BRADENTON -- Curt Bradley's arrival in Manatee County when he became Braden River's head football coach in 2012 provided a sort of culture shock.
Bradley grew up in Columbia, Mo., where there were only two high schools within 30 miles. Students' choices of a high school were extremely limited.
For four years with the Pirates, Bradley has had to adjust to the county's school choice policy. There are six public schools in the area boasting unique programs, and students can choose any one to attend.
"Florida's kind of been the wild, wild west for a long time as far as those things go," said Bradley, who led BRHS to its first appearance in the state final four last year. "You've seen kids transfer around here for many reasons."
The rest of the state will now follow the same rules Manatee County already has. On Friday, the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate both passed HB 7029, a 107-page bill that includes alterations to transfer and recruiting rules throughout the state.
If Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill, the rules will go into effect July 1.
School choice has long been a source of controversy in Manatee County. Even before HB 7029 passed through the state house and senate Friday, students were allowed free reign to transfer, although, theoretically, they couldn't choose a school for athletic reasons. Still, athletes from Palmetto dot the rosters at Manatee. Students who live in Bradenton play sports at Palmetto and athletes from Parrish play at Southeast.
The new law normalizes throughout the state what has been commonplace in Man
atee County. Now students will be immediately eligible to play sports during the semester they transfer as long as it's not a sport they played at a previous school during the same season. Students can also transfer between public schools across county lines.
For example, a player can transfer midway through basketball season during the spring semester and be eligible to play baseball. He wouldn't, however, be able to play basketball at his new school until the next season.
"Let's be honest, school choice in this area is not supposed to have been for athletic reasons," Bradley said. "But in the past I'm sure there have been kids who have transferred for athletics under the disguise of whatever it may be."
Part of the bill allows schools to more easily trigger investigations from the Florida High School Athletic Association when they suspect another program of recruiting and imposes more strict penalties if a school is caught.
A first-time offender is fined $5,000, a second offense leads to a 12-month suspension without pay and a third could mean a loss of the district employee's education certifications. While recruiting has been difficult to prove in the past, complainants need only to prove a "preponderance of evidence."
Floyd Watkins is a lifer at Southeast. He played basketball for the Seminoles in the late 1980s and early 1990s and returned to become the Noles' head boys basketball coach in 2013. Although he's disappointed with the expansion of transfer rules, he hopes the recruiting aspects of the bill will help temper an issue that has existed since his playing days.
"It's so much a part of the tapestry of high school sports these days," Watkins said. "It happens more than people realize."
Palmetto head football coach Dave Marino is most worried about individuals abusing the rule to transfer multiple times during their high school careers. Even though students still need a non-athletic reason to transfer, Marino is worried about athletes transferring from season to season to play specific sports and specific schools.
"The representatives and senators are crazy if they don't think there's going to be some of that," Marino said.
There are parts of the bill, though, that alleviated some of the coaches' worries. Manatee head football coach John Booth was initially worried about players transferring during the season and being eligible to play the same sport at a new school.
Transfers will also be limited to schools which are not at capacity and if someone wants to transfer to a school in a different county, a student who is trying to transfer within the same county will have priority.
"It'll be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out," Booth said. "I find it hard to believe that we're going to see a whole lot of cross-county transferring because kids are still going to have to find a way to get there on time."
But the new bill brings transparency to what has long been a reality -- this is a transfer culture and it will not change soon even if most coaches don't like it.
"I guess it's kind of old school and it might sound silly, but there's something to be said about taking your neighborhood kids who grew up with their family members going to that high school, and being in middle school, and dreaming about going and playing there, and then doing it," Watkins said. "These aren't just high schools. They're a big part of the community."
David Wilson, Herald sports writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7057 or on Twitter @DBWilson2.