On Monday night, Alabama became college football’s champion for the fourth time in seven seasons.
Alabama fans can thank quarterback Jake Coker, who began his college career at Florida State, where he found himself on the bench. So he accelerated his academic schedule, graduated in three years, and, hauling along a year of eligibility, headed for Alabama.
'I Would Go Through All That Again'
Vernon Adams, who began his college career at lower-tier Eastern Washington University, is another quarterback for whom that turned out to be a plan, though it wasn’t his idea.
"My high school coach called me after my season was over," Adams explains. "He was just telling me, 'I think you should try to graduate early and look into transferring to Oregon.' I said, 'What? What are you talking about? You’re talking reckless right now, coach.'
I’m like, 'Coach, I’m not graduating until December.' He’s like, 'We can do something about that.'Vernon Adams
"I’m like, 'Coach, I’m not graduating until December.' He’s like, 'We can do something about that,'" Adams recalls. "They look into everything, and basically, I had to change my major to Interdisciplinary Studies, so I can graduate in June. So I changed my major. I had to take, like, three extra classes and all this other stuff. And then I did it. I did the transfer."
Adams had led Eastern Washington to three consecutive Big Sky Conference titles. But by going to Oregon, he joined the big kids in the Football Bowl Subdivision. All he did there was lead the nation in yards per attempt and passing efficiency, while carrying the Ducks to a 9-3 season. In retrospect, he may have felt all that winning was easier than getting to Oregon had been.
"I failed math twice — I didn’t fail. I just didn’t pass math twice," he says. "And then had to take it three times before I could graduate in August. And show up for camp five days late. And it was so tough. I told ESPN I would never do that again. But all said and done, like right now, I would go through all that again."
And no wonder. Though he’s short by pro quarterback standards — only 5-foot-11 — Adams hopes to be drafted by an NFL team in April. He certainly has increased that likelihood by playing at a top level football school. But if that doesn’t happen, he’s got an undergraduate degree and part of a masters, so he says football isn’t his only option.
'Free Agency' In The NCAA?
New York Times reporter Marc Tracy has written about the process by which quarterbacks graduate early, thereby avoiding the NCAA rule that mandates that transfers sit out a season, theoretically so they can become comfortable in a new academic setting.
You have a great need on the part of quarterbacks to get playing time ... and you have a great need from teams to have optimal quarterbacks, even for just a season or two.Mark Tracy, New York Times
"You have a great need on the part of quarterbacks to get playing time and to be on a team where they’re the top one at their position, and you have a great need from teams to have optimal quarterbacks, even for just a season or two," Tracy says. "So you put it together, and you see a lot of quarterback transfers. And you see them have the kind of leverage that in some senses resembles free agency."
Free agency? Hmmm. That’s what changed the face of pro sports, isn’t it? College football players — even quarterbacks — haven’t become quite that free. They have to get permission to talk to coaches elsewhere, and they’re not supposed to be contacted by college coaches, or even by “third parties.” So I wondered how the guy who’d coached Vernon Adams in high school had known about Oregon’s need for a quarterback.
"I’m not sure," he says. "I think he knew somebody who knew somebody who knew something or something. But he just told me to get the permission to contact just to hear what they have to say, and I did, and he was right."
Fortunately for Adams, he had a cooperative coach at Eastern Washington. He didn’t have to give Adams his permission. Coaches can also limit their quarterbacks’ choices. These are among the rules designed to prohibit what Marc Tracy calls “perpetual recruiting.” But has the success of traveling quarterbacks like Jake Coker and Vernon Adams encouraged coaches to “perpetually recruit” anyway?
"Well, I mean, it won’t hurt, but they’re already looking," Tracy says. "Sure, this is further confirmation that it's a process that works. But they already knew that."
And those coaches will keep looking. And some of the most coveted quarterbacks will graduate early. It’ll work out for some of them, as it has for Vernon Adams, and probably others will look over their shoulder pads at the schools they’ve left and second guess themselves. And the coaches employed by the universities and colleges where the games matter most? As long as they can find the quarterbacks who’ll make their teams winners, they’ll continue to enjoy being the nation’s best-paid educators.
This segment aired on January 16, 2016.