Local coaches, MHSAA give their takes on current transfer rules

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published January 19, 2018

 Thomas Kithier puts up a shot during a Macomb Dakota practice last season. Kithier’s transfer and subsequent ineligibility to play basketball for Clarkston High this season have brought more attention to the current MHSAA transfer rules.

Thomas Kithier puts up a shot during a Macomb Dakota practice last season. Kithier’s transfer and subsequent ineligibility to play basketball for Clarkston High this season have brought more attention to the current MHSAA transfer rules.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

METRO DETROIT — A highly publicized issue on the basketball court will be settled in federal court.

Thomas Kithier, a standout power forward who has already committed to play at Michigan State University next year, spent the first three years of his prep career at Macomb Dakota. Over the summer, he moved to Clarkston High’s district, hoping to become eligible under the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s guidelines due to a change in residence.

However, that was not the case. 

First, Clarkston, the reigning Division 1 state champion and the team that knocked Dakota out of the playoffs last year, features another MSU commit at point guard in Foster Loyer. Kithier and Loyer played Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball together, violating one of the transfer bylaws, which states that a transferring player cannot join a team that has an AAU or similar club teammate from the past 12 months.

Kithier and his family tried to trump this rule by the change in residence. Now an adult at 18, Kithier moved to a condominium in Clarkston, with his parents joining him shortly after. The family home in Macomb Township was put up for sale. However, in order for Kithier to become eligible, a form must be signed by administrators at both the school he was leaving (Dakota) and the one he was joining (Clarkston). Representatives from Dakota refused to sign the form, believing his choice was athletically motivated and not due to academic pursuits. Without the paperwork, Kithier was out of luck.

The situation led to a lawsuit in Kithier’s name against both the MHSAA and the Chippewa Valley School District. A Jan. 11 preliminary injunction saw a federal judge in Detroit rule that Kithier was to remain ineligible for the remainder of the case, meaning he will miss out on the opportunity to play during his senior year. Complete coverage of that ruling and the lawsuit’s progression can be found at candgnews.com.

MHSAA Communications Director John Johnson laid out the framework for the governing body’s transfer rules.

“Transfer rules are very common to state associations all over the country in seeking to preserve a level playing field by trying to discourage school shopping and hopping. At the same time, it aims to prevent recruitment of student-athletes from one school to another,” Johnson said. “The basic transfer rule in Michigan is one where if you move from school A to school B in a complete move with your family, then eligibility is immediate for school B.”

However, Johnson went on to say that there are 15 exceptions or situations where an athlete will have immediate eligibility without moving — ranging “from situations with divorced parents, to moving from one district to another as an emancipated youth, for example.”

“Anything outside of those exceptions requires the athlete to sit out one semester.”

Johnson said that this time of year sees a lot of transferring “with students seeking greener pastures, so to speak,” but that most of the time the transfer isn’t challenged.

In Kithier’s situation, what triggered the challenge of his transfer was the violation of the AAU teammate rule. Furthermore, his change in residency was questioned by Dakota officials as being athletically motivated. The MHSAA staff doesn’t get involved in transfers unless a rule is triggered or the move is challenged.

“We don’t know about most transfers, which is what the membership (schools) wants,” Johnson explained. “We’ve received nothing but support from the membership through this process, especially now that we have to defend this transfer rule in the legislate. Schools actually want tougher transfer rules than we have now. In our polling, 20 years ago when we put these rules in, 75 percent of our schools wanted it.”

The transfer rule was written in 1997. Johnson estimates that a school challenges a transfer only three or four times a year, and roughly half the time that transfer is found to be done for athletically motivated reasons. He did mention that change could be on the horizon with a change being considered for the 2019-20 academic year.

“Schools want tougher rules than we have right now. We’re in the process of reviewing with schools a transfer rule that would make an athlete ineligible for two semesters in any sport they’ve played in the past 12 (months),” Johnson explained. “The student, a football player for example, could transfer without a move, but would not be able to play football for two semesters. That student could play any other sport, however.”

The C & G Sports staff reached out to a number of local coaches for their take on the current state of transferring and if they believe it’s working or if it’s time for a change.

Josh Banks, St. Clair Shores Lake Shore girls basketball coach:
Banks said he doesn’t believe the transfer rules are working. He said coaches are savvy and will find ways to beat the system if they can.

“So the transfer rules may impact a select few, but more than likely the kid will go where he or she wants,” Banks said. “I keep hearing about (Kithier’s) transfer being athletically motivated. Most transfers involving athletes are athletically motivated, and just because the MHSAA doesn’t want to recognize that fact, kids like Kithier are caught in the middle.”

Banks, who is a graduate of Detroit Martin Luther King, played basketball in the Detroit Public School League and said he saw players change schools often. He said, while not completely agreeing with it, that was part of the culture. 

The Lake Shore coach said the competitor in him would prefer to go up against the best as opposed to teaming up with them. He said a player after transferring shouldn’t miss the entire season and suggested that sitting out until the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday would be a fair compromise.


Vance Kirkwood, Rochester High boys basketball coach:
“I honestly feel sorry for Kithier. He missed out on his senior year of high school basketball for a reason that was not related to injury or academics,” Kirkwood said. “From what I know about him, he’s a really nice kid. He’s being robbed from doing what he loves to do.”

While he feels disappointed for Kithier, Kirkwood said the issue is how difficult it is to prove whether or not a move is athletically motivated, and the result can be a missed opportunity to enjoy the sport itself.

“His family made a decision to move out of their home and into the Clarkston district. There is no way to determine if the move was basketball related or academically related or a combination of both, but he’s still a kid who simply wants to play, and that’s not happening for him,” the coach said. “I would have even agreed with him being out for the first semester, but the fact that he’s ineligible for the entire season is ridiculous. I thought he did it the right way, and kids should be able to play for the district that they live in if they desire to. That would be the rule if I could change it.”


Ron Bellamy, West Bloomfield High football coach:
Bellamy said that his program has both gained and lost players to transferring. He is “absolutely in favor of how the rule stands.”

“We have kids that transfer here that don’t play sports. I think the perception is coaches are out there recruiting kids. But really, if you’re a strong school in a good community with a good curriculum, parents are going to want their kids to go there,” he said. “Rules are in place for a reason, and in my opinion, right or wrong, you have to follow them.”

Mike Mahar, Roseville High football coach:
In regard to Kithier, Roseville High football coach Mike Mahar said he believes the MHSAA set a precedent with the ruling that it will have to live by. 

“Are there programs that have spent years building themselves up to the point that kids now just want to go play there without being recruited? Yes. I think that’s true, too,” he said.

Mahar said he’s unsure if the transfer rules in place are working. He said he believes some coaches are recruiting players to their respective schools, but that it is difficult to prove that.

“Personally, I’m of the belief that if I focus on my guys and we work our tails off, that good things will happen. If I treat guys right, then they’ll enjoy playing for me. If we begin to win, then I think kids from other schools may want to move into the district and play,” he said. “As for recruiting, I know myself, and I don’t have time to do all of that.”

Michele Marshall, Southfield A&T girls basketball coach:
“The thing is, it’s a rule that’s been in existence for a long time. But times change, and I’m not so sure it’s not time to bring the rule up to 2018,” she said. “At the same time, I’m fine with the rule if it’s mandated fairly across the board. I think there are times when kids are allowed to play, and you’re not sure why, and other times where kids aren’t allowed to, and again, you’re not sure why.”

Marshall is in her 25th year of coaching and said she has had many transfers come and go, especially during her tenure at Southfield-Lathrup before the school merged with Southfield High.

“I don’t want a free-for-all where kids can go here and there and everywhere. But if it’s time to tweak a little to bring it into our society now, then we need to do that,” she said. “Kids go to a school with a robotics program, for example, and nobody is going to fuss about that. If you’re talking about basketball or football, that sport may be their way to college. … I don’t think the rule is the issue. I think it’s how it’s interpreted sometimes. 

“I’ve gotten transfers and lost transfers, and at the end of the day, if my program is not where a kid wants to be, then I’m fine with it.”

Hassan Nizam, Roseville High boys basketball coach:
Nizam said the MHSAA attempts to keep recruiting under control with the current rules, but the system isn’t perfect. 

“There isn’t any consistency,” Nizam said, “and adults who want to win trophies at all costs will do things like that.”

Sports Writers Jason Davis and Mike Moore contributed to this story.