In a Division I-AA quarterfinal game last December, James Madison defeated Furman, 14-13. The quarterbacks who squared off that day, Justin Rascati and Ingle Martin, had been on their respective campuses for only a few months.
The vaunted signal-callers were not freshmen. Instead, like Harvard All-American tailback Clifton Dawson, Rascati, an ex-Louisville Cardinal and Martin, formerly of Florida, are part of a growing trend in Division I-AA, and now the Ivy League as well: transfers from Division I-A.
For the third November in a row, Yale will be forced to stop the preternatural Dawson, who transferred to Cambridge after one unceremonious redshirt season at Northwestern. In two games against the Elis, the Harvard runner has carried 58 times for 296 yards. But before those on the Yale side feeling fated to two more years of Harvard second-and-fours cry foul, they would be wise to look at the very recent history of Yale football.
Peter Lee ’02, the footnote quarterback between Joe Walland ’00 and Alvin Cowan ’05, was a transfer from Wisconsin. Safety Than Merrill ’01 began his career at Stanford. And Rashad Bartholomew ’01, the workhorse on Yale’s 1999 Ivy League championship team, spent the ’97 season at Air Force.
The appeal is natural. The NCAA no longer mandates that a player transferring between divisions sit out. So for a highly recruited footballer languishing on the end of his Big Ten bench, dropping down a level for immediate playing time makes a lot of sense. Couple that with the benefits of an Ivy League education and it’s no wonder interest from I-A players is growing.
“It’s reality: kids want to play,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “The reason you see so few [transfers in the Ivy League] is there just aren’t that many that can qualify academically. I probably receive somewhere between 25 and 30 transfer contacts a year. Nearly all of them can’t get in, so we can’t pursue it.”
The formula Yale uses for transfer student-athletes is very similar to the one used for high school seniors.
The presence of Dawson and quarterback Richard Irvin, a transfer from Tulane who was expected to start this season before the emergence of Liam O’Hagan, can give the impression that Harvard has started to poach I-A backups to fill starting roles.
“If you’d ever have a team that had half a dozen transfers, then you’d start to have an issue,” Siedlecki said, not referring to Harvard specifically. “If we had a team in the league that got the reputation for saving spots for transfers, I think that’s kind of against what we’re doing. We recruit high school seniors to be here for four years. That’s the ideal situation.”
Matt Coombs ’07, a reserve safety who left Washington after one frustrating season, is the only I-A transfer currently on the Yale roster. He said transfers were not pervasive enough to be considered a problem.
“It still doesn’t happen too often so I don’t feel like its anything that’s gotten out of control,” he said. “Not every team has a [Division I-A] transfer superstar.”
But for all the transfers supposedly playing below their appropriate talent level in less competitive conferences, Coombs said there are just as many Division I-A-quality high school seniors lured to I-AA by the appeal of an Ivy League education.
“There are a lot of good players in this league who probably could’ve played at better schools but came here for academics,” he said.
Bartholomew, who held Yale’s career rushing record before Rob Carr ’05 broke it last season, put his pro-transfer stance in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t see why it’s an issue,” he said. “[The transfer player] is a student first. Him being a football player is secondary. If he doesn’t have certain grades and test scores he’s not going to get in anyway.”
Most coaches, despite Siedlecki’s stated reservations, welcome transfers — it’s an opportunity to bring a big fish into the small Ivy pond. Even Princeton, which supposedly has a no-transfer policy, admitted former Purdue quarterback Bill Foran last year. The caveat for coaches is that they are not allowed to initiate talks with potential transfers.
“That’s the thing with transfers — they have to contact you,” Siedlecki said. “You can’t contact them. Clifton, for example, came to our camp as a high school senior. We recruited him. When he decided to transfer, he contacted Harvard and not us. So sometimes you don’t even get to compete.”
Siedlecki said that Furman’s Martin, who went to high school with former Yale safety Barton Simmons ’05, called him when he decided to leave Gainesville after the 2003 season. But with Cowan firmly entrenched at quarterback, Martin opted for Furman, where he could play right away.
For Bartholomew, playing time was not the deciding factor.
“I was at the Air Force Academy because I really wanted to be a pilot,” he said. “When I found out I couldn’t [because of asthma], I started looking for other options and started looking back to the Ivy schools that recruited me. Yale had the edge because my best friend, Eric Lee [’01], went to Yale and he was also a football player.”
Having familiar faces around was also a key factor for Coombs. His younger brother, John ’08, is also on the team, as is high school teammate Lee Driftmier ’07.
“I was lucky my bro was looking here at the time because he could tell me what he thought about Ivy schools,” Coombs said. “I chose Yale because of the academics obviously and because I had gotten to know [defensive backs] coach [Anthony] Reno a little bit and really liked him. I also came and visited Lee for a weekend and really had a good time.”
But not all cases are as ideal as the reunion of brothers. Siedlecki cautioned that coaches must be wary of the same pitfalls that occur with recruiting high school players, particularly the chance of receiving damaged goods.
“One thing that you have to be really careful of with transfers is a kid transfers in who’s hurt,” he said. “Harvard had this happen to them five or six years ago. A kid transferred in, never played a down, and now he has a Harvard degree.”
In 18 months, to the delight of the Yale faithful, so will Dawson.