Tampering is rampant in college football. How can Boise State protect its players?

UAB football coach Trent Dilfer isn’t shy about calling coaches out for trying to poach his players.

The former NFL quarterback and analyst for NFL Network and ESPN said as much during an appearance on the Rick & Bubba radio show in June.

“By the way, come try to get my guys,” Dilfer said. “I dare you, Power Fives. I got a pretty big platform that I can step on, and if I find you in my kids’ DMs, if I find you talking to high school coaches about my kids ... I’m gonna call you out.

“I’m going to say it, by name, to the biggest voices in television today, and it’s going to make ‘(College) GameDay’ and it’s going to make ‘SportsCenter,’” he continued. “By the way, those guys running ‘SportsCenter’ are still my friends.”

The issue of players being enticed to switch programs hits especially close to home for Boise State fans. The team’s leading wide receiver, Eric McAlister, left the team earlier this week and plans to transfer when the portal opens on Dec. 4. He led the team with 47 catches for 873 yards and five touchdowns.

Boise State coach Andy Avalos stopped short of directly calling out coaches for illegally recruiting McAlister, but he made it clear on Monday that someone has been meddling.

“It’s the nature of the beast when you’ve got a guy who is approaching 1,000 yards over the course of a season and walks out because of other opportunities,” Avalos said.

Tampering is nothing new in college football. Industrious coaches and boosters have found ways to entice players to transfer for years, but it has become more prevalent in the Name, Image and Likeness era, according to Mountain West coaches.

“Programs in the Mountain West do a great job of developing football players,” San Diego State coach Brady Hoke said at Mountain West media days in July. “Recruiting has always been part of the job, but these days we have to do a great job recruiting new guys and the guys already on our team.”

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The Idaho Statesman surveyed Mountain West coaches about their experiences with tampering.

Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford agreed with Hoke, saying coaches have to devote almost as much energy to keeping players as finding them.

“You can talk to players all you want, but there’s a lot of ways to get to them,” Tedford said. “Middle men, street agents, whatever you want to call them, they’re out there and they’re calling our players.”

Coaches don’t directly contact a player they’re interested in on another roster. Instead, they use a third party — a family member, a friend or a former teammate. Sometimes they go through the players’ high school or AAU coach.

However they’re doing it, programs that can offer players large NIL deals are finding ways to make them aware of what they’re missing. Programs without the financial backing to offer the same deals, a subset that includes most Group of Five teams, simply can’t compete.

Hoke said he lost two players last year who were contacted by a third party before transferring. Utah State coach Blake Anderson said he lost five players to the transfer portal who were enticed to leave last season.

“My concern is how real and valid is the information the players are getting?” Anderson said. “It’s something that’s a problem, but it’s also difficult to legislate and control because you don’t always know who these people reaching out to your players are.”

The Boise State University football team including coach Andy Avalos, center, walks into Albertsons Stadium for the game against Wyoming, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Sarah A. Miller/smiller@idahostatesman.com
The Boise State University football team including coach Andy Avalos, center, walks into Albertsons Stadium for the game against Wyoming, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. Sarah A. Miller/smiller@idahostatesman.com

Should the NCAA step in?

New Mexico coach Blake Gonzalez said one way to gain control is to report tampering.

“The only way to stop it is to turn each other in,” he said. “I have no problem making a call to a head coach, because recruiting kids off someone’s campus is wrong. (The NCAA) has got to penalize somebody, and somebody is going to have to turn them in to make it happen.”

Limiting tampering is going to take a clear set of rules and enforcement from the NCAA, Boise State safeties coach Kane Ioane said Wednesday.

“Ultimately, we just need more structure and guidelines,” he said. “We need a system that allows people to monitor it and make sure if there are things going on that aren’t part of the structure, there are consequences for that.”

One way the NCAA could limit the number of players being recruited illegally is to abolish the one-time transfer rule it adopted in 2021.

“It’s kind of the wild west right now,” Nevada coach Ken Wilson said. “Everybody knows the rules, but they also know there isn’t much of a chance of getting caught.”

Some coaches, such as Wyoming’s Craig Bohl, think it’s already too late to think about policing the transfer portal.

“If anybody thinks they can stop tampering, good luck, jack bug,” Bohl said. “I’ve been coaching for 40 years, and where we are right now is a whole new evolution of cheating. It’s unfortunate, because I do know cases where guys got bad advice.”

More NIL money, please

The only thing a program like Boise State can do to protect its roster is find ways to get more competitive in the NIL landscape, Avalos said.

“That is a huge part of college football right now,” he said Monday. “How Boise State football moves in and is able to use that space is going to be a big deal to not only our success, but being able retain our players.”

Some athletes at Boise State have taken advantage of rules the NCAA adopted in July 2021 that allow them to monetize their name, image and likeness through endorsements, advertisements and appearances.

Four have signed deals that include the lease of a vehicle for a year. Three have deals with Lithia Ford: volleyball player Paige Bartsch, quarterback Taylen Green and tight end Riley Smith.

Basketball player Tyson Degenhart has a deal with Lyle Pearson Auto Group that netted him an Acura. He also has the “Degenhart Dozen” promotion with Pastry Perfection.

Boise State athletes have signed similar deals with local businesses, but they aren’t seeing lavish paychecks like the ones being collected by athletes in Power Five conferences.

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Nobody at Boise State is coming anywhere close to the $5 million Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders is expected to make annually. They aren’t enjoying the same endorsement deals USC quarterback Caleb Williams has signed with national brands like Neutrogena, United Airlines and Playstation.

The Broncos don’t have a deal in place that guarantees every player on the football roster a $25,000 paycheck. Texas Tech does.

The reality of the situation is that Boise is never going to offer the sheer number of advertising opportunities found in larger markets.

Another realty is that it’s going to take large gifts from big-money donors to drastically alter Boise State’s place in the NIL landscape. But fans who don’t have millions in the bank can help, too, according to the school. They can donate to the Horseshoe Collective, which will use that money to find more NIL opportunities for Boise State athletes.

The collective, which launched last September, has focused much of its energy on community outreach projects, but it has also partnered with local businesses. That includes Western Collective, which brewed a Boise State-themed beer called Horseshoe Golden Ale. Owner Cary Prewitt told On3.com that 10 cents will be donated to the Horseshoe Collective for every pint sold.

The Broncos need more local businesses to partner with athletes, though. They need to grow in the NIL space or they’re going to continue to lose stars like McAlister, Avalos said.

“The NIL space is going to need to take care of Boise State,” Avalos said. “That’s just the nature of college football.”