What would have happened if Tom Brady had transferred to Stanford? Or USC? Or Alabama? What if Larry Bird played for Indiana instead of Indiana State? Would he have won a national title? Or two? Or three?
When college athletics was dragged kicking and screaming into the modern age with the new Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) and transfer portal rules, it opened the door for athletes all across the country to maximize their collegiate careers. At the time, this opportunity wasn’t available to guys like Brady and Bird, but if it was, how would things have changed? Would we remember them as fondly? Or could their careers have been even greater?
Everybody knows Tom Brady’s story. He was a somewhat unheralded recruit out of high school who got a scholarship to play at the University of Michigan. He had a solid career, but it was almost the polar opposite of memorable. He had to split time his senior year with Drew Henson for my “Uncle Pete’s” sake.
But what if he didn’t have to? What if, not too dissimilar to one Joe Burrow, Brady transferred to another school with a guaranteed starting opportunity before his college eligibility ran out? What if he transferred to another school that had fallen on hard times…a school within an hour’s drive of his hometown in San Mateo…a school like California-Berkley?
It’s not a stretch. Brady’s father was a Cal fan, and Brady was supposedly a silent recruit (whatever that means) to Cal before taking his visit to Michigan. The NFL’s Golden Boy finishing his college career with the Golden Bears is a story that practically writes itself.
Now, keep in mind that Cal was hardly a college football powerhouse in 1999, Brady’s senior year. Still, Brady would have been an obvious fit as a short-term quarterback solution. Kyle Boller, eventual first-round pick of the Ravens in 2003, was the primary starter at the time, but he was only a freshman and probably wouldn’t have posed a threat to the Citrus Bowl-winning Brady.
So, with a full-time, untethered hold on the starting job, it’s not hard to imagine that Brady would have turned in his best collegiate performance to date. It’s likely, then, that Brady would not have lasted until pick #199 in the 1999 NFL Draft. Today, he’s basically wrapped up the G.O.A.T. QB conversation, but there was a reason that even the New England Patriots passed on their eventual superhero QB six times before selecting him.
There’s a good chance that had today’s NIL and transfer portal rules been in place from college football’s inception, Brady would not have suited up for the Patriots and teamed with head coach Bill Belichick to form that fabled dynasty. Of course, Brady was such a superlative talent that he probably would have found a way to get a Super Bowl ring or two, but it's possible the legend of Brady never reaches the mythical levels of today.
He was arguably the most exciting offensive player in college football history. He was electric with the ball in his hands. His behind-the-back run against Fresno State? My goodness. College football doesn't get any better than that.
Bush was fantastic, no doubt, but many forget that Bush was part of an elite running back tandem at USC. The thunder to Bush’s lightning was the often-forgotten LenDale White.
Now, White was not the athlete that Bush was - not by a long shot. But what White had that Bush didn’t was the classic, teeth-rattling, gut-busting, pain-inducing, hard-nosed running style that every red-blooded head coach in America desired. White grinded you; Bush blinded you.
In today’s college football, though, it’s hard to imagine White being content to remain second-fiddle to Bush - even if USC was in the national title conversation every year. Players want to play, as the saying goes. White was a tough runner and Bush’s perfect complement, but he was also a competitor. There’s no doubt that, given the opportunity, White would have shined as a featured back somewhere else.
If White had transferred to, say, Auburn, who watched their own set of incredible running backs (Ronnie Brown and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams) be drafted in the top 5 of the 2005 NFL Draft, what would have become of USC’s Thunder & Lightning?
(Side-Note: How incredible is it that less than 20 years ago, two NFL teams not only drafted running backs in the top five, but they drafted two from the same university? In fact, three running backs were selected in the top five that year!)
For one, White’s career probably wouldn’t have changed much. Although he split time with Bush at USC, White actually led the team in rushing during his freshman and sophomore seasons. White was always a capable early-down, between-the-tackles runner. He would have been just fine at another school as the featured guy.
As for Bush, White moving to another school could have exposed him a little. Every college football fan remembers Bush fondly (we all know he won the Heisman, NCAA, you can stop pretending anytime now…), but part of Bush’s mystique was the lack of volume. Bush made highlight reel plays regularly, but he wasn’t on the field that regularly.
Despite Bush’s accolades and remarkable 2005 season, White was the featured back at USC - Bush was the change-of-pace guy (even if he’s arguably the greatest change-of-pace back of all time).
When he entered the NFL, Bush was widely considered one of the top running back prospects in NFL history and was perceived as a sure thing. Unfortunately for Bush, he never really shed that change-of-pace label. As it turned out, that role suited him perfectly, and it’s likely that we wouldn’t have remembered Bush the same way if he was stuck running up the middle like White did for USC during their heyday.
This isn’t meant to be a slight to Bush - he was spectacular and jaw-dropping, no question. Just that sometimes, a player fills a role so perfectly, we forget that there’s a lot more to being an NFL running back than sweeps, tosses, and catching passes out of the backfield. White’s dirty work kept Bush clean for years, and he reaped the benefits.
Did you know Larry Bird was an Indiana Hoosier once? Sure, it was for about a month, before he decided he hated it and transferred to Indiana State in his hometown of Terre Haute. But what if Bird had access to all that NIL money to sweeten the deal? I have a feeling a million dollars might be enough to put up with whatever was stressing him out back in ‘74.
Indiana was coached at the time by the great Bobby Knight. In 1976, the Knight-led Hoosiers embarked on one of the few undefeated seasons in college basketball history and defeated the University of Michigan in the National Championship. To this day, they remain the last college basketball team to accomplish the feat. This isn’t an Earth-shattering revelation but adding Bird to that mix would have been pretty sweet, methinks.
It’s a good bet that Bird would have won a national championship, if not several. His famous rivalry with Michigan State’s Magic Johnson would have been more of a David vs. Goliath moment than a contest between equals, though it would have been awesome to see the two duke it out for Big 10 supremacy.
Given Bird would have had exponentially more exposure and success at Indiana opposed to Indiana State, he never would have fallen all the way to the 6th pick in the 1978 NBA Draft. Big men always dominated the very top of the draft, and Bird probably wouldn’t have unseated Minnesota senior center Mychal Thompson as the #1 pick, but there’s a good chance the New York Knicks, who held the #4 pick, would have taken the bait.
The beauty of this scenario is that the NBA still would have gotten its desired East vs. West rivalry, just with Bird in Orange and Blue instead of Green and White. Magic Johnson would still have been drafted a year later by the Los Angeles Lakers, and he and Bird would still have spent much of their careers trying to knock the other out in the NBA Finals. With the Celtics being run at the time primarily by the legendary Red Auerbach, we probably would have also seen the Celtics find a way to get into the mix as well.
Out of all of these scenarios, this one actually works out great for everybody (except for the Celtics, maybe).
Reggie Bush wasn’t the only star on those USC teams in the 2000s. Fellow running back LenDale White was also an All-American in 2005, starting quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman in 2004, and an eye-popping ten Trojans were drafted in 2005. Even their coach, Pete Carroll, was a minor celebrity and would go on to win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks in 2014.
But there was a hidden gem. A diamond in the rough. He might have been a star too, but he was being blocked by the college football equivalent of the sun.
That player was Matt Cassell. Famously, backed up not one, but two Heisman winning quarterbacks at USC, the aforementioned Leinart and Carson Palmer. Despite not starting a game in his entire collegiate career, Cassell would be drafted in the 7th round by the New England Patriots (of course it was the Patriots).
If the modern transfer rules would have been in place when Cassell was in college, he would have had to think long and hard about taking an opportunity elsewhere. It would have been a difficult choice, no doubt, because USC was probably (definitely) a pretty sensational place to be in the early 2000s, especially with all the winning they were doing. But if Cassell had gotten the chance to show what he could do with a starting job, he probably would have shown the exact same traits that made him a Pro Bowler in 2010 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Could he have done enough to make himself a first rounder? It’s possible. Joe Burrow did enough in two years (including winning the Heisman) at LSU to make himself the #1 pick. Crazier things have happened.
Hear me out! I’m not going to try to convince you that there’s this alternate reality in which JaMarcus Russell became a Hall of Fame quarterback. I’m not even going to try to convince you that Russell could have made a Pro Bowl (although, Peyton Hillis was on the cover of Madden 2012, so anything is possible). What I will try to convince you of, though, was that Russell might not have busted so spectacularly if modern NIL rules had been in place during his career at LSU.
When the Oakland Raiders made Russell the #1 pick in 2007, it didn’t take long before people started to question whether this guy was ready for all the pressure and expectations that came with being handed a $68 million contract as a rookie. It’s safe to say, with hindsight, that Russell was about as prepared to be a starting QB in the NFL as a six-year-old would be to perform open-heart surgery. Honestly, Russell’s career went about as well as you would expect surgery from a six-year-old to go, too.
With today’s NIL rules, though, Russell would have had far more exposure to money and fame, and at an earlier age, in his college days. There’s two ways to look at this: one, that this money and attention would have derailed a kid already susceptible to those vices. That’s totally fair. If you played this scenario ten times, I bet seven or more end with Russell going undrafted.
But in maybe two or three of those scenarios, Russell actually acclimates to his new circumstance. Maybe he learns how to manage his money responsibly. Maybe he addresses his drug-addiction - which effectively ended his NFL career - before he ever gets drafted. Maybe he even makes that Pro Bowl I alluded to…okay, maybe not, but you get the point.
There’s a decent chance that Russell’s career was doomed from the start. He was the prototypical rocket-armed QB who looked the part but didn’t actually know how to play the part. He never worked on his game, and there’s no reason to believe that would change, but if NIL had been in place at the time, maybe Russell being a titanic bust wouldn’t have been such a massive surprise in the first place.