A week ago, we wrote about two professional football players, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff, who found greater happiness and success after they literally switched teams. Our lesson was that sometimes the grass — or in their case, Astroturf — on the other side. Sometimes the fit between a contributor and a team really isn’t optimal, and in such cases it does neither the individual nor the organization any good to keep on keeping on. Sometimes, you have to be honest with yourself and then bet on yourself to find that fit elsewhere, which both Stafford and Goff did.

Today, we’re taking the opposite side of the argument in light of the increasing number of college athletes participating in the transfer portal across collegiate sports each year. The portal allows athletes to transfer from their current program to a new one at another school without, as in the past, having to sit out a year and lose playing time and delaying possible professional advancement.

That’s what the transfer’s advocates say about it, at any rate. But others are saying that the grass always looks greener through the transfer portal, and the rising numbers of “unhappy” athletes who resort to using it may want to proceed with greater caution. So says Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo who thinks the portal makes it hard to learn an important life lesson: Izzo says that too many players take bad advice from agents, competing coaches or other confidants who tell them to leave because they are unhappy, usually because of too little playing time.

“What's wrong with being unhappy?” asked Izzo. “I'm unhappy most of my life. Unhappy drives you. Unhappy pushes you. Unhappy makes people realize, ‘You know what? I'm not good enough. I've got to get better.’”


He has a point. While some players have a legitimate reason to transfer, such as when a coach leaves, others are taking a big chance by giving up their scholarships and education, in the hope someone else will want them. And the statistics regarding successful transfers support Izzo’s concern, with NCAA data showing that 19 percent of the Division I men's basketball players who entered the transfer portal last year — that’s nearly one-in-five — failed to obtain scholarships at other schools. Izzo also said only a small percentage of players turn pro, which means most of the men's players “need to graduate” — and find other jobs.

They also need to learn that life isn’t a big, rosy transfer portal. Sometimes, no usually, success comes only after a period of struggle, even failure of one sort or another. This is a hard lesson to learn, but it’s even harder when no one is teaching it to you. As leaders, we are responsible not only for executing our “plays” but also creating a vision into which our team can see themselves as key contributors, whatever their specific roles.

We still haven’t found anyone who expressed this responsibility more succinctly than Duke coaching legend Mike Krzyzewski. Too often, says the man known as Coach K, leaders allow themselves to feel “so busy” that they communicate quickly and without taking the time to see whether their team fully heard them. And that represents a job only half done. “The person sending the message is responsible for making sure it was heard and understood in the way it was meant,” said Coach K in an interview.

Another way Coach K inculcated this quality in his teams during the long grind of the season was by insisting that managers and players sit together on plane and bus rides and even room together on the road, further breaking down the cliques and unspoken barriers dividing the stars from everyone else. Doing this was not intended to be a “nice” gesture; it was intended to demonstrate a core value of Duke basketball under Coach K’s leadership, which was to make visible each team member’s contribution to the whole.

Obviously, some of the players who choose to transfer and some of the coaches who welcome them onto their teams will benefit from the portal; but as Michigan State’s Izzo said, this kind of short-term thinking also comes with hidden risks. Coaches who are paid to win may not invest in developing those they see as “future” contributors, while players who are looking for the shortest route to the pros may not invest in learning how to earn their place in the starting lineup.

That’s where leadership comes in. Ask yourself how well you’re helping your team understand what winning long-term looks like for them as well as the team, and the best, if not exactly shortest, way to get there. Have you made this connection with every member of your team? It’s the surest way to keep your grass looking green.