For a time the other day, certainty appeared as fluid as the cloud shadows blowing across the richly green outfield grass at Jack Coombs Field.
Thanks to a seven-year deal, Duke now plays home games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where the ACC baseball tournament begins next week.
But hours before a long-scheduled noon start in downtown Durham last Wednesday, logistical difficulties chased a Blue Devils non-conference contest back to campus.
There, the sparse crowd was perched in a covered grandstand behind home plate, uncomfortable in clothing geared to temperatures forecast to be significantly warmer. (That’s forecast as opposed to “futurecast,” a new jazzed TV weather synonym for educated guess.)
Of greater concern for favored Duke, playing its fourth game in four days, was that 27-win Norfolk State proved unwilling to submit to its supposed fate. Duke is fighting for a return to the ACC baseball tournament for the third time since 2006, second in three years, and for its first NCAA berth since 1961. Yet even with their save leader on the mound in the ninth inning, holding a two-run lead with two outs and nobody on, the Blue Devils couldn’t subdue Norfolk State until the tenth.
The ragged result improved Duke’s record to 29-20, redeeming coach Chris Pollard’s decision to rest Brian McAfee, Trent Swart and Kellen Urbon for a key weekend series with Florida State, which Duke won, 2 games to 1. The trio are not only Duke’s top starters, but among five graduate students on the roster, two more than the other 13 ACC baseball squads combined.
Swart, a year removed from Tommy John surgery, is tied for the ACC lead in starts (13) and is the league’s active career leader in strikeouts (240). The lefty also is among three Blue Devils who remained at Duke after graduation to complete a fourth year of eligibility. That choice to stay put is little noted, but reflects a decision made by 85 percent of what the NCAA calls Division I “postgraduate students.”
Summer school attendance has proliferated as sanctioned workouts with coaches increase, enabling players to graduate more quickly. Add those who redshirt, usually for medical reasons, or those forced to sit out a season as undergrad transfers under the NCAA’s repressive policies, and an expanding pool of players is available to compete immediately upon graduation.
Urbon and McAfee left Cornell, an Ivy League school, after completing their undergraduate studies, McAfee with an engineering degree and Urbon a B.A. in economics. Like Swart, they redshirted for a season as undergrads due to injury. But the Ivies don’t allow graduates to play varsity sports; the right-handers independently investigated their options and chose Duke and a July-to-May Master of Management Studies program at the Fuqua School of Business.
“From my perspective, it was a seamless transition,” says McAfee, the ACC leader in innings pitched and complete games. “It really makes a lot of sense getting the opportunity to continue my education and also keep playing baseball. That was a good fit for me.”
Duke’s use of five postgraduate athletes illustrates a welcome athlete-oriented trend in Division I sports. Overall, the NCAA reports the presence of postgrad players rose from 1.4 percent of 98,332 male and female participants in 2007 (1,330) to 2 percent of 106,000 in 2014 (2,185). The rate of increase over that span was about twice as large in football and men’s and women’s basketball.
The extended-play option got early notice in football but became conspicuous through men’s basketball, where by 2015 there were 82 postgrads accounting for more than a third of all transfers moving within Division I. Now graduates can be found competing in greater numbers in sports from track and field to wrestling, lacrosse to volleyball to crew.
Graduate transfers are particularly attractive from a recruiting standpoint because they’re proven students, seasoned performers, and, unlike undergrads, aren’t forced to sit out a year when moving from one school to another.
“To some this feels like the basketball one-and-done,” reports Matt Burgemeister, the ACC’s associate commissioner for compliance and governance. “You come in, use your remaining eligibility and then leave. And others would say, well, they’ve done what we asked them to by completing their bachelor’s degree and so this is an opportunity to pursue the rewards of that athletic eligibility.”
Former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson brought early attention to this opportunity/loophole when he went to Wisconsin in 2011 for one season and led the Badgers to the 2012 Rose Bowl. Wilson’s move was accompanied by little discussion of his academic interests, largely because N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien clearly wanted him gone with Mike Glennon waiting in the wings.
Only weeks after Wisconsin appeared in the Rose Bowl, the plight of St. Joseph’s basketball player Todd O’Brien brought less favorable attention to a coach controlling the destiny of a grad transfer.
Under NCAA rules, a player graduating with unexpended eligibility can pursue a waiver to play immediately at another school offering a course of study not available at the institution they’re departing. “That may be where the question of motives can come from,” says Burgemeister, “because there’s a perception that some schools would look down their list of programs and find one not available and (say) that’s what the student would be interested.”
A distrustful St. Joseph’s refused to release Todd O’Brien, a little-used 7-footer, so he could transfer to Alabama-Birmingham. The NCAA backed the Philadelphia school and coach Phil Martelli, once again placing the interests of others ahead of those of a student. O’Brien never played again in college.
“Are there some programs out there that are poaching fifth-year guys?” asks Pollard, in his fourth season at Duke. “Yes. But I fundamentally believe in the stance the NCAA has taken, which is you’ve gotten your degree, you’ve graduated from that university, you’ve honored your commitment to that university, you have the flexibility to go where you want to go.”
Pollard does suggest a ban on graduates transferring to play within the same league, as happened a few years back when a Duke slugger was convinced his pro chances would improve elsewhere. “I won’t sit here and tell you I loved that,” Pollard says.
Several NCAA committees are studying what else might be done to address concerns related to graduate transfers, including suspicions they’re switching schools for non-academic reasons, says Dr. Carolyn Callahan, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. “If you’re not going to take it seriously, do you have a right to be there?”
Callahan is the ACC representative on one of those NCAA panels, the Committee on Academics. She says legal issues obviate attempts to make grad students sit out a year if they transfer. Callahan does expect a major proposal tying participation to enrollment in a specific graduate program, rather than simply allowing a grad transfer to take classes. Previously that choice was left to schools.
“This is my unscientific survey – I think most graduate transfers are legitimate,” says Callahan. She traces concerns to “the cases of high-profile, extraordinary athletes who aren’t taking advantage of the system as much as coaches are taking advantage of the system.”
Rest assured, the role of coaches in precipitating further restrictions won’t prevent them from complaining the rule book is too thick.