When Paul Tortorella looks around at the NCAA Division II football landscape, he doesn’t recognize what’s been his home for almost three decades. He’s like a stranger in a strange land.
Players enter the NCAA Transfer Portal the day after their season ends, hoping to move to a better situation. Players transferring multiple times after learn the grass truly isn’t always greener. High school players find fewer and fewer opportunities. And coaches are concerned about the long-term sustainability of it all.
That’s not how things were when Tortorella, IUP’s head coach, first came here from Division I Akron in 1995 to be Frank Cignetti’s defensive coordinator.
“What’s happening in college football is totally ridiculous,” Tortorella said. “But it is what it is.”
So as Tortorella and his staff begin the offseason work of replenishing a roster that loses 12 seniors from a team that went 10-2 and won the division and conference championships, things aren’t as simple as they used to be.
Should the Crimson Hawks fill their holes with transfers, internally from young players, or with high school players? If they go the transfer route, should they pursue Division I players or Division II? Or both? If they spend their time recruiting high school players, where do they find them when their home state has fewer and fewer players to recruit?
There are a lot of questions for Tortorella to answer.
Recruiting, in general, has changed so much over the years. It used to be IUP competed against the likes of Youngstown State and Villanova for players while fellow PSAC West schools like Slippery Rock and California recruited locally and never took transfers.
But those days are long gone. Today, IUP competes mostly with PSAC rivals, plus Division I FCS teams such as Duquesne, Robert Morris and St. Francis. And it’s all for the scraps left by the myriad Division I FBS schools that invade Pennsylvania every year during recruiting season.
“We’re dealing with schools in recruiting that before we didn’t have to,” Tortorella said. “It’s totally different now than it used to be.”
But recruiting now is not just for high school players. The NCAA Transfer Portal that launched in 2018, coupled with the rule change that allows Division I players to change schools without having to sit out a year, creates a wave of available players every offseason.
Most of the transfers that used to come to IUP were from Division I schools such as Pitt, Rutgers and Temple. But because they don’t have to sit out a year after a transfer, players at that level are now seeking opportunities at similar schools.
Consequently, most of the recent transfers IUP has taken are players from fellow Division II schools, including quarterback Mak Sexton (Pittsburg State), wide receiver Derek Lockhart and cornerback Naszhir Taylor (California), linebacker Connor Kelly (Edinboro), defensive end Vaughn Wallace (Clarion) and wide receiver Qashah Carter (Bloomsburg).
Tortorella said that’s the route he’d prefer to go to fill IUP’s offseason holes, which include spots on both lines and at wide receiver.
“We get a lot of calls,” he said. “But for us, the best scenario would be a good Division II player who has played a lot. That’s who we deal with now mostly because Division I guys transfer to other Division I’s.”
Although Tortorella doesn’t care much for the transfer portal because of the chaos it creates, he said a lot of the calls he and his staff receive are from players at losing Division II programs who just want to be part of a winning organization.
“If you’re a good player and you’re at a bad program, I get why you’d get into the portal,” he said. “I get it. You want to be loyal, but you want to win.”
As of this weekend, IUP figured to lose only two players to the portal: fourth-string quarterback Jack Krug, who has been the scout team QB the past two years, and running back Dorian Woody, who played in only three games and had four carries for 9 yards.
Tortorella said he doesn’t begrudge any of his players who want to improve their stock by testing the portal. But he did warn that any Crimson Hawk who enters it has worn an IUP jersey for the last time.
“Once they do, that’s it,” he said. “There’s no testing the water. It’s a chemistry issue, but it’s also a money issue. We can’t hold a guy’s scholarship to see if he’s coming back. You’re either in or you’re out. I’m not going to hold it against a guy if he wants to go, but that’s the way it’s got to be.”
As for high school recruiting, the Crimson Hawks are committed to using it for the program’s lifeblood. Tortorella said he’d prefer to build the roster with players who are at IUP for four or five years, so he and his staff will be beating the proverbial bushes this winter looking for high school players.
He said IUP coaches will spend the majority of their time recruiting in-state players.
“The thing that kills us is not having (reduced) out-of-state tuition,” Tortorella said. “We went that route a few years ago, but it’s hard to fill out a roster when you take some out-of-state guys. For every three guys you take from Maryland or Virginia, that’s six guys from Pennsylvania we can’t afford. You can’t expect to get guys from other states and fill out the roster with walk-ons.”
None of this suggests Tortorella has grown sour on Division II football. In fact, he feels the opposite. When he looks around and sees the number of transfers at Division I, plus the unraveling issue of Name-Image-Likeness deals and TV-driven conference realignment, the veteran coach is glad he’s not part of that rat race.
“Actually, the most pure college football there is, is in Division II,” he said. “You have a little bit of the portal and a little bit of transfers, there’s not much NIL, and coaches don’t move around as much. It’s more grounded. As coaches, you can build longer relationships with the players.”