Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney.
Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney has a record of 12-34 during his tenure and is 3-7 this season. Credit: Associated Press

The NCAA transfer portal has made it so that student-athletes can easily move from one school to another with immediate playing eligibility, and schools have been able to quickly fill needs as a result.

This sort of college free agency is going on at all levels of college athletics. But for HBCU football programs, the transfer portal is quietly becoming an issue because they have become fertile grounds for bigger schools to swoop in and pluck their top-performing athletes after they have developed them.

HBCU coaches see the good and bad of the transfer portal, but either way it’s a system they are stuck with.

“The transfer portal is here to stay,” Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney recently said to The Defender. “As coaches we have to adjust and adapt to it. We are going to lose some players and there are going to be some positions where we need to tap into the transfer portal and improve our team.”

Certainly, it has been a two-way street where the transfer portal and HBCUs are concerned. Student-athletes have always been able to transfer from Power 5 and Group of 5 FBS schools to FCS or HBCU programs and have immediate playing eligibility, but now players can jump from FCS school to FCS school and even within the SWAC without having to sit out any length of time.

But the real damage has been seeing student-athletes from a HBCU program hop to a bigger FBS school with more exposure and more bells and whistles after having an impressive season. Just this past year, we saw Bethune-Cookman quarterback Jalon Jones head to Charlotte and North Carolina A&T running back Bhayshul Tuten is now playing for Virginia Tech.

But Jackson State is where we saw an unprecedented number of players move on to bigger programs. Sure, Jackson State had extenuating circumstances, because Deion Sanders sold some high-level recruits the dream before moving on to the Pac-12 and University of Colorado. Several players, including his son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders and cornerback Travis Hunter, the one-time No.2 overall recruit in the nation, followed Coach Prime to Colorado.

But other Power 5 schools like Louisville and Auburn swooped in and landed JSU receivers Kevin Coleman Jr. and Shane Hooks, respectively.

New Jackson State coach T.C. Taylor last December inherited a team that was a shell of itself because of the portal, but he was also able to restock the program because of the free movement allowed by the transfer portal.

“I think it can be a gift and curse, a little bit,” Taylor said. “For us, it’s been great with so much turnover we had on our roster. Coming out of December, we had to rely heavily on it. But that’s what it is nowadays. It’s the game we are into.”

The game has been made tougher for HBCUs to deal with because student-athletes can now be compensated for the use of the name, image and likeness (NIL). Bigger schools and their boosters have formed collectives and use that entity to lure athletes away with payments that range from thousands of dollars to millions.

Suddenly, it’s an arena that HBCUs find hard to compete in.

“Everybody is going into this portal, the NIL deals,” said Prairie View coach Bubba McDowell. “Kids want to get paid, so it becomes about ‘Who is going to give me the most money.’ That’s how we lost a lot of top-notch kids that we offered first, but because of the NIL deals we didn’t have the money to give to them so they went somewhere else. If we had had at least five of those dudes that we had, it would be a different story down here.”

Coaches like McDowell say there needs to be more structure put in place by the NCAA when it comes to how freely student-athletes can move around. McDowell would like to see it be just one time thing where a student can transfer while in college.

The NCAA did recently implement a regulation that will limit the number of days in a calendar where athletes can jump in the transfer portal to 45. There is a 30-day period after the season and another 15 days in the spring.

“I think it’s good for the game, but I still think it needs to be a structure where they can’t move so easily,” McDowell said. “From my understanding, maybe a one-time transfer rule and I don’t care if you have already graduated. Let it be. Transfer one time whether you are an underclassman or whether you are a graduate, stay there. I think that will help us quite a bit.”

Alabama A&M coach Cornell Manor, like most, is not above jumping into the transfer portal for players, but he will only offer scholarships to student-athletes who have played where they are coming from and have stats to show for it. Otherwise, they have to come in as walk-ons and “earn their money.”

But ultimately, Manor isn’t a fan of the transfer portal because it hurts HBCU programs.

“At our level, it’s hurting us,” Manor said. “We are able to get a couple of transfers, but we lose our good players. We get a guy who is in his first, second or third year and he has a breakout season, more than likely we are going to lose him to a Group of 5, Conference USA or Power 5 because they are recruiting our guys.”

“At our level, it’s hurting us,” Manor said.  “We are able to get a couple of transfers, but we lose our good players. We get a guy who is in his first, second or third year and he has a breakout season, more than likely we are going to lose him to a Group of 5, Conference USA or Power 5 because they are recruiting our guys.”

With the bigger schools hovering, it’s also created a new dynamic for HBCU coaches to have to contend with within their own programs if they hope to keep their kids. Coaches like Southern’s Eric Dooley says he isn’t concerned if players want to leave for bigger opportunities, but most coaches like McDowell would like to hold onto their most talented players.

“It has affected everybody,” said McDowell. “You can start from high school and you can start from within your own inner squad. We are not only recruiting guys to bring guys in to help you win, but now you are trying to keep your guys here as well because now guys are seeing if they have a good year, now they feel they are good to a bigger FCS school.

“It’s been a huge deal. We’re constantly as coaches recruiting on all stages. Just trying to keep guys here  and bringing guys in.”

McKinney, meanwhile, sees both sides of the transfer portal.

McKinney, meanwhile, sees both sides of the transfer portal.

“It can be good and it can be bad,” he said. “It just depends on the program and the players that you receive from the portal and the players that you lose. It’s kind of like NFL free agency where if you have a hole in your team, you can go out and find a guy in the portal who can possibly plug that hole.”

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....