The proposed 50-mile transfer rule seems something like navigating a corn maze with a group of friends: The Arizona Interscholastic Association will get through it eventually, but not without dead-ends, detours and varying opinions on the best way out.
While there are multiple angles within the proposal worthy of debate — mileage, appeals, date of enactment, etc. — there has always been a clear focus: The AIA, as well as local coaches and administrators, seem adamant on passing some version of this rule to curb the transfer epidemic.
Many hope it helps bring back equity to a high school sports landscape which has been over-run by a steep divide between the contenders and pretenders.
“If high school athletics is still about the kids who compete it is undeniable that parity is in the best interest of the kids,” Tempe Prep football coach Tom Brittain said in an email.
It’s not going back to the battles between neighborhood schools, where kids stayed within their boundaries and played for whichever coach and program happened to be in their zone.
Open enrollment has changed the game, improving the successful programs and sapping those trying to rebuild. Coaches seem resigned to that fate, but it’s transfers that really get under their skin.
“I think if parents make that decision for their freshman — if they think their kid is all that and take them to where it’s at — I can kind of live with that,” Campo Verde football coach Max Ragsdale said. “Then you’re not counting on that kid. But for those middling teams that are trying to make a move, if they lose their stud they lose their identity. You tailor what you’re doing around your personnel and instead you have to plug in a sophomore.”
It seems increasingly likely that some variation of the proposal passes. Once it goes into effect, the results should be noticeable immediately.
Every year, several high-profile seniors-to-be make the jump from one school to another, shifting the balance of power in that respective sport.
The Chaparral football team used transfers to help it to three straight football championships and has a couple more join this year. The Dobson boys basketball team added Torren Jones and Jaron Hopkins (Basha) and Ryan Richardson (Perry) via transfer, which leaves the Bears and Pumas with less.
“At any school, especially a small school, (a transfer) is devastating,” Desert Vista baseball coach Stan Luketich said.
An increase in parity could become even more evident as time goes on. Many players currently transfer after their freshman seasons, which doesn’t make waves because the public has yet to hear of them. But the coaches know who they lose, and it’s a tough blow each time.
If all of them stay put, it benefits those original programs greatly.
“In four years it would have a tremendous effect on competitive balance,” Desert Ridge football coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “The big issue of (open enrollment) might stay the same, but the cohesiveness and football brand is going to be better. You’ll see Mountain View and those types pop up again. When they come in they’ll be a Jaguar or Toro or Bear for four years. That’s it. Once you’re in, you’re in.”
Not everyone is sold, though.
Poston Butte is Division III and doesn’t see stars transfer in, but it does benefit because kids are constantly moving into the more-economically viable area in San Tan Valley.
With this new rule, those kids would have to sit out for a year if their appeals aren’t granted.
“I don’t know that people are moving into our neighborhood for (athletics),” Poston Butte football coach Mike De La Torre said. “They were simply relocating. They weren’t shopping programs.”
For many schools, the incoming and outgoing numbers may be a wash, but this would forbid all the transfers from playing.
“We get three-to-four kids who transfer in the summer,” Higley football coach Eddy Zubey said. “They’re not a (former neighborhood star) Kelvin Fisher, not the high-profile kids. There has to be a way for those kids to be able to play if the families do everything right. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Some coaches don’t think a transfer rule will shift the balance of power. Money and the investment in the program by the administration are the biggest factors, they said.
“I honestly don’t think any rule will have a profound effect on competitive balance,” Pinnacle football coach Dana Zupke said. “This is way overblown. It has been and will be the haves and the have-nots.”
But maybe this isn’t about state championships. For some programs, a .500 record is fantastic. For others, it’s making the playoffs or winning a postseason game.
Programs define success at different benchmarks, and a transfer rule may give the have-nots a better opportunity to at least meet those goals.
“A transfer rule isn’t going to solve all of the underlying issues, but it will give some schools a better opportunity to compete,” Queen Creek baseball coach Mike Campbell said in an email.
Maybe that should be the goal for now, to give teams hope.