Authors: Emily A. Heller, Todd A. Gilson, Amanda Paule-Koba

Corresponding Author:
Emily A. Heller
Aurora University
347 S. Gladstone
Aurora, IL 60506
C: 630-217-2358

“So, Who’s Our New Coach?”: NCAA Student Athletes’ Perceptions After a Head Coaching Change

Coaches play an important role in athlete’s collegiate experience, yet with the frequency of head coaching changes, athletes may find themselves at a university without the coach who recruited them. The purpose of this study was to examine athlete’s perceptions regarding the NCAA transfer rules in light of current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regulations. Forty-seven current NCAA Division I athletes (from 20 institutions) were interviewed about their experiences regarding a coaching change. Overall, most athletes thought there was a discrepancy between NCAA regulations regarding transfers: the regulations are lenient for coaches, whereas athletes’ ability to transfer is restricted. Athletes offered suggestions improving NCAA governance, such as implementing penalties for coaches who leave or allowing athletes to transfer if it would benefit their academic career.

Keywords: student-athlete, mentoring, NCAA, transfer, coaching

College coaches play an essential role in the lives of athletes due to the strong connections that are established. The relationship between a coach and athletes is important because they are together almost every day for four (or more) years of an athlete’s collegiate career. A recent example of the coach and athlete relationship is the story of Pat Summit, the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. Summit, arguably one of the greatest college basketball coaches, amassed 1,098 victories, 32 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championships, and eight national championships over the course of 38 years. In 2012, she stepped down as head coach and was replaced by Holly Warlick (one of Summit’s former athletes) who said:

I think everybody probably feels like I do. She’s [Summit’s] their [the athletes]
second mother. The [basketball] program becomes your second family. She’s your teacher. She becomes your friend when you graduate. I don’t think you understand until you step away (1).

A coach’s departure from a university affects athletes because they not only lose their coach but also their role model. This can be problematic for athletes because they have to embrace a new coach and possibly a new coaching staff. An analysis to explore athletes’ perceptions regarding a coaching change transitions is beneficial to provide a greater understanding of the experiences athletes endure.

The relationship fostered between coach and athlete begins well before the first competition or practice, often during the recruitment process. From this early stage, the recruitment process helps guide athletes where they will attend school and what team they will play for. Previous evidence reveals a consistent pattern of athletes choosing their university based partially on the coaches and/or the larger athletic program. For men’s college basketball recruits, for example, four of the five most important considerations reported by athletes when choosing a university are associated with the coaching staff and the athletic team – and the fifth is the availability of an athletic scholarship (2). Similar research found two of the top six factors that influenced women’s softball recruits when they chose a college were the compatibility of the head coach and the overall social atmosphere of the team (3). Furthermore, four of the top ten factors that draw athletes to small college athletic programs were related to the sport program (4). When athletes commit to a specific university, they expect to play for a certain head coach, or coaches, for the duration of their academic career.

Although individual coaching changes may be the best option to advance a coach’s professional career, a coaching turnover is problematic for athletes because they often commit to their university based on the coaching staff. Thus, a coaching change may adversely affect the athlete and the team’s development as new coaches often have different expectations for athletes or different coaching philosophies (5). Football and basketball provide examples of the systemic nature of this problem. From 2002 to 2007 the number of annual coaching changes for collegiate football teams across the United States has varied between 13 and 24, with an average of 17 head coaching changes per year (out of 126 Division I football teams). However, beginning in 2008, every year has seen a steady increase in the number of head coaching changes, from 18 in 2008 to 31 in 2013, or an average of 24 coaching changes per year (6). Coaching staff changes are also prevalent at the Division I basketball level. For example, between 2003 and 2013, the number of coaching changes in men’s basketball ranged from 32 to 62 (out of 351 programs), though there was no discernible trend (7). Thus, in any given year approximately 9% –18% of programs experienced a change of leadership. In addition to affecting the athletes, these changes also affect the support staff, including assistant coaches, athletic trainers, and strength coaches, who also provide guidance to athletes (8). Although these numbers reflect a minority of programs for each individual year, it is important to note many collegiate athletes spend four or five years participating in intercollegiate athletics, therefore, greatly multiplying the chance an athlete will experience a head coaching change over the course of his or her career.

NCAA Regulations
Given that coaches play a pivotal role in the development of athletes and given the frequency with which coaching changes occur, it is possible athletes may seek to distance themselves from a new situation/leadership if the new leadership does not foster adaptive strategies (9). However, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regulations state in major collegiate sports (e.g., football, baseball, and basketball) a Division I athlete who chooses to transfer and compete for a different Division I or II university must be enrolled as a full-time student and sit out of athletics for one year before being allowed to play again (10). In other sports (e.g., swimming), regardless of a coaching change, athletes can transfer without penalty if their previous institution signs a waiver. However, this lack of penalty for the athlete only occurs if an athlete transfers outside the conference. The NCAA implements this rule to heighten equality so students will make decisions based on educational endeavours instead of athletic ventures (10). However, some assert this NCAA rule violates the Sherman Act as it places illegal restrictions on trade and, in this case, limits an athlete’s trade (11). The current policy does not include a provision for an athletic rationale as a reason for athletes to transfer from their institution. The only exception to this regulation is in terms of academics; athletes may transfer if their current university eliminates their degree program.

Although there are significant restrictions on athletes, no such restrictions apply to collegiate coaches. For example, coaches are allowed to change positions midseason and begin coaching immediately without penalties from the NCAA. For example, in 2010, two weeks before the bowl game, Jerry Kill left Northern Illinois University to take a coaching position at a different university. Then in 2012, Dave Doeren, who was hired to replace Kill, left for a new head coaching position at North Carolina State, once again leaving athletes with a sense of abandonment. These frequent coaching changes at the end of the season may leave athletes questioning the integrity of the athletic program and their initial decision to attend the specific university (12).

The aforementioned complexity of NCAA rules can result in chaos for athletes who experience a coaching change (8). Given that collegiate athletes’ eligibility is at the discretion of the school in which they attend and established NCAA guidelines transfer rules have a significant impact on athletes. To adequately explore this impact using a participant-centred approach, qualitative methodology was utilized to better understand athletes’ perceptions regarding NCAA regulations pertaining to transferring when a head coaching change has occurred. Perceptions of fairness were based on a theoretical framework that evaluates equality and organizational justice in sports as reported by athletes (13). This framework was chosen because it investigates the impact of organizational injustice in sport, which is apropos to this line of questioning. This avenue is important to explore because of the perceived inequality regarding transfer regulations for both coaches and student athletes.

Thus, the proposed study has three main objectives. First, athletes were asked their perceptions of transfer regulations equality for coaches and athletes. Athletes were asked if they believe the current NCAA regulations are fair (i.e., when coaches change institutions they can start coaching immediately, yet transferring athletes must sit out of college athletics for one year). Additionally, probing questions were asked regarding athletes perceptions of fairness, specifically if they should be able to transfer with their coach when a change occurred. Next, if athletes thought this was an unjust rule, they were asked to offer suggestions to the NCAA as to how this inequality could be mitigated. Finally, athletes were asked their opinion regarding a proposed modification of NCAA rules requiring a coach who leaves his or her university before the contract has expired to sit out of athletics for one year.

The participants (N = 47) were men (n = 29) and women (n = 18) in NCAA Division I varsity collegiate athletics. These athletes represented eight collegiate sports: football (n = 14) volleyball (n = 6), women’s soccer (n = 6), baseball (n = 5), men’s golf (n = 4), men’s track and field (n = 3), softball (n = 3), men’s soccer (n = 2), women’s golf (n = 2), men’s basketball (n = 1), women’s basketball (n = 1). For the purpose of this study, athletes were required to meet two inclusion criteria to be eligible to participate: they had experienced a head coaching change in the previous year at their athletic institution and were at least of sophomore standing on their athletic team. This ensured athletes could speak to these experiences regarding the recent coaching change. The interviewed athletes included sophomores (n = 11), juniors, (n = 17), and seniors (n=19; including five fifth-year seniors). All interviews were conducted during the academic year. Although the amount of attention received from universities may be significantly higher among the more common collegiate sports (i.e., football and basketball) versus sports with fewer participants (i.e., golf), athletes in all sports were treated equally. Regardless of team status, athletes who experience a head coaching change still seem to lose a prominent guide on the team, the coach, who is often the athlete’s mentor.

Interview Guide. Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted individually with each of the athletes. All of the questions were asked in identical order, with follow-up probes asked as needed to encourage athletes to elaborate on any specific issues that were important to them. The interview template was predesigned and was used as flexible framework that placed a centralized focus on the perceived imbalance of regulations and guidelines set forth by the NCAA for coaches and athletes (add as appendix). Specifically, athletes were asked to comment and expound on three key sections. The first section of the interview explored participants’ perceptions regarding the rules involving coaching transfers. Specifically, athletes’ general reactions to the NCAA rule that a coach who leaves an institution can start a new coaching position immediately, whereas athletes must sit out of athletics for one year. Through the coding process, participants’ responses grouped into categories of unfair, fair, or undecided.

The second section ascertained general recommendations for the NCAA to help eliminate this potential disparity. Subcategories included whether there should be uniform standards for coaches and athletes, whether the NCAA should evaluate student transfer requests on a case-by-case basis, whether organizational barriers set forth by the NCAA should be minimized to allow freedom of movement for athletes, and whether a penalty should be imposed if a coach violates the terms of a contract.
Finally, the third section explored the proposed solution that a coach who leaves his or her university before the current contract has expired should be forced to sit out of collegiate-level coaching for one year. Athletes were asked to indicate whether they think the coach should be allowed to coach immediately at a new institution or should be reprimanded for failing to fulfill the obligations stated in the contract.

To examine data collected, inductive analysis was implemented to obtain greater insight or clarification of athletes’ responses (14, 15). Inductive analysis was incorporated because it seeks to investigate specific observations and based on these outcomes, general conclusions were ascertained. This method of inquiry was done to methodically generate athletes’ perceptions of NCAA rules and equality because it is relatively open ended and often exploratory, which is key for this research. Furthermore, offering inductive analysis based on systematic questions helps to provide a focused evaluation (16).

After obtaining ethical clearance through the universities’ respective offices of research and compliance, a database was compiled of prominent Division I NCAA universities that had experienced at least one head coaching change for any varsity sport during the academic year. The inclusion criteria were compiled from information offered by the university’s athletic website, specifically the number of years the head coach had been at that university. The database for the athletic teams comprised 48 NCAA universities encompassing a total of 74 varsity sports. After compiling a database at the university level the next step was to create a second database with names and e-mails of all potential athletes who would qualify from the aforementioned 74 varsity sports. Data gathered from this step yielded a participant pool of 799 athletes.

Researchers implemented two methodological criteria to obtain a representative sample of participants. First, a goal of 50 athletes was set as the optimal number to achieve saturation of the data. Second, the maximum number of participants interviewed from one team was set at three athletes. This latter restriction was implemented to maximize the uniqueness and individuality of athletes’ responses. Although this restriction potentially limited the overall number of athletes interviewed, it increased the diversity and generalizability of interviews, which is usually a major limitation of qualitative research (17).

Athletes were initially contacted through their university e-mail address and were informed of the purpose and procedures of the study. Participants were informed that their participation was completely voluntary and their answers would be confidential. In addition, the time commitment required on part of the athlete was shared (i.e., a 30–45 minute phone interview). No more than three athletes per team were contacted simultaneously, as to not violate the self-imposed criteria of three athletes interviewed per university. The three athletes were chosen in order based on the randomly generated list. After one week, if athletes had not responded, a brief follow-up e-mail was sent. If both e-mails elicited no response then it was assumed the athlete declined to participate, no further contact was made, and the process began anew with the next set of athletes in the same random order from the database.

If an athlete responded to the initial or follow-up e-mail and was willing to participate, the athlete was e-mailed a digital copy of the consent form. Before coordinating a time for the phone interview, the athlete was asked to respond to three questions: 1) Are you willing to participate in the study? 2) Can the interview be digitally recorded? 3) Are you at least 18 years old? In order to be eligible to participate, athletes had to answer yes to questions 1 and 3. Potential participants were reassured the interviews would be confidential and coaches would not be involved in the interview process. Furthermore, all authors listed in the byline have significant experience using qualitative methods that enhanced the clarity of coding and analyzing the participants’ responses.

Investigation of the participant response rates elicited that of the 799 athletes who were contacted, 103 agreed to participate, eliciting a 12.9% response rate. Of those 103 athletes, 27 did not respond to e-mail correspondence and 15 were ineligible based on their answers to questions 1 and 3 or because their university prohibited athletes from participating in research. This resulted in a total of 61 athletes who were interviewed (7.6% completed interview rate). However, completed interviews were reviewed, 14 participants were not included in the final data analysis due to insufficient data (from transcribed interviews), resulting in a complete dataset of 47 interviews (5.8% rate of final participant inclusion). Overall, the athletes represented 20 different institutions.

Data analysis
In-depth interviews were recorded as digital audio files and transcribed verbatim by the researchers (15, 18). Researchers proposed this method to capture emerging themes from large data sets (19). Next, the authors worked to code the data using content analysis techniques, developing lower-order themes employing an inductive method (15). Any differences in interpretation of the responses were resolved through discussion between the two researchers before proceeding. Upon completion of lower-order theme development, higher-order themes were created using the same method. This methodology provided a nexus between the overarching goals of the study and the data collected (20).

Results revealed several key themes pertaining to athletes’ perceptions of the NCAA’s different rules for coaches and athletes. From the transcribed interviews a total of nine distinct higher-order themes were developed across all question responses. These themes included the following: 1) NCAA perceptions, 2) student improvements, 3) punishments for coaches who change their institution (see Table 1 for a frequency distribution). It is important to note the overall number of responses may be higher than the number of athletes interviewed because some athletes’ responses may have represented multiple themes.

Perceived NCAA rule discrepancy: Unfair
In the first question, current NCAA transfer rules were investigated, specifically the NCAA’s upholding the regulation that a coach who leaves an institution can begin coaching immediately. However, at the Division I level an athlete who leaves an institution is required to sit out for one year of athletics. Of the 47 athletes interviewed, 28 were opposed to this regulation. Specifically, 12 athletes thought this rule was unreasonable because they chose their school based on their coach, and their coach’s departure had negative ramifications for the athletes. For example, Mason, a golfer, explained his disdain for this rule by stating:

Especially in a sport like golf, where it can be such an individual relationship between a player and a coach, I think if a coach leaves and just goes somewhere else, if you want to follow him, you shouldn’t have to sit out a year… You might be picking the school because of the coach. And, if the coach leaves, I mean, that’s like who you were directly working with for your swing… It definitely just makes it a harder situation for any player after their coach leaves.

Although golf teams are relatively small and the interaction is often intimate, athletes who play for larger teams, such as baseball, also commented on the perceived inequality regarding this NCAA transfer rule. For example, Todd, a baseball athlete, chose his university based on the coach:

If the guy [the coach] that’s coming to your house and [who has] recruited you gets laid off and goes to another school, then you should get to follow him because that’s who you chose to go to school with. You don’t necessarily fall in love with the school but when you go, you fall in love with the people.

Besides those who align with the perceptions of Mason and Todd, an additional 17 athletes voiced concern with the current NCAA rule because they said the same rules should apply to all parties. Malcolm, a basketball athlete, articulated this point: “Personally, I think it’s crazy that once the coach leaves you can’t transfer and go play with the coach that recruited you in high school and play with them; I mean that just doesn’t make any sense.” Malcolm’s beliefs are not unique to his sport as his perceptions cross over to different sports at different universities. For example, Nick, a football athlete, also felt slighted for similar reasons after the recent coaching change at his university:

[If a coaching change happens] the player should be allowed, if he doesn’t like the new system, to be able to go where he’s gonna fit in. Because you’re brought into the school by the old coach. … and this will be the best opportunity to succeed. And then [the old coach] gets fired and the new coach comes in and they don’t necessarily have the same philosophies, it’s not in your best interest to always stay.

This series of quotes illustrates how many athletes think this discrepancy exemplifies the partisan rules implemented by the NCAA in terms of the different expectations for coaches and athletes. Essentially, once Malcolm and Nick commit to being an athlete at a specific university, they face multiple barriers if they later decide to transfer to a different university, and generally, this is not feasible without penalty. As these quotes demonstrate, some athletes find it infuriating because coaches can change institutions without penalty from the NCAA, unlike the athletes.

Another point discussed by five athletes was the irrational nature of applying this rule only to athletes. For example, Vanessa, a golfer, mentioned, “You’re unhappy in your [new] situation, and you want to move on … [to] get the best that you can out of your collegiate experience, but then the NCAA is kind of penalizing you.” As evident by this quotation, some athletes felt a lack of compassion by the NCAA regarding their current state of affairs.

Perceived NCAA rule discrepancy: Fair
Thirteen athletes said this is indeed a fair rule that should be upheld by the NCAA. This aligns with previous framework that athletes’ perceptions of organizational justice are generally fair (13). However, coaching changes can also be problematic because decisions made by administrators are often inconsistent. Five athletes said there should be different rules for coaches and athletes, because coaches receive monetary compensation, and coaching is their profession. Dillon, a track and field athlete mentioned, “The coach that just left, this was his job… he had a family; he can’t sit out a year from getting a paycheck to provide for his family.” Along these lines, Ray, a football athlete, acknowledged there are inequalities when it comes to athletic transferring rules, but he took a broader perspective and faulted the overall collegiate system:

I think that the landscape of college football is unfortunate that all coaches, in order to take a promotion, you pretty much have to leave before bowl season and you leave your former team at a disadvantage because you left without finishing your season. [It’s] not the coaches’ fault, it’s a problem of the nature of college football. But I think the one-year rule for players is important to make sure kids don’t flop around schools but they stick to their commitments.

Ray’s position is similar to five athletes who believed if the rule were not in place, then athletes would simply transfer to the dominant university in their sport in order to compete for the winning team.

Finally, Jalen, a football athlete, was one of seven athletes who viewed the questions posed slightly differently and said the NCAA rule is favorable when examined using an academic lens: “Transferring affects your academics and that’s why you go to school and you don’t go to play football. You’re a student-athlete, so you’re a student first.” Thus, the view of these participants, related to NCAA guidelines, reflects a more holistic view that is not focused solely on their identity attained from collegiate sport.

Perceived NCAA Rule discrepancy: Undecided
Six athletes representing a variety of sports, including football, volleyball, track and field, and softball, were undecided regarding their perception of the current rule. Chad, a football athlete, brought up the notion, “This is a double edge sword. I think there’s some good and bad that comes with the rule.” Thus, it is important to note although these respondents did not take a particular stance regarding this question, their responses are important nonetheless.

Suggestions for the NCAA: Uphold uniform standards
Those who believe this rule is unfair were probed for suggestions as to how the NCAA could potentially minimize any discrepancy regarding regulations for coaches and athletes when leaving an institution. The most frequent response, mentioned by 11 athletes, was the same standards should be implemented to ensure a standardized level of equality for both coaches and athletes. Specifically, these athletes believed if coaches can leave an institution without penalty, then athletes should be entitled to these same benefits. Sandi, a soccer athlete, was one of these athletes who had a more progressive approach to address this potential problem:

I think the rule [should be] that if you are transferring from Division I to Division I, [the rules] should still stand, but for us, our coach went to Division III, and I shouldn’t have to sit out a year if I wanted to follow him.

Jeremy, a football athlete, also believes athletes should have greater equality and flexibility; from the viewpoint of the NCAA, however, he offers one important caveat: “Give [athletes] a time frame to let the NCAA know they would like to transfer; the NCAA should be required to let [them] play the next year because the coaching staff is a big part of the experience.”

Suggestions for the NCAA: Assess transfers on a case-by-case basis
Another frequently mentioned suggestion, referenced by 10 athletes, was the NCAA should examine each transfer request on a case-by-case basis. For example, Jamal, a football athlete, offered this suggestion:

I think that [the NCAA] is going to say if we keep you from doing this for a year, I think that specific situation should be looked at and reviewed by a committee of the NCAA… The way our coach left, I think that he should be suspended for the first six games.

Mason, who plays golf, had a similar viewpoint: “I feel like [the NCAA] could [review each case] more often and just understand the situation and be able to make a fair decision about whether or not it’s appropriate for the player to sit out a year.” These suggestions offered from athletes offer a template for a future policy the NCAA should consider regarding athletes who want a release from their institution to follow their coach.

Suggestions for the NCAA: Remove organizational barriers
Furthermore, seven athletes suggested the NCAA should adopt a policy of limited involvement and not micromanage coaches when they decide to leave their institution. Although implementing all-encompassing rules helps to level the playing field for coaches and athletes, as highlighted in this section, this rule may have a detrimental effect on athletes. For instance, Malcolm, a basketball athlete, captured the sentiment of these athletes when he said, “Some [athletes] can get used to [a coaching change], some kids can’t, and that’s the thing the NCAA [doesn’t] understand that some [athletes] can’t overcome change.” Dillon, a track and field athlete, also spoke to how the NCAA should stop being overbearing: “I think that’s something that the NCAA needs to step back and let the coaches decide. I don’t think any coach would want to leave a player out to dry and just kind of up and leave an organization.”

Suggestions for the NCAA: Impose a penalty for coaches
Five athletes suggested if a coach changes institutions, then the NCAA should impose a penalty for that coach, such as having to sit out for a set time period. Caleb, a football athlete’s rationale was if an athlete has to miss one year of games because of a transfer, then it would be justified for a coach to also receive some type of consequence:

I would say take some salary of a year or six months away, or something of value because missing a year of games is valuable to us as players, so it would be fair if [coaches] had to receive that same type of penalty.

Jarvis, a football athlete, said it is imperative to understand the larger structure of the NCAA. “The NCAA is a business and sometimes a business isn’t always correct… but business is business and money is money – so money talks at the end of the day.”

Coaches should be able to coach immediately
The final question offers an investigative approach regarding athletes’ perceptions of a possible exploratory rule that a coach who chooses to leave a university before his or her contract has expired should be forced to sit out of athletics for one year before beginning a new coaching position. Thirty athletes contended a proposed rule that punishes coaches for leaving before their contract expires would be a disservice. The highest number of raw data responses in this category elicited 20 responses from athletes who stated “coaching is a business,” implying because coaches receive monetary compensation, it would be an unrealistic solution. For instance, in most professions someone who wishes to leave his or her current job would not be expected to wait one year before reentering the workforce at a similar position. As an example, Dillon, a track and field athlete, acknowledged the ethical conflict of coaches staying with their team when circumstances are less than ideal; however, he remarks that at the end of the day coaching is a profession:

I don’t think that’s very ethical by the coaches [to leave] but, you know if he goes to another school that’s obviously something the other school’s gonna take into consideration, ok, he’s willing to up and leave that program in the middle of a season… it’s their job and it’s their paychecks.

Thus, these latter athletes believe that ultimately, coaching, similar to any other career, has certain expectations (e.g., you can leave when you want).

Ramifications for quitting
Conversely, 12 athletes interviewed believe when this situation presents itself coaches should not be able to coach immediately, including five athletes who mentioned that a coach who makes a commitment should honor that commitment (and team) and not leave the coaching position prematurely. In particular, Marissa, a softball athlete, raised an interesting point when she responded, “Then I think [the NCAA] should change [the rule], because to me, what’s the point of a contract if you can just get out of it?” Furthermore, Katie, a volleyball athlete, mentioned: “I feel like it’s all different standards, maybe it wouldn’t be so many people would [leave and more would] make a more conscious effort to stay where they are, to make it work.”

In addition, one shortcoming of the status quo is that some athletes perceived the NCAA penalizes athletes and does not hold coaches accountable for their actions. Dustin, a football athlete, shared this observation:

If I as a student-athlete wanted to go talk one-on-one with the NCAA, I couldn’t even do that. They’re untouchable… ‘we don’t care what their [the athletes’] hardships are…’ And yet, coaches are getting paid… They’re getting free cars. They’re getting all these special privileges, living the good life and [the NCAA doesn’t] ask them anything. [Universities] just allow them to go, they pay them a little buyout that eventually gets settled by boosters… And I will say that most head coaches are annually looking for new jobs… And you know, once [the student-athletes] fail, they can just get plowed into the dirt… in other words, people look at it in the positive aspect, like you’re getting an education. So I think the balance between the two are significantly differing.

Ray, a football athlete, offered a unique approach in a sense that the broader system should be reevaluated. He acknowledges coaching changes are an inevitable part of collegiate athletes:

I think personally a way to solve the problem would be kinda like there are rules of recruiting, like you can’t talk to recruits at certain times of the year… The same way [the NCAA] should not allow coaches to talk to other colleges about the head coaching positions until the season is over, allowing coaches to finish, even if they were to tap out of their contracts, they at least completed a season with their team at hand.

To our knowledge, this study was the first to explore athletes’ reactions to and perceptions of a head coaching change and the rules that govern this process using a qualitative methodology. Although other studies have focused on academic performance (21, 22) and the athlete role (23 – 25) in high-level athletics, no specific scholarly work has examined perceptions of the participant during such an emotional transition. A recent contribution (9) arguably came the closest; however, that manuscript focused on how athletes could use psychological and social skills to enhance their well-being and performance after experiencing a head coaching change, not the initial emotional reactions that were present.

Most of the athletes interviewed for the current study are opposed to the rule that coaches can transfer without penalty, yet athletes are bound by a different set of regulations. Perhaps athletes believe this rule is unjust because of the difficulties athletes experience when adjusting to a new coaching change (26). As found in the current study, multiple athletes chose their university partially based on the athletic teams and the coaches. Furthermore, many athletes view their coaches as role models or mentors to help guide them during their time as an athlete (27); thus, a relationship often develops. Yet when a coach leaves the university, athletes may lose the sense of connectedness that was forged through a mutual trust. After all, coaches often reiterate being an athlete on a team involves staying committed and relying on one another; therefore, an argument could made that coaches should also fulfill this criteria by staying true to their contractual coaching commitments. It is possible that some athletes (e.g., Mason and Todd) felt betrayed when their coach left their current institution because of the sense of identity and a relative level of prestige that came along with being a member of a cohesive and recognizable group (28). Furthermore, when a part of the athletic team changed (e.g., the coaching staff) athletes perhaps lost a sense of belonging and identity.

A second, and somewhat troubling finding from this research is the lack of perceived support athletes receive from the NCAA (29). It was apparent this was upsetting for most of the athletes because the coaching change is beyond their control, yet they are the ones who will inherit the new coach. To minimize this inconsistency, some athletes suggested the NCAA should evaluate each transfer request independently to uphold a greater equality for coaches and athletes. However, one prominent disadvantage of having the NCAA review each transfer request would be the exhaustive time commitment; in addition, with the number of unique variables, it would be all but impossible to maintain consistency among individual cases. Nevertheless, the NCAA is quick to implement specific rules for athletes, such as preventing athletes from transferring without penalty (in most cases), but it is important to remember the core purpose of the NCAA is to integrate education and athletics so that the “educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” (30)

Possible solutions
Perhaps a more plausible solution to this, and other current NCAA problems, would be to give athletes a greater voice in the governing process of intercollegiate athletics. Given that the NCAA claims the rules are in place to hold the educational affairs of the athletes as top priority (30). One viable solution to this predicament would be to allow athletes to transfer without penalty if the transfer could have a positive impact on their academics. This is in agreement with other research (11) suggesting fewer restrictions regarding athlete transfers would be beneficial to athletes as they pursue their academic endeavors. Specifically, this solution may include allowing students to transfer to a different institution if they offer a degree program more applicable to the athletes’ desired educational trajectory.

Although the richness of data presented in this study allows for greater insight into the world of the athlete, it is important to address the study limitations. First, all athletes were Division I athletes who compete at the most elite level within the NCAA divisional structure. These athletes are renowned for their skills and get publicity when they attain new levels of success; however, they also experience far more pressure to succeed than athletes who compete in other divisional levels (31). Thus, the reactions to a head coaching change athletes shared in this study may not be generalizable to athletes who compete at the NCAA Division II or III levels. Additionally, this study only focused on changes at the head coaching level. Within Division I athletics many teams have multiple assistant or position coaches who interact more with athletes on a daily basis than the head coach. An interesting future study would be to analyze athletes’ reactions to a change in assistant coaches compared with a head coach.

Future studies might also ascertain athletes’ current level of understanding regarding the NCAA transfer rules. Since the actual knowledge of athletes’ conveyed perceptions were not evaluated in this study, athletes’ responses may have potentially affected their rule perceptions. Furthermore, as previous research mentions, research needs to extend past the athletes perceptions and investigate the impact of these perceptions, as a coaching change impacts each athlete uniquely (13). Finally, institutional barriers (i.e., how many earned credits may or may not transfer toward a degree program at a new school) may be just as relevant for athletes when assessing their future at a university; however, there is limited research as to how academics enters into the decision-making process of transferring to a new school.

Focusing on athletes’ perceptions of the current NCAA rules revealed a more comprehensive understanding of the perceived inequality. Overall, the findings from this research will help develop an understanding of athletes’ perceptions of NCAA transfer rules for athletes. Most of the athletes believe the current NCAA rules are unfair, mainly because of the different regulations for coaches and athletes. For example, coaches can leave a university without penalty from the NCAA, and they frequently do this to pursue a more lucrative coaching contract. Furthermore, the NCAA purports to promote collegiate academics (30), yet the transfer rules do not allow athletes to transfer to a different university for academic reasons (unless their degree program has been eliminated). The findings from this work are in line with that of other research (11) in identifying a sense that collegiate athletes are subjected to harsh repercussions under the current transfer rules and the current NCAA regulations implemented for athletes could be less restrictive. This is troubling because it highlights the unresponsiveness of the NCAA in addressing long-standing concerns from athletes. The findings from this study also emphasize the importance of the mentor-mentee relationship between athletes and their coaches. This shows that a coaching change can have a negative effect on athletes’ well-being. Therefore, the findings from this study shed light on NCAA policies and practices that may not be in the best interest of the very people they purportedly represent.

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Table 1

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