How WKU kept Austin Reed after transfer portal trip by nation’s leader in passing yards

How WKU kept Austin Reed after transfer portal trip by nation’s leader in passing yards

On Dec. 5, one of the nation’s leading passers entered the transfer portal and became a hot commodity.

, a former Division II player who quarterbacked West Florida to a national championship, had succeeded in his first FBS season, leading to eight regular-season wins while throwing for 4,247 yards. Now Power 5 schools wanted him.

“If these schools are interested, they’ll find a way for you to know that they’re interested,” Reed said. “But they said they wouldn’t talk until I was in the transfer portal. So I just felt it’d be a disservice to myself if I didn’t enter and listen to what people had to say.”

While in the portal, Reed talked with numerous schools. As one of the best quarterbacks available, big money offers were thrown his way. This is the modern college football marketplace at work.

But a week after entering the portal, Reed announced he would return to WKU. He signed an NIL deal with a local real estate company through a WKU third-party collective. Within the next week, WKU’s top linebacker also entered and withdrew from the portal, and top wide receiver announced he would stay.

“It’s almost like getting an awesome recruit when you keep your own,” athletic director Todd Stewart said.

The combination of NIL and the transfer portal has caused concern that Power 5 programs will annually raid the Group of 5 schools for their best players. It’s true that Group of 5 and lower-level teams have lost players to bigger programs. But this transfer cycle has been a reminder that those schools can hold on to players and the portal is a two-way street.

WKU is a model. It added Bailey Zappe, Jerreth Sterns and other players from FCS Houston Christian in 2021, and Zappe set the single-season FBS passing record. Reed continued WKU’s transfer success in 2022 before the portal opened again. The Hilltoppers did lose five players to Power 5 schools in this cycle, but keeping Reed and others shows there is a path forward. It’s not always just a bidding war.

“You can win some of those battles,” head coach Tyson Helton said, “by being open and honest and coming out to players with a pure heart.”

Most people assumed Reed would be WKU’s backup quarterback when he arrived on campus. He committed to transfer to the Hilltoppers in March, two months after former West starting QB joined WKU. Outside observers penciled in Doege as the starter, but Helton never felt that was a given.

Reed won the starting job. Doege transferred to Troy, the fourth stop in his career.

“He comes in three days before spring camp, and right from the get-go, he’s killing it,” Helton said of Reed.

Reed completed 33 of 43 passes for 329 yards at Indiana. He completed 39 of 57 passes for 406 yards against eventual Sun Belt champion . At the end of the regular season, Reed was one of four FBS quarterbacks with more than 4,000 passing yards. WKU went 8-4, which was actually Reed’s most difficult adjustment — he hadn’t lost more than two games in a season as a starting QB since before high school.

Feelers from Power 5 schools began to reach him. Reed told Helton he would enter the portal to listen. The coach responded with what Reed described as frustration, but the two continued to talk it out.

“I told him there was a very good likelihood that I would come back, I just wanted to hear what they had to say,” Reed said. “We stayed close through the whole process.”

He heard from multiple schools in every Power 5 conference. He said some offered the starting job upfront. Reed wouldn’t reveal specific numbers but said some of the people involved offered him money equivalent to a late-round NFL Draft pick. For quarterbacks, that’s usually a few hundred thousand dollars.

“When the money that was available was put on the table, it was really hard,” Reed said. “This is the kind of money a late draft pick is making.”

He talked with his parents. He talked with his girlfriend. He talked with his quarterback trainer, Denny Thompson. He talked with Helton. To go from Division II to NFL Draft pick-type money in one year was something Reed never imagined.

But moving to a new school would mean a new offense, and he’d just finally gotten a full grasp of the WKU scheme by the end of the year. He’d have to win over a new locker room. And a poor season could derail the momentum.

“Is the money this year more important than the money that could be made down the road?” Reed thought. “If I go somewhere and I have an average year, I’m just on the edge of being drafted. Or if I have another great year (at WKU), I can find myself in the first three rounds.”

He decided to stay at WKU for several reasons. For one, WKU has had three quarterbacks drafted since 2016 (Brandon Doughty, Mike White and Zappe) and Helton coached Sam Darnold at , so there is a path to the . Second was the relationship with Helton and the way the coach stayed open about the process. And third, the WKU collective Red Towel Trust came through with an NIL deal, the terms of which were not disclosed.

Hank Wilson, a former WKU and football staffer, is now a real estate agent in the Bowling Green area. He’s the title sponsor for suites at WKU’s football stadium and tries to help the program in any way he can. As NIL and collectives became a reality over the last year, Wilson and local attorney Keith Wilcutt formed Red Towel Trust with the stated goal of “retaining top talent.” Last spring, WKU basketball player Jamarion Sharp entered the portal but withdrew and stayed. Red Towel Trust hadn’t started up yet, but Sharp’s decision helped Wilson realize WKU could keep talented players.

“We may not compete at the highest (money) level, but I want something in place where, for athletes who want to stay, we can help them do that,” Wilson said.

Group of 5 programs don’t necessarily need to make the highest offer to keep a player, but it helps to provide something. Similar to Reed, quarterback and quarterback announced alongside collectives that they would return to their respective schools, rather than take up a Power 5 school on a bigger offer.

“The decision was not about money, but any kid would appreciate being taken care of, right?” Reed said. “I appreciate having some sort of NIL money for all the work we put in. It meant a lot.”

When Reed entered the portal, Corley’s phone began to blow up with calls and texts from people he didn’t know. After catching 101 passes for 1,295 yards and 11 touchdowns to earn first-team All-C-USA honors, he had interest and potential money floated from schools who thought he might be on the market soon.

But Corley, who came from a small high school in Kentucky, said he wanted to stay loyal to the college program that gave him his only FBS offer. Corley and Reed are roommates, and they talked about Reed’s portal experience every day. Two days after Reed withdrew from the portal, Corley announced he wasn’t going anywhere either. Wilson said Red Towel Trust plans to get Corley an NIL deal this semester.

“I’m at a place where I’m given the ball and given freedom,” Corley said. “Instead of being a spoke in the wheel at another school, I am the wheel. It was a no-brainer for me to stay.”

The same day Corley announced he would stay, Evans went in the portal, coming off a season in which he led the Hilltoppers in tackles, TFLs and sacks and earned first-team all-conference honors. He heard from and some other Power 5 schools, but a few days later, he withdrew as well. Earlier this month, Red Towel Trust announced a partnership with Evans.

“Western Kentucky is where I built my ground and things were going smooth,” Evans said. “I didn’t have a reason to transfer.”

At some schools, a player who enters the portal is immediately frozen out by the staff they’re leaving. That isn’t Helton’s policy. WKU players in the portal still prepared for and played in WKU’s bowl game. Helton sits down with players who want to explore transferring and calls schools they’re interested in to see what kind of space and opportunity is available there.

“As a coach, your No. 1 job is to approach a player with a pure heart and make a player feel, whether they stay or go, the head coach has their interest at heart,” Helton said. “I want to provide truthful information and help them as much as possible.”

Some players need the bigger money they’re offered elsewhere. Helton understands that. Some players just want Power 5 experience. That’s OK, too. Veteran offensive lineman went to , in part because his former offensive coordinator and offensive line coach are there.

Helton’s been on the other side of the portal plenty of times, adding players from other schools. It would be hypocritical to complain about players leaving. The reason Helton doesn’t freeze out players in the portal is because he wants to keep the line of communication open. Every day they’re still around is another opportunity to retain them. It comes back to honesty.

“You can’t stand there as a coach and talk to a player and say they need to stay when, as a coach, you may be gone in a week, off to the next job,” Helton said. “You’re in the same boat as your players.”

WKU won the New Orleans Bowl to cap its second nine-win season in a row. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

Indeed, two weeks after Reed announced he would stay at WKU, Hilltoppers offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle took the same job at Washington State. That stung. But Reed believed in Helton’s ability to recruit a third offensive coordinator in three years and keep most of the offense the same.

“That relationship, knowing who coach Helton is, was one of the reasons I chose to come back,” Reed said.

The WKU model shows why the portal era is more complicated than some observers make it out to be. Not every player leaves or stays because of money. No one can say what’s wrong or right. Reed experienced it up close.

“The misconception is that everyone judges the portal and has one opinion on it,” Reed said. “Every kid’s situation is different. Rusty Staats was here for five years, gave this place his all, and for one last year he wants to reunite with guys at Texas Tech. … Coach Helton hugged him on his way out and thanked him. The portal gets a bad rap, but every situation is different and needs to be taken that way.”

In the end, Reed, Corley, Evans and players who were set to leave WKU participated in the New Orleans Bowl, a 44-23 win against to cap a nine-win season. Reed threw for 497 yards against a top-30 scoring defense and finished the season leading the nation with 4,746 passing yards. It was the second consecutive year WKU had the country’s most prolific passer, both of them transfers.

Now WKU heads into 2023 as the potential favorite to win C-USA. Some new starters must be found, but a core of leaders returns, led by three players who turned down the chance to transfer.

Group of 5 schools can succeed in the NIL and portal world without the biggest checkbooks. It takes getting everyone on the same page and creating a place that’s hard to leave.

“What’s cool for me is I know we’re winning battles not because of money,” Helton said. “We’re winning because of relationships and people investing in themselves.”

Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.