Hope Is Not A Strategy: The Reality Of Transferring

By Mitch Mustain | @MitchMustain

Editor's Note: Mitch Mustain is a former Gatorade, Parade, and USA Today National High School Player of the Year who was widely considered to be the top quarterback prospect in the 2006 recruiting class while playing for now-Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn at Springdale (AR) High School.

Mustain signed with the University of Arkansas, where he started eight games as a freshman before being benched in favor of sophomore Casey Dick. Prior to the 2007 season, Mustain transferred to Southern Cal and the rest — as they say — is history.

Mustain would start just one game during his final three years at USC, where he backed up a pair of future pros in Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. In the years following his graduation from USC, Mustain spent one season as a pitcher in the Chicago White Sox organization and two seasons quarterbacking in the Arena Football League. 

I’m currently sitting in the Fayetteville Public Library, just two blocks from my childhood home and within earshot of the University of Arkansas’ Old Main tower bells.

I took my first college class on the ground floor of that building, with the same professor my mom worked under as a graduate student. There are no fewer than a half-dozen of my family’s names, dating to the early 1940s, on the myriad sidewalks around the campus which record the graduates.

But whatever may seem my fate, history will record a different walk for me.  

There has been a lot written or said about what happened during my time in Fayetteville, AR, and after, but little — if anything at all — about what the actual transfer experience is: how it happens, the considerations that are and should be given to it, the expectations versus the reality, the unanticipated changes and challenges, and even the stigma associated with it. 

None of these things were discussed with me or by me during my transfer, and while there’s probably nothing that would have changed my decision to leave, being conscious of them would have likely increased my immediate- and mid-term success after doing so.  

This article isn’t the denouement. I’m not going to parse out every detail of what happened and why and attempt to tie the whole story together in the immaculate form. There are well-documented sources that give the micro perspective.  

It is also important to remember that, while I am going to share my thoughts and experiences, each situation is vastly different. My hope from this is that student-athletes who find themselves considering a change of uniform will make the most well-informed, clear decision and be better able to set themselves on a track for the positive experience they are looking for. 

In May 2006, I enrolled at the University of Arkansas two days after my high school graduation. I had spent the better part of the previous two years being recruited by most major programs and had visited a good number of them. Very few of them interested me — a feeling perhaps not uncommon among recruits. There are nearly as many factors being weighed during the recruiting process as there are individuals, and regional and familial considerations loom large among them.

By the summer of 2005 I had narrowed my choices to Arkansas, Texas, and Notre Dame. While Arkansas was struggling, and by no objective measure one of the better teams I could consider, it was the home team and I wanted to love the program and be a part of it.

Texas was running hot with Vince Young and Austin has a draw all its own. Notre Dame had finally made a bold move and hired Charlie Weis, who brought along David Cutcliffe, and they had all the appearances of making a return to prominence. Weis was persuasive, if shrewd.  

My astute readers will also point out that I’m not Catholic, alas.

To avoid the long walk to a little house, I chose Arkansas with the accompaniment of my high school head coach Gus Malzahn and a bag of hopes and promises that in very low likelihood could be fulfilled. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that the season was wild in nearly every sense.

There was a clear — though not clearly defined — power struggle between the new parts and the old, leaving us with two offenses that resembled just enough of their previous forms to leave everybody confused and trying to make sense of them as one. There were personal and professional conflicts, all of which were petty and which tore at the fabric of the team and the institution and would have far-reaching consequences. Despite all of that, we had a load of star talent and one of the better seasons in the recent history of the program — and certainly the most excitement around it all.

After eight consecutive starts at quarterback, I was benched and saw little playing time afterward. Meanwhile, relationships inside the halls and, just as important, in the media, began to turn cold and hostile and wholly riddled with inaccuracies and assumptions. While playing time was not a major immediate concern for me, it had become clear that my development in that program would be extremely limited if not outright stifled, and that to grow as a player and to see the field again I would have to look elsewhere. 

In hindsight, the decline of that year’s team and my subsequent departure aren't very surprising, though our relative success that season made it more shocking and difficult to understand for many. Wide receiver Damian Williams, my classmate and teammate at both Springdale High School and Arkansas, departed for Southern Cal after the SEC Championship loss to eventual BCS champion Florida. After we wrapped up our bowl game in Orlando, FL, on New Year’s Day, Malzahn left for Tulsa and I had to decide what was next.  

I left Arkansas for three reasons. 

First, the environment was toxic and the barriers present before me were greater than what my physical performance could correct for.

Second, I firmly believed that my development as a player would be sharply curtailed if I were to stay. Compare my experience in 2006 with that of Matt Stafford at Georgia — a statistically similar performance with vastly different handling that ultimately saw a drastically different outcome.

Lastly, I had seen what I didn’t like, and I knew enough from previous exposure that there were better places and better opportunities to accomplish what I initially wanted.   

After footing the bill for the spring semester in Fayetteville, I joined Damian at USC. It was the antithesis to my experience at Arkansas in nearly every sense: the culture, the training, the academic support, the expectations. It was — and still is — a place where young men can make a future and build their talents along with some of the best players in the game. 

If you’re reading this, you probably already know the course it all took for me, and the apparent failure it became. For Damian it proved to be a boon — just as it has been for many others.  

There was one serious flaw in my transfer and my thinking around it: I was burnt out on the game, and a change in scenery and circumstance wasn’t going to alter the outcome.  

The 2006 experience had effectively quashed what enjoyment I had and, just as important, had dulled the sharp edge — the near arrogance — that is required to be a great player: the supreme confidence that whatever bad happens, I can overcome and defeat it and anyone in the way. Every great player has it. It’s that trait which fans love in their guy, and hate in the other guy. And once it’s gone it’s very, very difficult to get back. See: Woods, Tiger.  

While I won’t argue here that I would have been better to drop the game despite all the things I wanted to do outside of it — fate has its own intrigue — I will make a few points of advice to would-be transfers.

While I loved USC, the fact is that my path to a league roster would have been much more likely as a record-setting, three-year starter at Tulsa than as a perennial backup in Los Angeles.

First, consider the why. Why do you want out? Are these reasons within your control in your current situation, or is there a systemic problem that you cannot see a way around? Of course, one of the most difficult things for any person to do is to make an objective analysis of their situation and determine what factors are in their control — and then to see how changes will affect their standing.  

Do you need to work harder, or does your coach not want to play you for some reason beyond your control? Play a mental game and run through the transfer in your head: Will the change in location and situation lead to the results you desire? Of course, institutions are not static, and the realities within programs change constantly and rapidly. But you need to consider how they will affect you if you choose them.

Second, consider your goals, and how your current program and transfer program factor into that. Some guys love college and want to play for the best team and win championships and make a name, and others just want to make it to the NFL. The difference will lead to drastically different choices. If you want to be a great player on a great team and challenge for the title each season, you need to find the programs that are working for that. 

If you’re merely focused on making it to the league, then there is a persuasive argument that the large school/major conference mentality is not only unnecessary but even counter-productive to many transfers. The NFL is littered with small-school or — I dare say — lesser-school talent, and I believe that the most effective route to a roster is to get as much game film as possible to highlight your talent and consistent growth as a player. 

While I loved USC, the fact is that my path to a league roster would have been much more likely as a record-setting, three-year starter at Tulsa than as a perennial backup in Los Angeles. Matt Cassel is an outlier. Get on tape, be consistent in your performance and your growth, and be clear about your objective.  

Finally, consider that each program has its challenges and barriers, without fail. USC had them constantly, and to overcome them requires a vigilant eye toward the end goal, whatever that may be for each player. There is no shortcut to what you want; being smart about getting it and working hard toward it are the best ways to achieve it, and you need to consider how your transfer will play in that.  

In short, take a step back and be as objectively honest as you can about what you are facing and why you are having the thoughts you are. Find people you trust — people who can and will be honest with you. Tell them what you are considering and ask them to smash the idea to pieces and tell you why it won’t work. What is the worst-case scenario, and can you live with that? What is the upside, and what do you give up reaching it? 

Once you’ve done that, get to work, and remember: Hope is not a strategy.

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