To explain facets of volleyball, Nebraska coach John Cook often relies on cross-sport analogies. Setters run their offense like a quarterback. Successful outside hitters must vary the speed and location of their attacks like savvy baseball pitchers.
But the sport that I’ve always felt makes the best comparison for college volleyball is its hardwood counterpart, basketball. Similar numbers of players on the court, similar scholarship limits, and many schools even house both sports at the same venue.
And lately, college volleyball coaches have seen a source of angst creep into their sport that has been making headlines in hoops for a decade. In 2012, the NCAA released figures showing nearly 40 percent of Division I men’s basketball players were no longer with their original program within two years of coming to school. Some went pro. Some dropped out of school. But many picked up stakes and transferred to another program.
As in basketball, college volleyball players today are more likely than ever to transfer away from their original school. Over the last five years, the number of players transferring to or from D-I programs has steadily climbed from 95 in 2010 to a peak of 267 in 2013, according to RichKern.com, a website that tracks volleyball data.
This hit close to home for Cook this spring when four players left his program to continue their college careers elsewhere. While none of the four were starters or expected to start this fall, three were members of Nebraska’s 2013 recruiting class, hailed as the No. 1 group in the country. The coach knows the departures may be perceived outside the program as a sign of trouble.
“I know we’re at Nebraska, and if we have four players leave, it’s a big deal,” Cook said. “But UCLA had five players leave a year ago. Minnesota had a roster of 20 and they’re down to 12. Penn State has had kids leave. Texas has had kids leave.”
Just before Cook and I spoke last week, another big-time transfer hit the market. USC opposite hitter Ebony Nwanebu, the 2013 national freshman of the year, announced on her blog she was leaving Los Angeles. Yes, it happens — all over.
But in the last three seasons, Nebraska has found itself in an interesting place at the center of the college volleyball transfer universe. While the Huskers have had departures, NU also has become a popular destination for stars who first shined elsewhere. Nebraska snagged All-America outside hitter Kelsey Robinson from Tennessee in 2013 and is the new home of LSU middle blocker Briana Holman, a 2014 first-team All-American.
The debate continues among coaches, administrators, university officials and student-athletes: Is the new prevalence of college athletics transfers inherently good or bad? And is it the new norm? In high-dollar, high-pressure college athletics, a transfer is one of the few sources of leverage a college athlete has.
Cook cautions against making any sweeping moral judgment on transfers, since each player’s situation is unique. However, the coach clearly has been turning the subject over in his mind, and he laid out a combination of generational factors among players and the rising profile of college volleyball that he believes is behind the rising tide of transfers.
The search for increased playing time always has been a motivation behind transfers. At programs like Nebraska that stockpile prep All-Americans and have national title aspirations, bench players could easily start at most other programs. Indeed, that’s likely the main reason behind the departures of most, if not all of the eight players who have left Nebraska in the last three years.
“I think every good coach tells (recruits), ‘The moment you commit, my job is to go recruit somebody better than you. So you better get to work,’ ” Cook said. “Our job is to recruit the best players to this program.
“The bottom line is this program is not for everybody. We have very high expectations here. The rewards are great. We work really hard. It is not for everybody.”
But Cook said the growing transfer phenomenon goes even deeper than a search for a starting job. Take, for instance, the differences in how current college athletes communicate compared with those in the pre-smartphone generation.
Increased use of text messaging and social media has redefined how players talk to one another, but Cook said emojis are no substitute for a heart-to-heart between players who may have a locker room dispute. This illusion of intimacy doesn’t create as strong of an emotional investment in your teammates, making it easier for a frustrated player to depart at the first sign of adversity.
“I think this generation has a harder time with relationships,” Cook said. “Great teams come down to relationships and trust, and these kids have a hard time with both.”
Add to the mix the accelerated timeline of recruiting the nation’s top prospects, most of whom now commit to a college program by the end of their sophomore year of high school. A player’s priorities, family circumstances or academic aspirations may shift from when she makes a pledge to when she arrives on campus. Transfers often can come from a 20-year-old woman rethinking a decision she made at 15.
Getting a commitment from a player that young is risky. There are countless stories of college players falling short of the potential that coaches spied when they were 16. And while Cook says Nebraska doesn’t move players he’s misjudged out of the program to free up a roster spot, he has seen it happen at other schools.
“I want to be able to go to sleep at night knowing I’m doing what’s best for these kids,” Cook said. “Each day, I can feel OK about what we’re doing here.”
So how does a coach create an atmosphere where everyone can feel invested even if she’s not a starter?
That might be harder than ever, Cook said, because many women’s college sports programs are under pressure to expand roster sizes to create more playing opportunities for female student-athletes. D-I women’s volleyball programs have 12 scholarships, so a bigger roster means more walk-ons paying their own way and more players on the sidelines who would rather be in the game.
Cook said that’s why he invests lots of time in studying leadership and team dynamics. He taps representatives inside the volleyball program and around the athletic department for their expertise and seeks out motivational speakers and experts on leadership.
What it means to be a team may be changing in the increasingly transient landscape of college sports. Whether you consider all the transfers good or bad might just come down to Miles’ Law: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
But at Nebraska and around the country, it has become the new reality, and it’s a shifting scene coaches and players in all sports have to figure out how to navigate.
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