Eight years ago, on the third floor of a Holiday Inn off Route 411 in Rome, Georgia, a single phone call set off a chain reaction that would someday affect Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and all of college football.
Russell Wilson still remembers the call. “Like it was yesterday,” he says now.
In town that spring to play a minor league baseball game as a second baseman with the Asheville Tourists, Wilson was on the line with his NC State football coach. Wilson had just missed spring practice to play baseball but wanted to return to the football team for his senior season.
Then Tom O’Brien told him he would no longer have his starting job.
A three-year starter at quarterback, Wilson could not accept that. What he did next took quite an emotional toll, but it fueled one of the biggest trends to shake the sport of college football — the rise of graduate transfers.
Burrow and Hurts are only the most recent examples to use the grad transfer rule and flourish at a second school, taking their teams to the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN and ESPN App).
Thinking Out Loud discusses how the result of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will come down to the performances of Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts.
They can thank Wilson for setting the stage. Wilson can thank Greg Paulus.
In 2006, the NCAA passed a rule that allowed graduates to be eligible to play if they transferred to a graduate program at another school regardless of sport and any previous transfer. But many administrators pushed back, believing they had just opened the door to free agency in their biggest sports.
Within nine months, membership overrode the rule. Any graduate in the sports of football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball or men’s ice hockey who wanted to transfer would need to go through the waiver process in order to play immediately.
Waivers opened the first door for graduate transfers such as Paulus. In 2009, Paulus made an unprecedented decision to leave the Duke basketball team after graduation and play his final remaining season of eligibility with the Syracuse football team. He got his waiver, and he started for the Orange. Beyond the oddity of switching sports, nothing Paulus did that season pushed him or his team into the national conversation. Syracuse went 4-8, and Paulus went on to coach basketball.
But what Paulus did stuck with Mark Rodgers, who worked as a baseball agent and also represented two-sport athletes — including Wilson.
Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Wilson starred in football and baseball and wanted to play both sports in college and the pros. NC State baseball coach Elliott Avent went to watch him play in a tournament in Salem, Virginia. He saw a raw shortstop who could make every throw and never missed a ball. A man sitting next to him in the stands turned to Avent and said, “Son, if you think he can play shortstop, you should see him throw a football. He’s the best quarterback this state’s ever had.”
Avent stared at the man. Although he wasn’t a football coach, he knew enough about football. So he started peppering the man with names. Better than Michael Vick and Ronald Curry?
“This guy told me, ‘He’s the best,'” Avent said.
So Avent told the Wolfpack football coaches about him. Wilson was largely ignored in recruiting circles because of his size: 5-foot-11, 180 pounds. NC State agreed to let him play football and baseball. Within a year, O’Brien took over as football coach, and the dynamic shifted. He expected Wilson around the team in the offseason, and that limited the amount of time Wilson had for baseball.
Still, Wilson decided to join the Colorado Rockies for spring training in early 2011 after they drafted him in the fourth round the previous year. He had already graduated and thought that missing spring football would not jeopardize his spot on the team.
But O’Brien had another quarterback he felt good about in four-star prospect Mike Glennon. O’Brien faced a dilemma. Do you tell Wilson he can come back and risk losing Glennon, who has waited for his chance to start? And what if Wilson decides to forgo football and Glennon has already left the team?
O’Brien did not return a phone message seeking comment, but he said in 2014, “Michael would have graduated that year. He could move on if he wanted to at the end of that year. So that was just all part of the decision-making process. It had to happen. You could have one quarterback, you could have two quarterbacks or you could have no quarterbacks.” In 2016, Wilson made headlines when he delivered the commencement speech at Wisconsin and gave a different take on his call with O’Brien.
“He said, ‘Listen, son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League,'” Wilson told the Wisconsin graduates. ‘You’re too small. There’s no chance. You’ve got no shot. Give it up.’ Of course, I’m on this side of the phone saying, ‘So you’re telling me I’m not coming back to NC State? I won’t see the field?’ He said, ‘No, son, you won’t see the field.'”
Those comments again renewed the debate about how and why Wilson left NC State. Former teammate George Bryan said nobody on the team had animosity toward him.
“It was one of those situations where Coach O’Brien had to make a decision on what he needed to do, and he made his decision and everybody respected it,” Bryan said. “We hated to see Russell go. If anybody on the team hated to see him go, I was one of them because I started off with Russell. We were redshirted together. We played on scout team together. We created a really good connection.”
After Wilson hung up the phone in his hotel room in Rome, Georgia, in late April 2011, he felt emotional. He’d spent four years at NC State, the one school that supported his football and baseball dreams. He never wanted to leave. Now he had to make a decision.
Did he want to give up on football completely and focus solely on baseball? No. Wilson loved football and believed wholeheartedly he could be an NFL starting quarterback. But he also loved baseball and felt he had not given enough of himself to that sport, either.
“I was like, ‘OK, am I going to play baseball the rest of my life?'” Wilson said. “‘Is it going to be football? Is it going to be both? What does that look like?’ That was really the harder challenge, to be honest with you.”
Rodgers was now advising Wilson on his baseball career, and the two had grown close after Wilson’s father died in 2010. Rodgers remembered Paulus had transferred from Duke to Syracuse but was fuzzy on the details. Was it because he played a second sport? Rodgers called the NCAA to get clarity.
What he learned surprised him and Wilson, and some coaches, too. Earlier in 2011, the NCAA passed a new grad transfer rule, allowing graduates in all sports to transfer and gain immediate eligibility without a waiver as long as they were enrolled in graduate school. If they had previously transferred, they would need a waiver to play immediately.
“Everybody was like, ‘What? He can play?'” Rodgers said. “We were doing what we thought was in Russell’s best interest. We had no clue this would open up that Pandora’s box.”
Wilson settled on Wisconsin and Auburn as his top two choices. Then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema quickly noted the difference between recruiting a high school prospect and a 21-year-old college graduate. He didn’t need to win Wilson over with social media messages or fancy graphics. He needed to win Wilson over with the truth.
Wilson was smart and mature enough to understand the value of another degree. From a football perspective, the truth started and ended with the players returning to the team for 2011, not to mention the pro-style offense that would help him convince skeptical NFL scouts that he could play at the next level.
Wilson met with the Badgers’ skill players on the first night of his official visit. The next morning, he arrived in time to see the offensive linemen max-squatting. Before Wilson left, Bielema took perhaps the biggest risk of the recruiting process. He told Wilson if he did not choose Wisconsin, he should play at Auburn because football needed him.
A week later, Wilson called. He was coming to Wisconsin.
“When it happened, I felt like we hit the lottery,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said.
Although opinions about grad transfers had shifted enough to change the rule, not everyone in college sports was on board.
“At that time, it was probably a mixed bag,” Alvarez said. “Some people didn’t agree with it, and felt that if you invested three or four years with an athlete and now he’s matured and polished, it’s not right for him to pick up and take his skills for someone else to benefit from. I know there were people that felt that way. I always felt if they’ve gotten their degree, that’s what they came there for. They spent their time there. If they choose to leave because it might benefit them or they’re unhappy, that’s their prerogative.”
Wilson left baseball on June 27. Around 6 a.m. on July 1, he loaded up a U-Haul and drove it to Madison. Bielema made no promises to Wilson about winning the starting job. But for Wilson, that was the only objective. To get there, he poured himself into the playbook. He made notecards on which he wrote down every play, every audible and every adjustment and studied them like a 10-year-old doing math flashcards.
On top of that, he had to win over his new teammates and coaches as quickly as possible, pushing aside how strange it felt to start over five years into his collegiate career.
“We hit it off the first time we sat down with each other on his visit,” former Wisconsin receiver Nick Toon said. “He’s one of those guys that walks in the room and people are drawn to him, and people vibe with him and get behind him and rally around him.”
With the help of Toon, Jared Abbrederis, Kevin Zeitler, Ricky Wagner, Travis Frederick, Peter Konz, Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon, Wilson immersed himself in the program. They worked out together and studied together. One day at a player-led workout, Wilson asked his new teammates whether they wanted to play crossbar.
They all looked at him, puzzled. Wilson stood at the 30-yard line and dropped back to pass, and the football hit the crossbar dead center. His teammates stared, silently wondering, What just happened?
By the time fall practice came around, it was obvious Wilson was not there just to play football.
He was there to make a point.
Within the first five minutes of the first practice, Bielema turned to offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. They looked at each other. Where skeptics saw a short quarterback, Bielema and Chryst saw a quarterback with a very high delivery, great arm strength, exceptional vision and a natural feel for the game. They had their starter.
Wilson guided Wisconsin to a 6-0 start and a No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press poll, throwing for 1,557 yards, 14 touchdowns and only one interception. Although preseason expectations were high, Wilson was playing at the highest level of his career. By November, he and Ball found themselves in the Heisman conversation.
When that season ended in the Rose Bowl, Wilson had thrown for a career-high 33 touchdown passes and a career-low four interceptions, and completed a career-best 72.8% of his passes. Wisconsin finished 11-3, and eventually, all 11 starters on that team found themselves on an NFL roster.
A backup quarterback at Texas Tech took notice. Jacob Karam wanted his own opportunity to become a starter. Through all the media coverage around Wilson, he learned about the grad transfer rule. In 2012, Karam used the rule to gain immediate eligibility at Memphis.
“He was the one that opened my eyes to it,” Karam said. “I felt like I tried to model my play after Russell Wilson, but even for him to do that and transfer, it showed a lot of courage to me, especially since he had such a great baseball and football career at NC State.”
In the years that followed, grad transfer numbers increased dramatically. According to NCAA data, the number of graduate transfers in Division I football has nearly tripled since 2013, from 58 to 166 in 2018. Part of the reason is that the number of freshmen enrolling early in school also has increased, giving athletes the opportunity to graduate in three or four years with eligibility remaining in their playing careers.
But the way Wilson played in 2011 helped. What if he had gone to Wisconsin and been the backup?
“He’d be playing for the Colorado Rockies right now,” Rodgers said.
“He definitely was a trailblazer looking back,” Toon said. “We’re in a much different time, and there are a lot more people taking advantage of that currently, but he was one of the example-setters for people to transfer and have a large amount of success at a new college, and so he’s definitely one that probably will go down in the history books relating to the grad transfer rule.”
Of course, not every grad transfer turns into a Heisman contender (or winner) like Wilson or Burrow or Hurts. It takes the right player at the right time on the right team for everything to work out just right.
For every grad transfer quarterback who has transcendent success, many others go the grad transfer route and either fail to win starting jobs or play outside the national spotlight.
What is indisputable is the way Wilson brought an inordinate amount of attention to a heavily debated rule that had its fair share of detractors in 2011, helping change attitudes along the way. What was once viewed with raised eyebrows is now met with head nods and approval. Grad transfers are a new normal thanks to what many now call “The Russell Wilson Rule.”
There is even an NCAA proposal to further restrictions loosen on graduate transfers. It would no longer require grad transfers to enroll in graduate school but instead allow them to go for another baccalaureate degree or take non-degree courses, a graduate certificate program or graduate classes.
“We didn’t know it was going to become that popular,” Wilson said. “It’s a good thing, though. The reason why I say it’s a good thing is because to be honest with you, I think kids go into college wanting to obviously go to that university and play great there. But if something happens, it also gives them a little bit of motivation to graduate early.”
After Wilson left NC State, Glennon started for two years. Both players were drafted, but Wilson’s NFL career has skyrocketed. His success with the Seattle Seahawks also helped pave the way for shorter quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to become No. 1 draft picks the past two years.
As for NC State, the Wolfpack have seen two more quarterbacks drafted since Wilson and Glennon left.
Both were graduate transfers.
ESPN’s Brady Henderson contributed to this story.