From the TSSAA's decision to begin classifying teams by enrollment in 1969 to the public-private split more than 25 years ago, football has always weighed heavily on decisions that affect high school sports across Tennessee.
By far the biggest moneymaker for both the state's prep sports governing body and its member schools, football may once again carry great influence on significant change. Just nine months after a TSSAA Board of Control meeting where a vote was cast to allow student-athletes across the state to profit from their name, image and likeness while also retaining eligibility, there is more change on the horizon that may also trickle down from the college level.
According to multiple coaches, administrators and even TSSAA personnel, a potential transfer portal is being discussed.
"Oh, it's coming," said one local veteran coach, who did not want to be named. "We discussed it at one of our coaches' meetings last spring, and anyone who pays attention to how quickly our game is changing understands that everything you see at the college level eventually makes its way down.
"The TSSAA will have to rewrite its rules to regulate it, but they're already having discussions about it, too. There's no way to prevent this from happening, it's just a matter of time."
The potential proposal being discussed is for a one-time transfer where a student-athlete would not have to make a bona fide change of address, as the current rule requires. It would do away with the need for families to find loopholes around the current rule — as many already do — as well as the need to request a hardship to override any transfer that is initially denied.
The TSSAA already handles around 1,700 transfers — student-athletes with an athletic record who move from one school to another — per school year, and of the 35 Tennessee football programs in the Times Free Press coverage area, around 10 coaches admitted they did not pick up at least one transfer who is expected to have an impact for their team this fall.
The Tennessean recently tracked college prospects who transferred around the state and came up with a list of more than 30 players who have college scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision programs that transferred within TSSAA schools.
"A big reason you see so many more transfers now is that kids from different schools play on the same 7-on-7 travel teams during the summer and they wind up recruiting each other," said Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd, whose team picked up one of the state's highest-profile transfers, Boo Carter, during the summer. "It's a lot like AAU in basketball where kids become friends on those travel teams and then want to play together during the high school season.
"That's how Boo wound up here. He had played on the same (Wolfpack) travel team with some of our kids for years, so when he decided to transfer, he wanted to go somewhere that he already had friends."
This summer, all three public high school football programs in Bradley County added impact transfers — players who either have or are expected to receive college scholarship offers — as did Baylor, Boyd Buchanan, Chattanooga Christian School, McCallie and South Pittsburg. Of those, Baylor, Boyd Buchanan, Bradley Central, CCS, McCallie and South Pittsburg are all ranked among the top five in their classification.
There were no notable transfers coming into a Hamilton County public school program, but several players who were rated as four-star prospects transferred outside of the county: Boo Carter from Brainerd to Bradley, Daune Morris from Red Bank to Murfreesboro's Oakland and Martels Carter Jr. and Jarvis Strickland from Brainerd to Kentucky's Paducah Tilghman.
When asked, the majority of Hamilton County public school coaches said they would be against a prep transfer portal being implemented.
"Those guys know they're hamstrung by bad facilities and can't compete when it comes to enticing kids with the resources it takes to make kids want to be a part of a program," said one coach who works for a school outside the county. "Nowadays you have to have a turf field, bigger weight room, new uniforms and all the extra stuff kids see the top-level teams have, and you'd better run your social media in a way that makes them feel like you're working to get them noticed.
"You have to sell your program or you're going to lose kids. It's just that simple."
Although Red Bank has reached at least the state quarterfinals the past six seasons, including three trips to the semis, the Lions' Ted Gatewood, a veteran coach, admitted it's becoming difficult to monitor players who are candidates to transfer.
"It's exactly like the college game where teams are poaching kids from other schools, except right now there's no way to control it because coaches and players' families know how to get around the rules," Gatewood said. "I never thought it would come to this, but the transfer portal is basically already here, and I don't know if the TSSAA has enough resources to fight it. It's sort of like the way the old Southwest Conference was where it's just the Wild West and anything goes.
"You're losing the aspect of the game where a kid plays for their community or where there's loyalty to their school. The purity of high school football is disappearing, unfortunately, and it's become big business."
East Ridge coach Chad Barger echoed Gatewood's perspective and said although the biggest concern used to be losing top-tier athletes to one of the seven private schools in Chattanooga, he believes Hamilton County public school programs would suffer even greater losses to other nearby public schools if a transfer portal comes about.
"There's no doubt you'll see some of the best athletes leave our county in droves," Barger said. "When you look at how many other schools are within easy driving distance from Hamilton County, having a transfer portal just makes it even easier for kids to go somewhere that has things we can't offer.
"I agree that it's coming, and when this new rule passes it'll just create a bigger dividing line between the haves and have-nots."
LAW MAY INFLUENCE
Besides the rise in notable football transfers across the state, another factor that could open the door to change regarding transfer rules is that, similar to the underlying reasons for allowing student-athletes to profit from NIL deals, there is a desire by the TSSAA to avoid any potential lawsuit.
That possibility was created over the summer when Adam Lowe, a Republican state senator for Tennessee's District 1 (Bradley, McMinn, Meigs and Rhea counties), drafted Senate Bill 443 — otherwise known as the Access and Opportunity Act — which was overwhelmingly passed by both the House (83-5) and the Senate (32-0 with one absentee).
The bill states that an incoming student arriving from anywhere cannot be discriminated against because of where they came from. Whether transferring from one in-state school to another, or from an out-of-state school to within Tennessee, those students are entitled to all the same activities as other students.
"We created the law to allow parents the freedom to pursue their child's educational journey, which includes athletics," Lowe said. "In the past, it was almost an inquisition when a family wanted to transfer their child to a different school. The reason for a transfer may be a private matter, so the student should be allowed to do so without having to sacrifice something they love, whether that's band, athletics or any other programs."
Lowe added that the reason behind proposing the new legislation came about after he was made aware that only wealthier families typically have the means to navigate the TSSAA policy requiring a bona fide change of address for their child to remain eligible after transferring schools.
"The TSSAA's transfer rule, as it is written, is currently in violation of state law, and I have spoken with them to make them aware," Lowe said. "Their rule only hurts the underprivileged. They made their position clear that they did not want to make a change because they're an independent, private organization. However, even a private organization cannot violate state law.
"It may take someone taking them to court to challenge them before they change it to be in compliance, and that's what myself or any senator would recommend. We can set the law, but it would be up to the courts, which I believe would rule in favor of any family who challenged it. If a parent or child decide they want to be somewhere else, we need to let him go. It really is that simple."
Mark Reeves, executive director of the TSSAA, did confirm there have been discussions about the possibility of having members of the Board of Control, which is essentially the TSSAA's rulemakers, reach out to the schools they represent to gauge the interest for a new rule allowing for a one-time transfer.
"There have been some rumblings of concern this fall, but previously our membership has stated definitively that they wanted no part of this," Reeves said. "It may be something our membership needs to look closer at, and as we have discussed with Senator Lowe, we will be glad to poll our membership when the board meets in November to see if there is now a majority in favor of a one-time transfer.
"Our state legislature is taking an interest in athletics where they haven't in the past because the term transfer portal has made its way down to us from the college level. I believe social media has changed the amount of awareness of high-profile transfers. It used to be that you didn't know about transfers until you saw a kid playing at a different school, but now kids go to social media to announce they're transferring, which makes it feel like there is a need for more attention to be paid to how the rules are written.
"Either way, we're aware that we'll have to cross that bridge soon."
LEVELING THE FIELD
As with any ruling authority, TSSAA officials do not want to create an opportunity for someone else — in this case, the state legislature — to dictate how to run their organization. So to avoid a scenario similar to the one in Florida, where its high school organization is essentially operated by elected officials who have taken control of the ability to set and enforce rules, expect the TSSAA's board to make sure whatever rules are passed are in step with state law.
First-year Cleveland coach Chandler Tygard, who worked at the collegiate level for 10 years and has coached at six different high schools in both the public and private school divisions, agrees with his peers who said it's only a matter of time before the transfer portal makes its way to Tennessee prep sports.
"I'm all for it," Tygard said. "Right now the kids that can transfer are the ones with means to do so, which means the only ones being hurt are the ones whose family doesn't have the money to pick up and move. The underprivileged kids are the only ones getting screwed over.
"If a family believes transferring to a new school or a new program will benefit their kids' future and is in their best interest, there needs to be a level field that allows for those kids to do so without being punished."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].