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The underappreciated key in FSU football’s transfer portal success

Getting top talent is one thing. Keeping it is another.
 
FSU football players Jared Verse and Kalen DeLoach were among the players who remained with the Florida State Seminoles for another year.
FSU football players Jared Verse and Kalen DeLoach were among the players who remained with the Florida State Seminoles for another year. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Nov. 30, 2023

College football has changed in the two years since Florida Gators coach Billy Napier called it a “talent-acquisition business.” It’s not enough to acquire talent anymore. You have to retain it, too.

That industry evolution is an underlying theme in this week’s two biggest stories — conference championship weekend and the transfer portal window that opens Monday. Few, if any, programs illustrate it as well as No. 4 Florida State.

Mike Norvell’s masterful use of the transfer portal was evident in Saturday’s win at Florida when Trey Benson (Oregon) rushed for three touchdowns, Jared Verse (Albany) had two sacks on the final series and Johnny Wilson (Arizona State) was the top receiver.

But FSU didn’t just acquire that talent. It retained it.

All three players could have left for the NFL draft after last season. None did — a significant reason why the undefeated Seminoles enter Saturday’s ACC championship against No. 15 Louisville as playoff contenders.

Florida State star Trey Benson postponed the NFL draft for another season with the Seminoles.
Florida State star Trey Benson postponed the NFL draft for another season with the Seminoles. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

“They chose to be here, and they chose to be able to do this together,” Norvell said. “It’s what makes this team really special.”

There is no single key to keeping stars like Florida’s Trevor Etienne or USF’s Byrum Brown from testing the market or entering the portal. Some attrition is inevitable and healthy. There are, however, two general buckets of considerations.

The first is the same as any other organization: how you treat people. There’s a reason why two of Napier’s first tangible actions in Gainesville were upgrading players’ food and increasing parking. Neither move could fix a historically bad defense on its own, but players acknowledged and appreciated the gestures. Happier players are less likely to leave, which is why Napier seemed confident about Florida’s roster stability when asked about it two weeks ago.

“The player experience here, I think, is second to none,” Napier said.

Florida coach Billy Napier and Florida State coach Mike Norvell both want to retain their top players.
Florida coach Billy Napier and Florida State coach Mike Norvell both want to retain their top players. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The player experience shows up in smaller things, too, like open communication.

If Seminoles offensive coordinator Alex Atkins explains what players must do to earn snaps, then he better have a plan ready in case they live up to their end of the deal. If the players can’t or won’t do what’s required, then the clear, preset expectations should eliminate surprises from either side.

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“Whether we like it or not, the portal is real…” Atkins said this spring. “It’s going to be a part of it, but honesty is the best policy.”

USF coach Alex Golesh said talent retention is a product of the day-by-day decisions and details that create a program. They all feed into the culture that helps determine whether players stay or go.

“Do guys enjoy coming to work?” Golesh said. “Do guys enjoy being around their teammates? That’s your program – the retention part. Obviously there’s a ton that goes into it from an outside standpoint, as well.”

USF football coach Alex Golesh said talent retention is a product of a program's culture.
USF football coach Alex Golesh said talent retention is a product of a program's culture. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

If “outside standpoint” is a euphemism for “name, image and likeness,” or “NIL,” then Golesh tiptoed toward the other major factor in talent retention.

Though reliable figures are hard to pin down, On3′s NIL Valuation gives us a gauge of players’ annual worth. For FSU’s Jordan Travis and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., it’s $1.2 million — about the same as the NFL salary of fourth-round pick Stetson Bennett. If a quarterback can make a run at the Heisman Trophy and national title while earning roughly as much as a Rams rookie, the financial incentive to leave shrinks.

FSU and its name, image and likeness collective (The Battle’s End) were among the first to maximize this part of the nascent industry. As other collectives emphasized new players (talent acquisition), The Battle’s End and CEO Ingram Smith saw what he called a “market inefficiency” by focusing on existing players (talent retention).

The Battle's End is Florida State's name, image and likeness collective and had this tailgating tent set up hours before the Syracuse game.
The Battle's End is Florida State's name, image and likeness collective and had this tailgating tent set up hours before the Syracuse game. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Partnering with stars like Travis, Verse, Benson and Wilson made business sense because fans (the collective’s current/potential supporters) know established players more than, say, a four-star signee or mid-major transfer. The on-field returns are better, too. Benson and Wilson can make an immediate impact in a way few freshmen can and with less risk than new players from the portal.

“It allows you to play faster and allows you to trust more because you have the experience,” Norvell said before the season. “It was big within our program just over the last few years to be able to have that continuity.”

Because other schools have seen how that continuity contributed to FSU’s 12-0 start, Smith said the market inefficiency has probably disappeared. The winter portal window will tell us more when we see who enters and who remains, but Smith cautioned against assuming name, image and likeness is the sole driver of any decision.

“I think it kind of puts a magnifying glass on whatever’s there,” Smith said. “If you’ve got a really strong culture, and you’ve got great buy-in, then maybe NIL can be a great tool for retention to keep some of those pieces and to build upon what you already have there.

“NIL can be a part of your program’s ascent, but if it’s the main part, I don’t think you’re going to be ascending for very long.”

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