The transfer portal has changed college sports. A small Kentucky college has benefited.

The NCAA Division I transfer portal has permanently changed things.

It’s altered player movement and recruiting throughout the college sports landscape, with all Division I student-athletes now able to transfer once and still compete immediately.

The impact of this has been seen locally at UK in several sports.

Ahead of the 2022 season, the UK baseball team brought in eight Division I transfers.

This offseason, the UK women’s basketball program brought in four transfers.

But lesser known is the impact the transfer portal has had throughout different levels of college sports, including the lower NCAA divisions and schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

One of the best examples of this can be found just 30 minutes from Lexington, at Georgetown College, an NAIA school in Scott County.

There you will find Georgetown women’s basketball head coach Jeff Nickel approaching just his second season on the job, but having already built a roster boasting several former NCAA Division I players, including a former UK player.

The transfer portal helped Georgetown go from a three-win team in 2021 to a 22-win team last season, Nickel’s first as head coach.

“The transfer portal’s been an asset from that aspect, to where we’ve been able to identify some high-level student athletes that are looking for another opportunity,” Nickel told the Herald-Leader. “We’re trying to get our program jump started, and it’s worked really well for us for that aspect.”

Here’s an inside look at how a small, Central Kentucky college with less than 1,200 undergraduate students has benefited from a transfer portal that shakes up the biggest of schools, and the process that goes into it.

Behind the scenes of the transfer portal

Nickel walked the Herald-Leader through the process of a coach trying to add players through the transfer portal.

“Number one, you want to see why (the player is) leaving. Why they’re making that choice,” Nickel explained. “Kids have different reasons. Sometimes it’s just a location. Sometimes it’s how they’re being used. Sometimes it’s playing time. So there’s a lot of different reasons and I think the first thing you’ve got to do when you look at the transfer portal is trying to vet out what those reasons are, and if they fit your program.”

For a coach, finding out the reasons behind a transfer often means dipping into the basketball Rolodex.

Nickel rattled off everyone from AAU and high school coaches, to family members and former athletic trainers, when listing people he may reach out to in order to learn why a player is seeking a new school.

“You really want to figure out what you’re buying. . . . You’re just using your network as much as you can to your advantage,” Nickel said. “You’re doing that general research. You’re looking up the kid, you look where they’re from, you’re looking at social media . . . trying to find the overall character of the kid.”

For a transfer to happen, interest has to be mutual.

Sometimes, emails sent to potential transfers go unanswered. Other times a response will come, but the conversation leads nowhere.

Once mutual interest is established, the hardcore research can begin.

Nickel said this includes using Synergy (an online video basketball analytics service) to watch past film of a player, if it exists.

Another key aspect is the all-important culture fit, that intrinsic value that can help make or break the choice on whether to bring in a transfer.

“We’re trying to win a national title,” Nickel said. “Some kids want to play overseas. Some kids want to play more. There’s a lot of different reasons that the kid transfers, but what we try to find is kids that have the skill and have the talent obviously, but want to win a championship.”

From Division I to NAIA

Sometimes it’s only been months since a player went through the recruiting process if they’re transferring early in their college career. Other times, it’s been years.

While a college commitment is often the result of years of recruitment, a college transfer usually comes together in a matter of weeks.

This accelerated timeline has forced coaches and programs to adapt.

“We’ve done a lot of virtual tours for COVID to where we literally we get on our phone and go FaceTime and show a kid all the way around, see if they’re interested before we fly them out,” Nickel said. “Try to make the kid as comfortable as possible, getting on the phone with their parents, letting your whole staff talk to them. . . . Every kid’s individual, every kid’s got different needs. You’re just trying to find out what those needs are and if you can meet those needs.”

An example of this is current Georgetown player Erin Toller, a former Kentucky Wildcat.

Toller was a standout guard at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville who overcame a torn ACL in each knee during her high school career.

She played sparingly as a freshman during the 2020-21 season, but was dismissed from the UK team in October prior to last season “for not upholding the standards of the program.”

Toller then entered her name in the transfer portal.

She told the Herald-Leader she had several options post-UK, and was planning to go to a junior college in Florida before Georgetown contacted her.

“I went to go visit (Georgetown) and I was like ‘Man, this is perfect,’” Toller said. “It literally reminded me of my high school team.”

As a former NCAA Division I player, what appealed to Toller about an NAIA school that is an athletic universe away from UK, despite the schools being separated by just 15 miles?

“I felt like the family was there, immediately, (as) soon as I walked through the door. I liked how everyone interacted with each other,” Toller said.

“Also just how the coaching staff was really willing to just take the time out and teach you the stuff that they learned and teach you,” Toller added. “(The coaching staff) will literally take time out of their day, stop what they’re doing and they’ll be there to help you with whatever you need.”

Erin Toller was a star for Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville in high school. She earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky but was later dismissed from the team. She has found a new home right down the road at Georgetown College.
Erin Toller was a star for Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville in high school. She earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky but was later dismissed from the team. She has found a new home right down the road at Georgetown College.

Remaining close to home in the commonwealth was a selling point of Georgetown for Toller, and its proximity to Lexington and other major cities can help lure transfers from further away, Nickel said.

“You’re close to the Lexington airport. You’re close to Cincinnati. You’re close to Louisville. You’re also at the crux of two major interstates with 64 and 75. So a lot of those things are important to kids,” Nickel explained. “When you’re recruiting a kid that’s from Las Vegas, Nevada, it’s important for that kid to know, ‘Hey, if I want to get on a plane and go home. I don’t have to drive two hours, three hours to get to the airport.’”

This hypothetical is based in real-world examples.

Last season — Nickel’s first as Georgetown head coach — saw the Tigers bring in two Division I transfers with roots from far away.

Guard Jazzmyn Elston, formerly of Morehead State, is originally from Rossville, Georgia. Cassie Colon, formerly of Toledo, is originally from just outside Philadelphia.

Elston (12.9 points per game) and Colon (14 points per game) were Georgetown’s top two scorers last season, although Colon played in only six games before suffering a season-ending injury.

While each player transfer comes with its own set of circumstances, it remains uncommon for former Division I student-athletes to transfer to schools in lower NCAA divisions or in NAIA.

According to NCAA data from August 2019 through July 2021, a total of 11,547 undergraduates and 4,723 graduates entered into the transfer portal and moved to another NCAA school.

Of these 16,270 total transfers from this time period, more than 75% of them (12,362 transfers) moved to another Division I school while the remaining 24% (less than 4,000 transfers) moved to a Division II or Division III school.

This data didn’t take into account former NCAA student-athletes who transferred to a school outside of NCAA membership, such as an NAIA or National Junior College Athletic Association school.

Georgetown College guard Jazzmyn Elston is one of a growing number of athletes in recent years who have transferred from NCAA Division I programs to colleges at lower levels.
Georgetown College guard Jazzmyn Elston is one of a growing number of athletes in recent years who have transferred from NCAA Division I programs to colleges at lower levels.

Transfer portal a two-way street

Toller remembers the thoughts in her mind when she contemplated transferring to a school at a lower level.

“I just was kind of iffy,” Toller said. “What’s everybody going to think? Are they going to think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t play anywhere else?’ I just had to think for myself and think about my future as a whole.”

“It’s always going to be that small group of people, or even that one family member, who wishes, ‘Oh, (you) should have just stayed D-1’ or is pushing D-1 for you . . . no matter what your heart is telling you,” Toller continued. “You just have to make the decision for yourself.”

Transferring from one Division I school to another used to require the athlete to sit out a season before regaining eligibility. That is no longer the case. The reward for a Division I athlete transferring to a lower level back then was immediate eligibility.

Despite losing that advantage, smaller programs like Georgetown still stand to benefit — just from the sheer number of athletes partaking of the freedom of the transfer portal and the publicity surrounding it.

That freedom of movement also represents a double-edged sword.

The portal has made it easier for Division I programs to lure away the best talent from lower NCAA divisions and schools outside NCAA membership.

According to the women’s college basketball transfer tracker on WBB Blog, 36 players have transferred this offseason to Division I programs from NCAA Division II and Division III schools.

When asked about the ways he tries to combat this flow of talent, Nickel stressed the importance of the coach-player relationship in the transfer portal era.

“I think there definitely is a fear a little bit of someone getting poached, but I think a lot of that goes back to your relationship with your players. I think it’s important that they know that what they have with you, it’s not just a relationship for four years, it’s a relationship for 40 (years),” Nickel said. “I think that’s the thing that we try to really instill in our players, that this is a place that they call home.”