University of Miami

How the transfer portal took over the college football offseason and rejuvenated Miami

Manny Diaz insists there isn’t anything too complex behind his social-media strategy — he just uses a Google keyboard to sift through GIFs to find whatever best fits the Miami Hurricanes’ latest hype-inducing announcement — but, man, what a find he discovered to Tate Martell’s transfer.

A bleach-blond, headband clad Barry Bostwick from “Megaforce,” a 1983 nominee for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture, is a bizzaro ringer for Martell. It’s still not exactly clear how Diaz even found the GIF, unless he has an encyclopedic knowledge of bad ‘80s action moves, which bombed at the box office.

“I like to amuse myself,” Diaz said earlier this week.

In turn, he has amused Miami Hurricanes fans all offseason. As Jan. 15 bled into Jan. 16, Miami pulled Martell through the transfer portal from the Ohio State Buckeyes and kept wide receiver Jeff Thomas from following through on a planned transfer to the Illinois Fighting Illini.

This came less than a week after former Southern California Trojans safety Bubba Bolden, a four-star recruit in the Class of 2017, and former Buffalo Bulls wide receiver K.J. Osborn both announced they would transfer to the Hurricanes. Less than a week later, defensive lineman Chigozie Nnoruka said he planned to transfer to Miami from the UCLA Bruins.

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This could have been an offseason from hell for the Hurricanes. They went 7-6. Their star defensive coordinator left to become the coach of the Temple Owls. They got throttled in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their coach abruptly retired. They hired the defensive coordinator back as coach. Their recruiting class sits outside the top 30 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings entering National Signing Day on Wednesday.

And, somehow, Miami seems to be excited about the Hurricanes again.

Praise Portal.

Praise Portal!

Transfer Portal Day, at least to Reddit user u/benji5-0 and the NCAA, was Oct. 15. This was the day players, for the first time ever, could enter their names into the transfer portal and let schools other than the one they currently attend contact them.

It was a significant change, even if it went mostly unnoticed. Despite conjuring images of hyperspace travel or Rick and Morty-style dimension-hopping, the actual portal is pretty boring. It’s a web portal, which, broadly speaking, is any website which brings information from a variety of diverse sources together in an organized manner. The transfer portal is pretty bare bones — seven columns fill a mostly white page, listing a player’s name, NCAA identification number, division, conference, school, sport and the date he or she entered the portal.

Now when players are interested in exploring a transfer, they let a school compliance officer know, and the compliance office has two days to enter the name into the web portal — officially called the “transfer portal” — which coaches across the country all have access to. Once a coach sees a player’s name, he or she is allowed to reach out to the player.

The day it opened, no one really cared. The Reddit post on r/CFB — the subreddit page dedicated to college football — got 14 upvotes and 29 comments.

“It just kind of passed and went,” said Bobak Ha’Eri, one of the moderators of the subreddit, which boasts 560,000 subscribers and has a Twitter account of almost 160,000 followers. “No one really paid much attention to it.”

For everyone else, Transfer Portal Day was really Dec. 18 — the day former Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Justin Fields reportedly put his name into the transfer portal. This one got more than 1,100 upvotes and there was a fascination with this weird phrase: transfer portal.

On Jan. 9, former Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts put his name into the transfer portal. “What do y’all think this transfer portal looks like?” wondered u/Zajac19 on a Reddit post with more than 2,200 upvotes.

And the memers were off, ready to entertain themselves through the offseason. People edited pictures involving portals from “Stargate” and all the movie’s spinoffs. The College football internet became inundated with references to the video game Portal. Diaz himself has tweeted out Star Wars GIFs. DeMarcus Van Dyke, a defensive quality control analyst, tweeted a GIF last month of Thanos from “Avengers: Infinity War” — with Diaz’s head edited in place — teleporting into battle.

Eventually, the moderator team for r/CFB set up an automatic response: Anytime a user wrote, “praise portal” — itself a reference to Twitch Plays Pokemon’s “Praise Helix” meme — the auto moderator would respond in kind, with an icon depicting the Heisman Memorial Trophy in the style of Portal’s box art.

“’Portal’ is just such a fun term, especially online,” Ha’Eri said last week. “When you have that sci-fi bend to the whole thing, it’s just feeding the fire.”

By popular demand, the same Heisman-Portal mashup became a flair users can sport on their profile where they would typically list a favorite team. More than 600 users use the transfer portal flair. Only about 300 users use the Wake Forest Demon Deacons flair.

“A lot of people started treating it like a faith,” Ha’Eri said.

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‘The New Miami’

The transfer portal began opening a few months before October. In the spring, the NCAA passed a new rule easing the transfer process for athletes in all sports. No longer would athletes need permission to let opposing schools contact them and no longer could coaches block players from transferring to certain schools.

Bolden actually didn’t have to go through the portal. Southern California suspended Bolden in the fall, so the athlete withdrew from the school. Every school knew then it could reach out to the Vegas native.

At star tight end Brevin Jordan’s suggestion, the Hurricanes actually started recruiting the defensive back when Mark Richt was still coach. When Diaz took over, the new coach made Bolden a priority. He became the first transfer to pick Miami in 2019 on Jan. 5.

“Always got to start the trend,” Bolden told the Miami Herald last week. “I’ve always got to be the first to do anything. We’re just building up that culture. We’ve got to bring back that swag that the old U had and try to do it in a new way, our own way. That’s why it’s ‘The New Miami.’”

The next day, Osborn announced he was transferring. Five days later, Martell, who also played at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas with Jordan and Bolden, announced he was coming to Coral Gables.

“Tate was like, ‘I want to come wherever you go,’” Bolden said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to make this Miami move. You can come, too.’ I put in a good word for Tate, Brevin put in a good word for Tate and we kind of just got things rolling from there.”

On the field, Diaz is a master of momentum. When the Hurricanes won 10 games and went to the Orange Bowl in 2017, they mostly did it by forcing 31 turnovers. Their stunning blowout of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Hard Rock Stadium, which prompted people to wonder whether the U was back, was largely fueled by an early interception returned for a touchdown by defensive back Trajan Bandy.

Now Diaz has figured out how to do it off the field, too. Miami might not sign a single four-star prospect out of high school Wednesday, but Diaz has fueled the flames on social media and message boards by proving he’s self-aware about the Hurricanes’ embrace of #PortalU. The New Miami, or #TNM as Diaz has coined, has so far been defined by players getting second chances.

“It’s kind of depressing when really good players decommit en masse and it’s uplifting when good players commit,” Diaz said. “There were a couple guys that kind of got the whole thing rolling in the beginning of January that sort of had to make the big change and get it turned around, and other guys want to get in and all of a sudden it does take on a life of its own.”

MiamiMartellFootball.JPG
FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2018, file photo, Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell runs against Tulane during an NCAA college football game in Columbus, Ohio. Martell says he is transferring from Ohio State to Miami. Martell announced on Twitter early Wednesday, Jan. 16: “I’m a Hurricane.” Martell had entered his name into the NCAA transfer portal last week and was free to be approached by schools about a potential transfer. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File) Jay LaPrete AP

The whole picture

Miami enters the unofficial final day of the 2019 recruiting cycle with the No. 32 class in the country, sandwiched right between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Rivals.com’s rankings are even less bullish with the Hurricanes down at No. 42.

More than ever, it’s impossible to define recruiting just by looking at the rankings, which don’t include transfers. The portal means it’s open season when a player decides to transfer and a second recruitment begins.

“We knew the transfer portal was coming, as did everyone, but we didn’t know it would kind of just take on this whole phenomenon,” said Trey Scott, 247Sports’ national college editor. “This part hasn’t come yet, but we eventually need for the rankings of the incoming transfers to factor into how we’re considering these schools’ incoming classes. I don’t know if that’ll bleed into recruiting, but there will be a ranking eventually for the total level of talent incoming, so that was a process that we definitely did on the fly.”

The Hurricanes are probably the most obvious example why.

Earlier this month, 247 debuted its first “transfer portal rankings.” Bolden ranks No. 4. Martell sits at No. 10 and Osborn at No. 11. Running back Asa Martin, who transferred from the Auburn Tigers during the early signing period, checks in at No. 17 and offensive lineman Tommy Kennedy, who did the same from the FCS Butler Bulldogs, holds the final spot in the top 50.

At the start of Wednesday, the Hurricanes will only have six blue-chip commits in their traditional recruiting class.

Is this a new norm for Miami? Diaz has said it won’t be. The new coach took over a program in a precarious position. To salvage a potentially underwhelming Signing Day haul, Diaz became the face of an offseason phenomenon.

“I think you have to assess your team and what your team needs to be successful,” Diaz said. “We definitely felt like we had some positions where we needed some leadership, we needed some experience and we needed some guys that could kind of help set the culture.

“It’s not like people have not been transferring. I think it just has a catchy nickname now.”

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