Clemson Football: Does transfer policy hurt team toughness?

Clemson Football is not like a lot of their peers. Their focus has been on building the program through culture and development.

As a result, they have not been heavy participants in taking players via transfer. This sets them apart from many programs that routinely try to improve their roster through the portal.

The transfer portal is a large piece of the current discussion about college football. It’s easy to forget it has only been a factor in football for just a little more than four years.

The portal itself came into existence in the fall of 2018. The relaxing of eligibility rules followed soon after. The official rule allowing one free transfer for non-graduates was preceded by the NCAA allowing most appeals for immediate eligibility.

Clemson’s transfer policy has been consistent throughout Dabo Swinney’s tenure as head coach. I think it is fair to say, however, that the policy has only been impactful to other elements of the program, such as high school recruiting, for the last four years. Before the portal, transfer policy just wasn’t a major talking point.

What I’ve absorbed from insiders is that Clemson uses their transfer policy as a selling point in high school recruiting. They stress that they want to focus on high school recruits and that they won’t be looking to bring in transfers over players who have invested time and effort into the Tiger program.

The appeal to the high school recruit, as it has been framed, is that they are attracted to the commitment the Clemson program is willing to make to them.

There is a lot of debate about whether Clemson’s transfer policy is wise or not. Many voices outside the program believe Clemson is falling behind because they aren’t willing to take transfers to improve their roster.

Those closer to the program believe that Clemson’s culture would suffer if they were to bring in more transfers. I tend to agree with the latter viewpoint, for the most part, but I think it is a mixed bag. There are drawbacks to Clemson’s portal policy in my opinion.

One place I think Clemson’s portal policy hurts them is related to high school recruiting. I’m not sure it is benefitting the program in the big picture as much as many think.

I wrote recently about ‘Best is the standard’, and how I didn’t think it was effort missing from this past season’s performances, but rather the tough edge we have seen from Clemson teams through their six year playoff run.

Marty Coleman alluded to this as well while he watched the CFP championship game.

Ask yourself this question: do you think this team is as tough today as it was in 2018 when Clemson last won a national title?

My answer is no. I don’t think this team is as tough overall as it was four years ago. When I use the word tough, I’m primarily referring to mental toughness. I think toughness comes more from mindset. Being tough minded leads to being physically tough.

This is how I tend to phrase it: does this team have that dog in them? How tenacious are they? How do they respond when they get figuratively punched in the nose? Do they fight back when challenged? Do they have a motor?

There are multiple reasons why overall team toughness has declined, but I think Clemson’s use of no transfers in their recruiting pitches might be backfiring on them.

I take myself back to when I was 17-18 years old, and I was rarely looking to take the harder path. If it was the only way to get what I wanted, I would do it, but if there was an easier path, I usually took it. I was reminded of that years later when I raised my stepson, who is now a young adult. He tended to opt for the path of least resistance as well.

Neither my stepson or myself was soft, but we also weren’t tough guys. We were both laid back and easy going. There’s nothing wrong with laid back, it just meant we weren’t exactly the most competitive “in your face” people you ever met.

I know that the public spin is that recruits find Clemson’s transfer policy appealing because they like that Clemson commits to them. I suspect the real appeal for some is that they perceive Clemson to be the path of least resistance. If they go to Clemson, they won’t have to worry about competing with transfers. In theory, they can come into the program and as long as they outplay the younger players recruited behind them, they will eventually be starters.

I have my doubts if the high school players who find Clemson’s portal policy appealing are also the players who “have that dog in them”. I tend to think the players with the “dog” mindset don’t care about taking the easier path. I don’t think Clemson’s transfer policy would be relevant to their mindset.

There are some players that have been recruited to Clemson in the past four classes that do have that dog in them. Will Shipley is one that comes to mind. Nate Wiggins is another. We also haven’t seen enough of some of the younger players to judge them completely yet. Just because a player has talent doesn’t mean they are tough.

I think this team has talent. I think this team gives effort. I think what is missing is the tenacity and resiliency. I think when this team has a clear talent advantage, they win. When the team has a comparable amount of talent, the Tigers struggle to match their opponent’s intensity.

An adjustment to the transfer policy could benefit Clemson Football high school recruiting

As I said before, I think there could be several reasons this has happened. Maybe it is the way they are coached. Maybe it is just bad luck. I don’t think Clemson’s transfer policy has been a singular cause, but I do think it has been a relevant variable in the decline in overall team toughness and competitiveness.

There is no way to test or prove my opinion. I can point out the common sense explained above about my experience with the way many young people view challenges, and that the advent of the transfer portal (and Clemson selling their policy to recruits) coincides with the beginning of the decline in team toughness that I have observed.

I should also point out that some recent departures might mean addition through subtraction on this subject. I wouldn’t be shocked if the team’s edge improved in 2023.

I am not advocating for major changes to the portal policy. I think a focus on recruiting high school talent and a conservative approach to taking transfers should be used.

I am advocating that Clemson should stop using the transfer policy to sell recruits on the Tiger program. I think it is detrimental. That change, combined with adding 2-3 transfers per season in the right areas, will reinforce that there is no path of least resistance in the Tiger program. That isn’t possible this year, but will be in the future.

We might lose out on some recruits by removing that selling point, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing in the big picture.