'You want that opportunity': Current men's college basketball coaches on why they transferred as players

It took Chris Holtmann two years before he could go to preferred school, Taylor University. Courtesy of Taylor University Athletics

Ten years ago, nearly 400 men's college basketball players transferred following the 2011-12 season. With an average of one player per team deciding to transfer, critics within the game began to call the exodus of talent an "epidemic."

This year, that number is over 1,700 -- an average of nearly five players per Division I men's basketball team. The numbers have certainly been influenced by name, image and likeness (NIL) rules and immediate eligibility for every first-time transfer.

Although many coaches have cited the transfer wave as a significant challenge for the game, at least a few can relate to the experiences of these players, because they once made the same decisions.

ESPN recently reached out to some of the sport's top coaches to ask them why they made the decision to transfer when they were players.

Jump to: Andy Kennedy (UAB) | Chris Holtmann (Ohio State) | Kevin Willard (Maryland) | Tommy Lloyd (Arizona) | Bob Huggins (West Virginia) | Brad Underwood (Illinois)

Andy Kennedy (UAB Blazers)

High school All-American; started at NC State in 1986, playing for legendary head coach Jim Valvano; transferred to UAB in 1987; sat out the 1987-88 season due to NCAA rules for transfers at the time; played three seasons at UAB; averaged 18.8 PPG from 1988 to 1991; led the Sun Belt in scoring in 1990-91, averaging 21.8 PPG.

Why did you decide to transfer as a college athlete?

Think about this: Jimmy [Valvano] won the national title with the Cardiac Pack [NC State] against Phi Slama Jama [Houston] on the Lorenzo Charles putback dunk in 1983. I go there in '86. Jimmy V was such a pioneer. I tell this to people all the time. He really was ahead of his time. All the money that us coaches are being afforded now, the on- and off-the-court opportunities, really, Jimmy V was one of the pioneers in that avenue.

He was the athletic director [at NC State]. He was the head basketball coach. He had his own companies. He had his own brand. He was creating products. He was endorsing everything. He was getting paid for speeches. In the mid-'80s, those were things that were foreign to coaches.

So I went [to NC State], and I was part of an ACC [tournament] championship team. I was playing behind a guy named Vinny Del Negro [first team all-ACC in 1988, future NBA standout], who ended up being a 12-year pro. And I was just a dumbass, honestly. God rest [Valvano's] soul, if it gives him any peace, my knuckleheaded-ness, thinking I was better than I was and being impatient. I deal with it 10 times a year, every year now, so it's coming back to me 100 percent.

And there was the distance. [Editor's note: Kennedy was born and raised in Mississippi.] My grandmother on my mother's side was ill. My parents had been avid supporters [of my career]. For the first time, I could see that they couldn't be involved in the process or the experience because of the distance. So distance, frustration, immaturity, all led me to say, "Hey man, I'm going to change and get back closer to home and change my vibe a bit."

How difficult was the decision?

We won the ACC tournament championship in 1987, so it wasn't like we had a bad team. This was NC State in 1986-87. Duke was just starting to become the Duke that we know they are today. They were just starting to make that push. When I was a freshman at NC State, Tommy Amaker was the starting point guard at Duke. Danny Ferry, Quin Snyder were on that team. Muggsy Bogues was at Wake Forest. Horace Grant was at Clemson.

It wasn't an easy decision. Because they didn't necessarily want me to go. They tried to dissuade me otherwise. But I just kind of had it made up in my mind, for a number of reasons -- my immaturity, my inability to process at that age and impatient, as we all are. I certainly was at 18, and then the distance. I just made up my mind that that was what I was going to do.

Transferring was less common when you played. How did people around you view your decision?

It used to be that a transfer was kind of a scarlet letter. "Oh, something must be wrong with him." It was a bad word. Now, kids look at it like, if you're not transferring, you're not cool. It's completely changed.

I was fortunate to have a number of different opportunities in Round 2 of the recruiting process, and legendary coach Gene Bartow was the guy that really started UAB basketball off a lot of transfers.

People were questioning that. But my family was terrific. They certainly wanted me to be closer to home so they could be a little more involved.

Would you do it all over again if you had the choice?

I ended up being the second all-time leading scorer in UAB history and had a terrific run here, and now I'm back coaching at my alma mater, so it's worked out pretty well for me.

However, looking back at it, I'm not sure I would have made the decision to leave so prematurely. I would have probably given it more time, looking at it as a 54-year-old as opposed to the vision I had at 18.

As a head coach during an era with 1,700 transfers and counting, how has your decision to transfer affected your view of today's transfer climate?

We're in a different world. Back then, if you transferred, it was a negative connotation about you, the player. Something must be wrong. Now, that's not the case.

I ultimately understand this: As coaches, we're selfish. We want all the good players and we want to win all the games. That's all of us. But at the end of the day, I want kids that want to be here because of the demands of today's student-athlete as it relates to time, energy and the pressures based on the immediate feedback [they receive] through social media. I want guys who want to be here as much as I want them.

At the end of the year, we have discussions with our guys. How'd the year go? What's your plan moving forward? And we try to help them facilitate those, whether it be at our program or if they need to make a change.

If you could change the transfer rules right now, what would you do?

The only thing I think would make sense for everyone is that we need some guardrails in place as it relates to the timing of transferring. We have an early signing period, we have a late signing period -- and I know there are conversations moving this topic forward, about possibly having specific dates for when you can enter the portal, and when you can transfer. It can't be a year-round thing. I know if you don't transfer by May 1, you're not open to immediate eligibility, but I think there needs to be a timing mechanism so we're all operating with an understanding of how this works.

Chris Holtmann (Ohio State Buckeyes)

Started at Brescia University (Owensboro, Kentucky) in 1990; transferred to Taylor University (Upland, Indiana) in 1992; led Taylor to two NAIA tournaments in 1993 and 1994; finished college career as an honorable mention All-American after leading school to a No. 1 ranking during 1993-94; finished with 48% clip from the 3-point line, a school record.

Why did you decide to transfer as a college athlete?

I wanted to go to Taylor University coming out of high school. I just connected with the head coach [Paul Patterson]. He has since passed, but he was a hall of famer (Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame), so I wanted to go there all along. I knew that I was going to have to play at a small school, if I was going to play basketball.

But in my case, back in that day, and I think it's still the case, the way NAIA works is they parse out their scholarships. I didn't get enough from Taylor at the time. So my family, we couldn't afford for me to go there, and my dad didn't want to take out a huge loan, so he needed me to get a significant scholarship. And Brescia offered it.

I actually called my dad after my freshman year [at Brescia]. I called him the first day of my sophomore year of classes and said, "Dad, I want to transfer to Taylor ... I really want to do it right now." He said, "You're not going anywhere right now." So I stuck it out, and transferred at the end of the year.

How difficult was the decision?

Both schools were small, but in my case, Brescia was just too small.

It was difficult because I knew I was going to have to tell the head coach at Brescia. He recruited me. I had started every game as a freshman and sophomore and I think I led us in minutes both years. That's a hard conversation to have when a guy is playing you and believes in you at that level. And he handled it well.

But transfers were not nearly as common as they are now. It was a difficult conversation. It was one where I rehearsed it with my dad. "What's the best way to go about this?"

My coach, he was a good man. He had been there a little bit, and he was trying to get some momentum in the program.

Transferring was less common when you played. How did people around you view your decision?

I don't remember getting a ton of pushback on it. I don't remember there being a lot of conversation about it. My dad just wanted me to give Brescia a good, honest look and financially, it was best for our family. He did not want me to make a rash decision, but I think he knew [Taylor] was the place I had wanted to go all along.

I think people looked at it as a good opportunity at the time. The program I was going to was a top-15, top-20 national program at the NAIA level.

Would you do it all over again if you had the choice?

One of my biggest impacts in coaching is the guy I played for at Taylor. So yes.

What I'm not sure I would do, I'm not sure I would change both experiences. There were some things I learned through two years [at Brescia] and there were a lot of really good people that I met at that place.

I also don't know if I'd look back and say, "'Hey, if my dad could have afforded it at the time, let's just take the scholarship Taylor was offering and be there for four years." I don't know if I would say that either. I look at both experiences as being positive ones.

As a head coach during an era with 1,700 transfers and counting, how has your decision to transfer affected your view of today's transfer climate?

I don't know if it has. But I've never been one to really criticize kids when it comes to making this decision. And we all know this: It's not always the kid's decision. Sometimes, the kid doesn't see any avenue for a future, in terms of playing time. And that's ultimately the decision of the coach and the coaching staff. It's a mutual decision. I think sometimes the transfer conversation gets really one-sided.

And certainly, there are some situations where there is real value in sticking through the process, and I believe that. But we also know the inner workings of college athletics. Coaches are forced to make decisions based on what they feel is best for their team, and when it comes to playing time or future, you can say it's the young man's decision but obviously, the coach plays a role in that.

Now, not every recruiting situation works out well. That's what I think kids have forgotten. There are just a ton of transfer situations that just don't end up [well], where the young man should have stayed, he had a better situation where he was at. For me, it worked out as well as it could have possibly worked out.

I had a terrific two years at Taylor. Our team was No. 1 in the country my senior year. I was an honorable mention All-American. It was a phenomenal experience for me as an athlete. I do think there are some cautionary tales, but there probably is an understanding of what kids are going through, and maybe it does help me relate to kids that are experiencing that.

If you could change the transfer rules right now, what would you do?

I think any changes that are made will have to be made across the board, for every student-athlete. I just don't think we can have separate rules for separate sports. I don't think that will ultimately stand.

I don't know that I would change the way the rules are now. I've accepted them for what they are. I don't love the idea of a kid not giving an opportunity a real chance, so maybe that means some type of penalty if a kid were to transfer, really in the short term -- whatever that would look like. But I don't think I would make significant changes to where we're at right now.

I think, for our game, the NCAA really does need to be true to their statement regarding the waiver, though. For multiple transfers, they should be really true and I hope they will be [to ensure] there is a very specific reason they would provide a waiver for a multiple transfer.

Kevin Willard (Maryland Terrapins)

Started at Western Kentucky in 1993 and played for his father, Ralph Willard; transferred to Pitt in 1994, when his father became Pitt's head coach; sat out the 1994-95 season due to NCAA rules for transfers; played two seasons (1995-97) for the Panthers.

Why did you decide to transfer as a college athlete?

It was more of a family decision than my decision. I didn't want to leave Western Kentucky. I had a great group of guys I enjoyed playing with. At the same time, you're playing for your father, and your father leaves someplace -- it's probably not the best to stay afterward. I think he was really loved in that area. It's just that no one is ever 100 percent happy when you leave. And we were kind of going through some family stuff, so it was the best decision for the family at the time to stay close to home. [Editor's note: Willard is from New York.]

How difficult was the decision?

Going to play in the Big East was exciting for me. So, although I didn't really want to leave and I really liked Western Kentucky, the fact that I was going to play at Pitt and going to play in the Big East, for me as a player, I looked at it like it was going to be a huge challenge and a big opportunity.

Transferring was less common when you played. How did people around you view your decision?

My teammates got it. My teammates were great about it. I remember talking to Darrin Horn about it. They all kind of got it. I think they understood why I was doing it.

It wasn't like I wasn't playing. It wasn't like I wasn't happy. It was, all of a sudden, the coach left, and that was my father. I didn't want to have negativity surrounding my teammates or myself or my father. He was going on to a new place. He had done great at Western Kentucky. I had a really great freshman year. I didn't want a situation where all of sudden the team plays badly the next year and people are [upset] that my dad's left and I'm on the court and people are just [upset]. When you play for your father, there are so many things that go into a decision. It just wasn't about basketball.

Would you do it all over again if you had the choice? Why or why not?

I would do it again because I was able to stay close to my mom. And although my playing experience wasn't great, I met a lot of great people at Pitt and I met my wife, so it turned out to be a home run.

As a head coach during an era with 1,700 transfers and counting, how has your decision to transfer affected your view of today's transfer climate?

I tell you what now: Me sitting out a year, that was a big part of me making the decision to transfer because the way I looked at it, I was going to get an extra year of school, a year to get ready to play in the Big East. So I looked at the sit-out year as a transfer as a positive thing. And I think not sitting out now ... That's a really negative aspect of the portal.

I just think there are so many kids that could use and benefit from an extra year of school and sitting out a year: learning offenses, learning defenses, different schemes, different styles of play. I think kids would be a lot more successful. I think you would see a whole lot less transfers if kids could sit out a year and be more successful where they're going.

If you could change the transfer rules right now, what would you do?

I don't get why we took away the sit-out year. I think the sit-out year helped so many kids academically. Every transfer we get now, you've gotta use summer school to get them to graduate, or even for them to be eligible where they transferred from.

You have 13 guys eligible. You can only play eight if you're lucky, so you're gonna have five guys unhappy. Five guys are transferring every year. That's what's happening. Back before this rule, you could always balance out your roster. If you bring in three transfers, those three guys are going to sit out. If there is no one sitting out and you're a freshman and you come in and you don't play, what are you going to do? You're going to transfer.

I think it's a cycle we haven't solved. I think we've made it worse. I transferred. I thought the sit-out year was great.

Tommy Lloyd (Arizona Wildcats)

Started his college basketball career at Walla Walla Community College (Walla Walla, Washington) in 1993, transferred to Division II Colorado State University-Pueblo (Pueblo, Colorado) in 1995 and then transferred to Division III Whitman College (Walla Walla, Washington) in 1996, where he played his final season. Lloyd still holds the Whitman College school record of 52 points scored in a single game.

Why did you decide to transfer as a college athlete?

Well, first off, we're talking about totally different levels. I was a Division II, Division III player. For me, it was about wanting to have a better experience in my last year because you only have so many years to play, and you put all this work in and you want that opportunity.

How difficult was the decision?

It wasn't. I got down there [to CSU-Pueblo]. I didn't play great. I knew, probably halfway through the season, that this probably wasn't where I needed to try to stay, so I probably made my decision earlier than most to transfer. I finished up the 1995-96 season but I knew I needed to find another spot for my last year.

Transferring was less common when you played. How did the people around you view your decision?

I was a lower-level player, so I definitely didn't have "people." It was me and my family and maybe my junior college coach, who was also my high school coach. They all agreed that, yeah, if you want a better experience your last year, you probably need to look elsewhere. It was nothing crazy.

Would you do it all over again if you had the choice?

Yeah, for sure I would have. I thought I would have, and I did have, a better opportunity to play when I transferred to Whitman. Even academically, I didn't know I was going to get this deep into the coaching side of the game. I thought maybe I wanted to go to medical school or something like that. Whitman was a great academic school, so it made sense for me.

As a head coach in an era with 1,700 transfers and counting, how has your decision to transfer affected your view of today's transfer climate?

They are, I'm sure, very different [eras]. But for me, I always look at the experience the kid is having. And, at the end of the day, as coaches, we have hard choices to make. Only so many guys are going to play. There are only so many opportunities. Someone who is on the outside looking in, wanting the opportunity to play -- I'm always OK having that conversation if they want other opportunities because I understand they have a limited window within which they can play college basketball. I want them to have the best experience possible, even if that's not with us.

If you could change the transfer rules right now, what would you do?

My mentality is that whatever the rules are, I try to figure out how to make them work to our advantage, so I don't spend a lot of time on what the rules should or shouldn't be. As far as any changes, I'm OK with kids getting to play right away. I understand why they're doing it. I just think that, for me, there was so much value in that redshirt year, for becoming better basketball players, having a better chance to graduate from college, being more mature. So I like the redshirt deal.

From a coaching standpoint, I think the rules made it a little easier to construct a roster. It is hard to have 13 good players on scholarship and keep them all happy. When you had guys that were forced to sit out, it helped you stagger your roster.

Bob Huggins (West Virginia Mountaineers)

Started at Ohio University in 1972, transferred to West Virginia in 1973, sat out the 1973-74 season due to former NCAA rules for transfers and averaged 9.8 PPG for West Virginia in three seasons (1974-1977). Made 84% of his free throw attempts as a senior during the 1976-77 season.

Why did you decide to transfer as a college athlete?

[Former head coach Jim Snyder] was leaving. He told me: "Yeah I just want you to know I'm retiring and I'm not going to be here anymore." He's the only reason I went to Ohio University. I didn't want to be there without him. And if you look at what happened with the program after [he retired], it was a good move on my part.

He recruited the heck out of me. We won the state championship my senior year of high school. He probably saw the last 8-10 games I played in high school.

How difficult was the decision?

I'm from West Virginia. My dad grew up in Morgantown. My grandparents were there. I knew [former West Virginia head coach Sonny Moran] from him recruiting me out of high school. It was the right thing to do.

Transferring was less common when you played. How did people around you view your decision?

I cared what my mom and my dad said. But I didn't care what anybody else said. And they said, "Where do you want to go? Are you going to transfer to Ohio State, transfer to West Virginia, transfer to a multitude of other places?"

Would you do it all over again if you had the choice?

Absolutely. I wouldn't expect anybody to stay if their coach had left, particularly if they were as close to their coach as I was to mine.

As a head coach during an era with 1,700 transfers and counting, how has your decision to transfer affected your view of today's transfer climate?

It was different back then. You transferred, you sat out a year. You practiced with the team. You learned. I played for Coach Moran. And then Coach Moran got fired and they brought in [Joedy Gardner]. But I loved to play. I loved the people. I loved the state of West Virginia, so I was good. I got to know my teammates. I got to know Warren Baker, who was a great player. Maurice Robinson, Tony Robertson. I got to know those guys and I started and played for three years. What's wrong with that?

If you could change the transfer rules right now, what would you do?

I don't know why you shouldn't have to sit out a year, which is what the old rules were. It's terrific academically. I graduated magna cum laude and I had three majors and two minors and I was not far from getting my master's degree, so I ended up getting my master's degree that summer after my senior year. What's wrong with that? It's better for young people who transfer from one place to another and leave without a degree.

Here's what I don't get. What I don't get is the NCAA, for years, that was their battle cry. It was academics, academics, academics. What does the transfer portal have to do with academics?

Brad Underwood (Illinois Fighting Illini)

Started his career at Hardin-Simmons (Abilene, Texas) in 1982, transferred to Independence Community College (Independence, Kansas) in 1983, transferred to Kansas State in 1984 and played his final two seasons (1984-1986) with the Wildcats.

Why did you decide to transfer as a college athlete?

I had a pretty good idea that Jim Hatfield, who was our head coach [at Hardin-Simmons], was going to leave. There had been some speculation. He'd spent many years with Joe B. Hall at Kentucky and I realized that was a possibility. But the biggest thing was simply that there was a lot of talk of Hardin-Simmons going from Division I to Division III. [Ed's note: Hatfield left in 1983 to become an assistant at Kentucky. Hardin-Simmons made the move from D1 to D3 after the 1989-90 season.]

I grew up in Kansas and Kansas junior college basketball is off the charts. At the time, most of the junior colleges had recruited me, anyway. We did not have a very good year [at Hardin-Simmons]. We were terrible [finishing 3-25 in the 1982-83 season]. I think all of that played into that choice.

How difficult was the decision?

It wasn't. I enjoyed the Hardin-Simmons coaching staff, I enjoyed the school, but it was all the other factors that just kept piling on. Back then, the junior college route was the best option for me, and I got to play immediately. It worked great for me. I played in the [junior college] national championship. It got me recruited. I went to Kansas State and had a high-level recruitment process.

Transferring was less common when you played. How did people around you view your decision?

My parents were great. I think they were ultimately excited that I was going to be a little closer to home. They were at just about every game I played in high school. And they [attended every game] from that point on in my college career. They were supportive, but it was more of my decision. On spring break, we talked about it but they never influenced me one way or the other.

Would you do it all over again if you had the choice?

No doubt. I went back to Hardin-Simmons to start my coaching career as a graduate assistant in 1986. I think from the playing side of things, the academic side of things, the family side of things, it was the right choice at that time. I am not one of those guys who looks back much but I would say that was a decision that really worked out well for me.

As a head coach during an era with 1,700 transfers and counting, how has your decision to transfer affected your view of today's transfer climate?

People are going to make decisions for any number of reasons. They come to college as boys, high school boys basketball players. They have to have a feel for the situation, their heart, their passion. It all has to be in the right place. There is usually a reason why they want to leave and I'm supportive of all that, and I think it's very hard to critique somebody.

The one thing I get concerned about is that I went the junior college route, so I didn't lose hours academically. I think the transfer situation now, to me, should be about not hurting the student athlete by losing the academic part, and I hope people are making their decisions for the right reasons.

I'm not here to doubt any of them. I know the guys I want in my program. I want players that are committed to the University of Illinois and committed to our coaching staff and their teammates. So if you're not doing that, I don't hold grudges. I'm one of those people who will say good luck, and we can still be friends. I don't hold anybody in a different view because they make a choice that they feel is best for them.

If you could change the transfer rules right now, what would you do?

There has to be some academic [component], and I don't know how to do that. I've never been a believer that anything bad happens if you have to sit out. Usually, something really good happens. You become more mature. You get ahead academically. I think if I had a son today and I knew he wasn't a one-and-done, I would tell his coach to redshirt him so he could do his academics. You've got to understand that in the transfer market, no matter what class the players leave in, most of them are losing hours. To me that's a loss to the student-athletes, and we can't take a step back in the mindset that a college education is really important. It's still valuable.