David Cutcliffe on graduate transfers

Duke coach responds to criticism of his handling of Thomas Sirk transfer

Mark Dolejs—USA TODAY Sports
Duke Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe watches his team from the sidelines in their game against the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham

There doesn’t tend to be a lot of drama swirling around David Cutcliffe. The straight-talking head football coach at Duke has rebuilt the program without any hint of controversy or questionable moves.

That’s what made it all the more surprising that Cutcliffe and Duke were held up as a negative example in one of the biggest controversies of the college basketball offseason.

Pittsburgh shooting guard Cameron Johnson received his degree and attempted to take advantage of the NCAA rule allowing graduates to transfer without having to sit out a season. Pitt coach Kevin Stallings and the school’s administration attempted to block Johnson from transferring to ACC rival North Carolina, however. After close to two months of posturing and argument, Johnson was finally given a full release to join Roy Williams’ squad.

How does this squabble between basketball rivals involve Duke football? During the debate over whether Pitt had the right to restrict Johnson’s transfer destination, former Duke basketball player and longtime NCAA critic Jay Bilas pointed out that Cutcliffe had the same policy as Stallings.

When former starting quarterback Thomas Sirk was granted a sixth year of eligibility and chose to transfer instead of battling sophomore Daniel Jones for the Blue Devils’ starting job, Cutcliffe prevented Sirk from transferring to anyone on Duke’s schedule in 2017.

“What Duke is saying: Sirk isn’t good enough to play for Duke, but too good to play against Duke. Coaches can take ‘secrets,’ players can’t,” Bilas tweeted.

“The takeaway,” Bilas said in another tweet. “Sirk and Johnson are being treated as paid employees subject to a unilaterally imposed non-compete provision. That’s wrong.”

In an interview with Duke’s student newspaper, Bilas called Cutcliffe’s position “nonsensical” and added, “Any restriction on a player as to where they go is just wrong—it’s wrong if Duke does it, it’s wrong if Pittsburgh does it, it’s wrong if UNLV does it, it’s wrong if Harvard does it. It’s just wrong, period, and that’s why I make no distinction that I went to school at Duke. I love Duke, I love the people there, but their restrictions on Thomas Sirk were wrong.”

As fall practice opened, Cutcliffe spoke at length on the graduate transfer issue. He said that he worked closely with Sirk during the decision-making process.

“We talked about numerous places and different places,” Cutcliffe said. “We did everything that was done each step of the way together. It was difficult for both of us. He felt it was in his best interests. He’d been out (with injuries). There were a lot of questions. He felt like Daniel (Jones) had come on and made it his team. I supported him 1000 percent. I would’ve loved to have had him, but I wasn’t going to be selfish in that regard. He looked at a number of different places and felt that East Carolina was where he would have been happiest.”

To say the least, Cutcliffe has mixed feelings on the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.

“There’s been a lot of talk about transfers,” he said. “I read about it in the paper. First of all, there’s no easy answers. I will tell you this: I wouldn’t take a graduate transfer that didn’t intend on getting a graduate degree. I don’t think any rule should be made a farce. When you start to get into transfers, I think you need to move slowly and carefully in making your big decisions there. There’s a lot more at stake than people might realize. It is very complex. A lot of smart peopel are looking at it and talking about it. I think the trend in college legislation has been very student-athlete friendly. Sometimes, there’s a law of unintended consequences that, in the end, it’s not as friendly to the student-athlete as people might have thought.”

“When it’s properly administered it can be a really good rule,” Cutcliffe continued. “We’ve had a couple young people do it that were down the line in our depth chart and found places they can play. That’s a plus. If a school has a graduate degree that benefits that young person, that’s a double plus. What we need to guard against is—number one: people don’t need to be recruiting graduate transfers. That’s illegal, to be out there trying to find them. And then guys out there playing without really going to school. That’s not the student-athlete model. That’s not what the NCAA was founded on. That’s not what we want to see starting to occur.”

When asked to specifically comment on restricting destinations, as he did with Sirk, Cutcliffe responded, in full:

“First of all you, you need to understand that the relationship at that time, between a player and coach is probably much better than anyone knows. You have great knowledge of the youngster. They have knowl of you. They have teammates they care about that are there. So before we just say it should be open season—that’s not functional. That causes a lot of changes to a lot of people.

“There’s no easy answer to this. It’s not trying to be selfish or worry about some guy going and saying, ‘Well I’m gonna tell y’all everything I know.’ Nobody knows what’s getting ready to happen in a game,  you know. I’ve lost coaches to other schools on our schedule that know much more than a player would be able to. This player has invested in the institutino. He’s invested into the teammates. He’s invested into the coaches and vice versa. To just say it should be open and carte blanche is not gonna work. And so, it may be easy to sit on the sideline and say that, but you need to be in the game to understand why coaches—we’re all talking about the coaches—why coaches restrict, to some degree, transfers. I personally, out of respect and human decency, wouldn’t disrespect another coach I’m competing with by trying to take a player. Do you understand what I’m saying? There’s a lot at play here, and it’s bigger than just making a signing. And I mean all of that sincerely.”

In the meantime, Cutcliffe also spent the offseason bringing in a graduate transfer of his own—offensive lineman Evan Lisle, who arrived from Ohio State.

“I love the fact that he saw me a couple days ago,” Cutcliffe said of his new lineman. “He had just started his track toward a graduate degree at Fuqua (School of Business), and he was so pumped about that. He’s what you want a student athlete to be. Yet he’s equally, if not more excited, about being a teammate.”

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