By Kathryn Gambill
Sports Staff Writer
Coming to college, Matt Harding did not have a lot of running experience. In high school, track and field was not his primary sport.
During his first year competing in collegiate track, Harding shaved 10 seconds off his 800 meter time, achieving a personal record of 1:47.
Harding qualified for and competed at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships his freshman year at UNC Asheville.
Harding, a sophomore economics student from North Wales, said his parents received emails from various universities encouraging him to transfer.
His parents deleted the emails immediately.
While his success opened the door to compete for larger schools, he said he does not see the point in leaving UNCA.
“I don’t think I have anything to gain from me leaving,” Harding said.
Harding said UNCA feels like a great fit for him.
Growing up, he dreamed of attending the University of Florida, where his cousin played golf. He said he visited the school and fell in love with it.
“Florida has always been my dream school,” Harding said. “But if I were to be offered that switch now, I’m 99.9 percent sure I wouldn’t take it, just because I love my life here at the moment.”
However, the team and his coaches were what kept Harding at UNCA.
“I love the team here,” he said. “I love the environment around the team. It’s great. Asheville itself, North Carolina is just a great area to train in.”
According to the NCAA, Florida won the 2017 track and field championships for the second year in a row. Harding said the only benefit of transferring from UNCA to Florida would be the higher caliber meets the team attends.
“If I were to go to Florida, I’d just be another fish in a big pond,” he said. “Whereas here, I get a lot of individual attention because we’re a smaller program. We have less bodies on the team. We get a lot more individual attention. You and your coach can have a lot more personal relationship. You can sort of voice any concerns a lot easier.”
Additionally, athletes automatically forfeit a year of eligibility when transferring schools, Harding said.
“The way it works with the NCAA is actually the athlete has to make the first contact with other schools,” Harding said. “And for that to happen, you have to go to your coaches and get them to sign a release form so you have the permission to talk to other schools.”
Jeffrey Wilcox, associate professor and faculty athletics representative at UNCA, said the Big South Conference is currently working on proposed legislation for transfer rules.
“This is a big issue for our conference because there’s at least a feeling that some of our student athletes are getting poached by larger schools that maybe don’t want to take a chance on somebody or somebody that needs a little bit of development,” Wilcox said. “And we’re doing the development here and then losing them. So that’s an issue.”
Wilcox said there are problems with athletes transferring within their conference. If an athlete transfers to a university which commonly competes against their previous school, the athlete has an advantage of knowing the coach, the players and their strategy.
There is some conflict about the legality of preventing transfers, Wilcox said.
“On the other hand, we don’t prevent you from transferring if you want to,” he said. “So why then are we more restrictive on student athletes transferring?”
According to the NCAA, student athletes are never prevented from transferring. The rules regulated by the NCAA dictate how soon an athlete can compete at their new university. There are also rules stating athletes must be released from their former university in order to receive a scholarship the first year at their new school.
Additionally, student athletes must receive permission from their current university’s athletics director before contacting another school about transferring, according to the NCAA.
Despite potential conflict, Wilcox said there is some pressure to make the transfer process less strenuous.
“Most sports you can transfer and play right away,” he said. “The year-in-residence rule, the rule you have to sit out for a year, is to discourage the transferring. But then that does lead to some legal issues in terms of, I don’t know. How can we say you can transfer but you’re not allowed to run?”
Since student athletes may not always transfer for athletic reasons, Wilcox said strict transfer rules can be questionable. Athletes might transfer to get more playing time, but they may also transfer because their current university does not offer the major they want, he said.
“It’s really, why do people choose colleges in the first place?” Wilcox said. “Why do student athletes choose it? Do they choose it just for the cross country team, or do they choose it for the coaches, or do they choose it because Asheville is a nice place to live? Or do they choose it because it’s a small liberal arts school and I really want a liberal arts degree? I’m sure it’s all of the above.”
Casey Greenwalt, a senior exercise and sport science student at UNC Chapel Hill, said she attended UNCA and competed on the cross country and track teams for two years before transferring to UNC.
While she enjoyed her time at UNCA, Greenwalt said she was drawn to UNC for both academic and athletic reasons.
“Primarily, UNCA did not offer the exact academic program that I was seeking, nor were there as many opportunities to do research,” Greenwalt said. “I also loved the large school feel, including the camaraderie and sense of pride that UNC students have.”
She said UNC also attracted her with higher level coaching and competition with their track and field program.
While the athletics department at UNCA is smaller and offers greater interaction between athletes and administrators, Greenwalt said UNC’s department is larger and offers more moral and financial support for athletes.
She feels as though the coaching staff at UNC is supportive of all student athletes, regardless of their scholarship or walk-on status, she said.
“My experience of transferring teams was successful, which I am grateful for as I realize that many athletes do not have the same luck that I did,” Greenwalt said. “The team and coaches welcomed me with open arms and I was offered several academic and athletic support services to help with my transition.”
Greenwalt said while UNCA is a great school, it was not the right fit for her. She said she enjoys the diversity and sense of belonging she feels at UNC.
Brian Hand, assistant athletic director for external relations at UNCA, said transferring ultimately depends on the athletes and their specific situations.
Hand said UNCA does not try to prevent student athletes from transferring. Instead, the athletics department encourages athletes to stay simply by appreciating them.
He said athletes can accomplish at UNCA what they can accomplish at any other university.
“A lot of people come here because they want the opportunity to attend UNC Asheville,” he said. “When they’re leaving, it’s the same thing where it might not be, it’s not necessarily the coach, it’s not the program itself, they’re just going on to different things.”