I think it's just the grass is always greener. That young man or that young lady, 'OK, yeah, I'm really good, but the team I play on isn't as good as that team. I want to be part of that,' " the MIAA coach said. "They think that's going to be better. The private schools notwithstanding, if it's a public to a public, and you leave, does that mean when you are old, where are you going to go on Homecoming? What reunion are you going to go to, the school you were at for three years, or the school you were at for one year? Again, that's just, my opinion doesn't mean anything. That's what they have to decide for themselves, I guess."
Whether any of this changes in the near future is basically an unknown. However, unless new rules are implemented from the MIAA, this seems to be the new status quo.
"When I think, when it does come down to it, it's kind of like the tide," the MIAA coach said. "You might try to hold it back for a while, but you can't stop it. It's kind of sad."