Tom Brady never saw the field his first year at the University of Michigan. In his second, he attempted a grand total of five passes.
He was so buried on the Wolverine depth chart, he went to head coach Lloyd Carr’s office to request a release (which was the rule back then) so he could transfer to another program.
Maybe he wasn’t good enough. Maybe the coaches were missing something. Maybe it was a combination. Whatever, he wanted out.
“It’ll be the biggest mistake of your life,” Carr told Brady. “You came here to be the best. You came here because of the great competition. ... If you walk away now, you’ll always wish you had stayed and tried to compete. You’ll always wonder what would have happened if you stayed.”
Carr told him to take a night to think it over. If Brady still wanted to transfer, then Carr would help.
The next day Brady arrived at the coach’s office with a new mindset.
“I’m staying,” Brady said. “And I’m going to prove to you I am a great quarterback.”
It’s a great story about perseverance that paid off as Brady went on to be a Michigan team captain, Orange Bowl champion and used that “prove them wrong” mindset to become a seven-time Super Bowl champion in the NFL.
It’s also a story that feels like it came from football’s leather helmet days considering that some 1,500 players have already entered the transfer portal this week.
The easy, lazy thing to say is that Brady had it right and these kids today have it wrong, but to paint with such a broad brush certainly isn’t fair or accurate. Times are different. The system is different. The sport is different. It also wasn't all that great back in the day.
The significant portion of those portal dwellers didn’t just leave; they were pushed. It wasn’t just Brady who showed patience; it was Lloyd Carr, who didn’t take a look at his then string-bean former three-star recruit and see someone who was easily replaceable, if not upgradeable.
Perhaps the most stunning entry into the transfer portal came Monday, when Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord announced he was looking for a new school. McCord started every game this season and led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes and threw for 3,170 yards. He had 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He has two more years of eligibility.
At any prior point in the history of Ohio State football, coaches and fans would look at that season and see a bright future as McCord continued to develop. Instead everyone is looking back on the Michigan loss and declaring McCord incapable of winning a Big Ten, let alone a national title.
“I think he’s a good quarterback, I do,” Buckeye coach Ryan Day said on Sunday, hardly a ringing endorsement of McCord. “You just, after every year, you kind of evaluate everything and try to figure out what to do next.”
That’s football in 2023. Ryan Day wasn’t wrong. He needs to put the best players he can on the field, even if that means finding his own transfer to replace McCord. The man is 57-7 as a head coach, yet in Columbus, much of the discussion is his 0-3 mark against Michigan the last three seasons.
Fans don’t have much patience either.
So Day can try to find a quarterback he truly believes in. And McCord can find a program and a coach that truly believes in him.
The speed and scope in which the portal moves can be stunning. Players coming, players going, everyone trying to find the right spot in this massive game of musical chairs. Mistakes will be made, of course. Mistakes are always made. However, being different isn’t necessarily bad.
It wasn't long ago head coaches were able to put restrictions on where players could transfer — nowhere within their conference, for example. They often abused the power and prohibited a player from signing with dozens of schools, often out of spite or misguided competitiveness. The portal was created to even the power. It was a good idea.
Now when coaches leave for new jobs, the players aren’t stuck behind hoping the new guy will work out and can instead go find the right spot (say QB Riley Leonard leaving Duke). When athletic departments stick with failing coaches they don't have to burn a year of eligibility and go along with it (say Dante Moore leaving UCLA). If Power 5 schools underestimate you out of high school, you can prove them wrong and move on up (say DeQuan Finn leaving Toledo).
Or if your coach isn't fully convinced you'll be the guy and is out looking for your replacement, you don't have to stay and see what happens (McCord leaving Ohio State).
There is no loyalty, but just about anything is possible.
And the thing is, was there ever loyalty?
The Brady story is a famous one and it worked out because whatever made Tom Brady into Tom Brady was worthwhile. However, he didn’t start the following year — he was a third-stronger behind Brian Griese on a national title team. He threw just 15 passes.
When he finally got a chance to start as a junior and senior, he had to fend off a star local recruit in Drew Henson. Worried that Henson might switch fulltime to baseball, Carr gave him plenty of playing time, including sharing duties in Brady’s senior season.
Brady eventually won the job, but Carr’s seeming lack of belief in Tom was enough to scare off most of the NFL and play a big part in Brady falling to 199th overall in the draft.
The old way may seem like the best way but the new way is here to stay. There are no more illusions.
Everyone is looking out for their best interest, the same way they always did.