By JEREMY SCHNEIDER
COLLEGE PARK, Md.—At the end of the 2011 football season, Danny O'Brien, once the face of the Maryland football program, was no longer his team's unquestioned starting quarterback.
A new coach made his playing time uncertain, so O'Brien took winter courses in Australia to assure he could graduate early and take advantage of a relatively new rule that allows graduate students to transfer and resume playing without sitting out a year.
While most college athletes who transfer from one Division I school to another can't play immediately, a special transfer exception allows athletes who have graduated to enroll in a graduate program at another school and play for its athletics program immediately as long as the academic program in which they enroll was not available at their previous school. In late March, O'Brien announced he was going to Wisconsin.
O'Brien's move to Wisconsin marked the second straight year an ACC quarterback used the rule to join the Badgers—former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson did the same thing in 2011.
In 2009, Greg Paulus transferred to Syracuse to play football after spending four years on the Duke basketball team. The rule, also used extensively in men's basketball, has created controversy around the country.
Several coaches have argued the rule creates what amounts to free agency in college athletics, and that the student-athletes are using the exception to circumvent the standard transfer rules. Those coaches expressed fear that it will create a culture in which a player who is unhappy will simply graduate early and transfer somewhere else.
"If your team doesn't make the NCAA Tournament this year or next," Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said in a January teleconference, "why not graduate that summer and go to the best team you can?"
Opinions about the rule have divided the college athletics community. Even at Wisconsin, where the most publicized graduate transfers have taken place, men's basketball coach Bo Ryan has said he is against the rule and would never accept a graduate transfer on his team.
Prior to the 2006-07 academic year, graduate students had to apply for a waiver if they wanted to transfer and play immediately. The NCAA supported the new rule, citing academic benefits, and there are no plans to change it.
"The rule is intended to provide student-athletes who have met the primary goal of graduation to choose a graduate school that meets their academic and athletics interests," NCAA spokesperson Emily Potter said.
While the NCAA does not maintain statistics on how many student-athletes have used the rule, the Associated Press reported that 16 men's basketball players used the rule last year.
Nathan Tublitz, a past co-chair of the Coalition On Intercollegiate Athletics, a college athletics reform group, thinks the rule should be expanded to allow undergraduate athletes to transfer without penalty. Tublitz said it should be a student's right and the current system "continues the indentured servitude relationship between the athlete and the university athletic department."
"Athletics directors have free agency," said Tublitz, a biology professor at the University of Oregon. "The coaches have free agency. Everybody has free agency but the student-athlete. Why should the student-athlete be prevented from doing something that everybody else in college sports is allowed to?"
The Badgers brought in Wilson to quarterback its 2011-2012 season and he threw for 33 touchdowns to lead Wisconsin to an 11-3 season and a Rose Bowl berth. He helped earn the school's athletic department a $20 million check from the bowl, according to Forbes.com (http://www.forbes.com/sites/joanlappin/2011/12/29/wisconsins-badgers-repeat-in-the-rose-bowl-coaches-clean-up/).
"If it's a rule, it's a rule," said Wisconsin associate athletic director for external relations Justin Doherty. "Our job here is to—and our coaches' job—is to operate within the rules. And that's what we've done in both these cases with Russell and Danny.
"What anybody here thinks about the rule or not really doesn't matter. It's in the books. It's something that's available to not only our school, but schools across the country," Doherty said.
He said the rule was fair and benefited the student-athlete.
"The bottom line is, it's the student-athlete's choice as to whether they want to attend school here," Doherty said. "We had a great experience with Russell, and hopefully will have a great experience with Danny. We obviously think we've got a good situation here for any student-athlete."
Paulus said he didn't remember exactly when the graduate transfer rule was brought to his attention. But eventually, with his hoops career winding down, he found himself wanting to fulfill two passions: college football and a master's in communications.
He began exploring graduate schools for communications with an emphasis in television, radio and film. Duke didn't have such a program, but Syracuse—less than 10 minutes from where he was the Gatorade high school football player of the year at Christian Brothers Academy—did. Its football team also needed a quarterback and offered him a chance to start if he enrolled. Paulus said it was "something I couldn't pass up."
Paulus used the graduate transfer rule to play right away at Syracuse. He threw 13 touchdown passes, but the Orange won only four games. His transfer didn't garner the same negative attention seen today.
Now a video coordinator for the Ohio State basketball team, Paulus hopes to make a career in coaching or on television and hasn't given much thought to debate over the rule.
"I don't know what those guys' stories are from their background standpoint and what they were looking to do," Paulus said. "I think every story is different. Whether it's mine or someone else's or another person's."
O'Brien's story is he just wanted to start it all over again.