Cal Poly Football looks to improve next season with multiple transfers in the fold. Credit: Kayla Stuart | Mustang News, 2022

Brantly Stevenson flew off a screen set by Alimamy Koroma. In one motion, he caught the ball and drained a jump shot to extend Cal Poly Men’s Basketball’s lead to 12 points.

The junior guard from Etiwanda finished with 28 points in the first-round playoff matchup in the 2023 Big West Tournament against Long Beach State and helped snap the team’s 18-game losing streak.

However, Stevenson is no longer a Mustang. He departed Cal Poly for California Baptist University to play out his senior season.

Stevenson played three seasons with the Mustangs. Owen Roberts | Mustang News, 2023

Stevenson, like many other student-athletes, took advantage of an NCAA rule change in April 2021 that allows student-athletes a one-time opportunity to transfer and play immediately. Under the old rules, athletes would need to sit out a redshirt year before they were eligible to play at their next four-year university. That is no longer the case. 

According to NCAA transfer data, in 2021, there were 17,781 student-athletes in the transfer portal. That number jumped to 20,911 in 2022. 

Men’s Basketball head coach John Smith likened the new age of the transfer portal back to his days as a junior college head coach. 

However, Smith has no “ill-will” towards Stevenson, who he developed a relationship with going back to the beginning of Stevenson’s high school career.

“Every situation is different and I think everybody should have the opportunity to have that choice,” Smith said. 

Smith has been at the helm at Cal Poly for four seasons. Owen Roberts | Mustang News, 2023

How new transfer rules impact Cal Poly

Cal Poly is considered a mid-major school. While the term mid-major is not an official NCAA designation, it’s used to describe programs not in Power Five conferences: SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and the ACC.

Cal Poly Football is a part of the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, which is the mid-major version of college football. Although still a Division-I program, members of the FCS participate in their own football championship separate from the College Football Playoffs. 

Kevin Marshall is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show covering FCS football called FCS Nation Radio. 

Marshall says the point of the FCS is to “keep costs down” for smaller schools, but “still offer an opportunity for young men to be able to go to college, play football and better their lives.” 

“Money hasn’t ruined [the FCS] like a lot of people think has happened with the FBS,” Marshall said. 

In regards to the transfer portal, Marshall believes there are positive and negative impacts of the new freedom of movement rules.

According to Marshall, the new rules have allowed players who haven’t gotten much playing at the Power Five level, to go down to the FCS and get film to play at the professional level.

“We’re seeing those guys drop down and in a lot of cases, make an immediate contribution to the team they’ve transferred to,” Marshall said.

On the other hand, Marshall doesn’t want the FCS to turn into a minor league system for the top level of college football. He feels some players see these lower-level programs as “stepping stones” to the FBS level.

Cal Poly Football brought in a number of transfers this offseason, some coming from FBS programs, including Ethan Calvert from the University of Utah, Thomas Cole from UCLA and Sam Huard from the University of Washington to plug in gaps in the roster. All three are projected to be major factors on the team next season.

While the football program has utilized the portal to bring in major talent, first-year head coach Paul Wulff believes in order to build a sustainable winner, a program needs to build from the high school ranks.

“We feel like if you [recruit] through the high school ranks, you build such a quality group of young core guys,” Wulff told Mustang News in April. “The team and the school are going to build this base off of high school young men.”

Wulff sees building from within as the pathway to success. Annabelle Fagans | Mustang News, 2022

Wulff believes the portal creates “absolutely zero loyalty to the program and team that invested in [students].” 

He added that he’s more in favor of the old rules where if a player transferred, they had to sit out a season or go down a level of competition to junior college or Division II before they can come back to Division-I.

“It’s just an open market,” Wulff said. “Open markets are for the NFL and pros. This is still college no matter what you’re saying.”

On the other hand, Marshall doesn’t believe all loyalty is lost. 

“Loyalty is something that young people today get a lot of flack for not having a whole bunch of,” Marshall said. “But I think kids have a tendency to remember the fact that these were the only people that wanted me, and they gave me an opportunity.” 

The recruiting pitch

High academics and ideal location are often the two things players are drawn towards at Cal Poly.

Justin Page, an incoming freshman to Men’s Basketball, says his parents always wanted him to go to a rigorous academic school like Cal Poly.

Page, who’s coming in as a kinesiology major, added the location played a factor in him coming.

“I’m not going to lie, the area is crazy,” Page said. “It was hard to turn down.”

But what also comes with a high academic school are high grade requirements to get into the institution in the first place.

Wrestling head coach Jon Sioredas said on The Gallop podcast that Cal Poly, from an academic standpoint, forces the program to look at high GPA athletes.

“It essentially cuts out a large percentage of superstar athletes that are not getting it done in the classroom,” Sioredas said.

Coming from other Big Sky schools like Eastern Washington and Washington State, Wulff said that the academic requirements to get in are “definitely different.”

But he also thinks the high bar to get into Cal Poly is a positive for the team.

“We can do more with our football players than a lot of teams,” Wulff said. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to coach guys that are smart and intelligent across the board.”

A player’s perspective

Chance Hunter transferred to Cal Poly Men’s Basketball from Cal Baptist as a graduate. Cal Poly was the fourth college he attended for basketball.

He thinks the portal is a “good opportunity for athletes to have a chance to play.”

“A lot of athletes can get stuck in their [situations] because it’s cutthroat,” Hunter said. “I feel like coaches have so many players to pick from…they might show interest in you one day, go on to the next. They might want you on the team but don’t really need you.”

Hunter started 19 of 29 games as a graduate transfer for the Mustangs in 2023. Owen Roberts | Mustang News, 2023

It’s a risky bet, according to Hunter. Players could move from one poor situation to the next.

Hunter said he’s witnessed a lot of players from his high school class still transferring multiple times because they can’t find the right fit. 

“Just with the situations going on, guys are getting added to the team and not actually being utilized or…those promises they’re getting, they’re not fulfilling those,” Hunter said. “Guys are getting screwed in that sense.”

He feels there should be restrictions on when players can enter the portal.

“I feel like a lot of guys as soon as the season doesn’t go right, they can just go back into the portal,” Hunter said. “A couple of situations I know, people signed with a team and then before they even got on campus, they’re already trying to go back into the portal.”

“I just remember my purpose”

John Smith began his journey as a coach in the Inland Empire area of Southern California. His goal from the start was to impact others’ lives.

“I always wanted to be a counselor, and I just wanted to change people’s lives because someone changed my life at a young age,” he said. “I’ve carried that approach at every level I’ve gone.”

When asked if he gets frustrated when players transfer out of the program, Smith replied, “not at all.”

“I just remember my purpose of why I coach,” Smith said. “My purpose is to change their life and pour into them and get them ready for life after basketball. That’s been my focus, and at the same time trying to teach them to fly in formation and hopefully win more games then we’ve won in the past.”