We think of mass transfers and players following their coaches to new destinations as a condition of the 2020s, brought on by the portal and the one-time transfer provision. But college football witnessed mass transfers after both WWI and WWII. Thankfully, we did not need a world war to encourage a flood of transfers this time around, but it's worth looking back on how transfers benefited a first-time college head coach, Lt. Cmdr. Paul "Bear" Bryant, in 1945.
Bryant, of course, played end at Alabama opposite Don Hutson. He then assisted at Union (TN), Alabama, and Vanderbilt before accepting the head job at Arkansas. However, Pearl Harbor changed his plans when he enlisted in the Navy. He spent 1942 as an assistant football coach with the University of Georgia Pre-Flight Skycrackers, one of several university-based naval programs that provided classroom training to future aviators. The pre-flight schools had major-college quality athletic programs that operated parallel to the varsity programs at those schools.
Bryant spent 1943 aboard an Army Transport ship, the S.S. Uruguay, spending time in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. He then transferred to the University of North Carolina Pre-Flight Cloudbusters for the 1944 season as an assistant coach. He became head coach in February 1945 when his boss transferred elsewhere.
Lacking NCAA and conference rules about out-of-season workouts, Bryant’s pre-flight team practiced through the summer, preparing for the 1945 season. They outscored Duke in two scrimmage games in early September amid rumors the war's end would lead to shutting down the pre-flight programs and their athletic programs. The rumors were soon confirmed, and the University of Maryland, which recently had their coach resign, quickly hired Bryant. Like Bryant, the Cloudbuster players needed somewhere to go after receiving their release, so fourteen players moved Carolina to College Park.
The war in the Pacific ended sooner than most expected, so not all college conferences had clarified their eligibility rules for service members mustering out in the late summer and early fall. College conferences universally allowed varsity eligibility during the war for service members that transferred into university-based military programs, most of which were too small to field independent athletic programs. Those rules allowed stars like Wisconsin's sophomore All-American, Elroy Hirsch, to play varsity football for Michigan when he was sent there as part of a Navy V-12 program in 1943.
The Missouri Valley and Big Ten were among the first to grant immediate eligibility to veterans post-war, regardless of their previous affiliations. The Southern Conference, which Maryland played in before the ACC formed, opted to open the gates as well, giving Bryant's Cloudbuster alums immediate eligibility with the Terrapins.
Bryant and his Cloudbusters arrived on campus one week before Maryland's first game, needing to merge the talents of the Terrapins who remained on campus during the war, returning Maryland veterans, and the pre-flight boys.
Of course, Bryant already knew the pre-flight players, and they knew Bryant's offense and defense, so it was no surprise that eight of the eleven starters in Maryland's first game were Cloudbuster alums. Many were talented players and played vital roles for Maryland all season as the team improved from a 3-6 record in 1944 to 6-2-1 in 1945, with season-ending victories over No. 13 Virginia and South Carolina highlighting the season.
By February, however, Bryant was offered and accepted the Kentucky job. He remained there for eight years before moving to Texas A&M for four and then returned home to Alabama for a 25-year run. Surely Bryant would have had long-term success whether or not the Cloudbusters followed him to College Park, but they made things easier that first year.
We will have to wait to see how the transfer portal affects college football long-term, but it appears that the roster stability colleges have known is long gone. The portal will allow the rich to plug holes while enabling their depth players to go elsewhere for opportunities to see the field. Let’s hope most maximize their educational and financial opportunities regardless of which direction they move.
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