Inside peek at the new Clemson Football Operations Facility
A recurring thought while touring the new football crib at Clemson University was if Dabo Swinney’s team could win a national championship a month before it opened, what might be accomplished with this palace nicknamed Dabo’s World.
Thad Turnipseed wonders, too.
“This is the new standard in college football,” said Turnipseed, the project manager, speaking to Swinney’s program as well as the 140,000 square-foot facility which has been described as opulent and absurd.
“Money is not the issue. That’s what a lot of people want you to believe,” he said. “The issue is, we’ve got to quit using people. We’ve got to build better men if college football is going to sustain.
“That’s what Dabo Swinney is changing in college football, and that’s what this building is about.”
Turnipseed came to Clemson in 2013 after 11 years at Alabama, where he helped Nick Saban build college football’s latest and perhaps greatest dynasty. A linebacker at Alabama whose playing career was ended by knee injuries, he was a teammate and then student assistant coach helping Swinney as a graduate assistant.
After college, Turnipseed entered the construction business. He owned a firm when Alabama hired him to manage a couple of projects, including a room for recruiting at Saban’s house. Soon, Saban began referring to him as his director of external affairs, but during his tenure Turnipseed’s responsibilities ranged from oversight of more than $200 million in capital projects to events, fundraising and recruiting.
Turnipseed never felt part of the team and dreamed of becoming an athletics director, He wondered if he’d hit a ceiling at Alabama when Swinney lured him to Clemson for less money, but a chance to do more than drive nails for an ambitious football program. He would help build the team.
The pitch required a one-day visit. On his way home, Turnipseed called his wife to tell her what he’d seen and felt.
“We’re going to Clemson, aren’t we?” she said.
“All I can tell you, honey, is that it’s real.”
A new home for football was in the conversational stage when he arrived that June. Swinney wanted his counsel once a project was approved, so Turnipseed immersed himself in recruiting, refocusing the energy and spreading the responsibility. Coincidentally, changes in NCAA rules allowed for more hands, minds and eyes in the process and Clemson dove in at the deep end, adding more people, taking advantage of technology and social media to monitor and communicate with recruits.
When the first spade turned dirt in November 6, 2015, the recruiting operation was humming and Turnipseed, now director of recruiting and external affairs, could begin shifting his focus. They had $55 million to spend and his background and fertile imagination. Turnipseed calls himself a daydreamer. The results are, at the very least, impressive.
Swinney had a concept and a wish list. Besides being functional for all aspects of the football staff and creating a “wow” factor for recruits, he wanted a home for the players, a sanctuary as well as a place to grow intellectually and spiritually. Plus, he wanted a lot of orange and purple with hundreds of Tiger Paws. Above all, he wanted it to be fun.
The Clemson Football Complex, roughly the size of an average Sam’s Club, runs perpendicular to the practice fields, serving as a backdrop from the view on Perimeter Road. The main entrance faces the indoor track with a massive parking lot and a plaza ideal for a statue or two.
During a two-hour tour less than a week before moving day, it was obvious Turnipseed had checked all the boxes. From the lobby, where Clemson’s two national championship trophies will be the focal points, to an area upstairs serving as the home for the Paw Journey, where players can be tutored in leadership and career development.
Beyond are the coaches’ offices, meetings rooms, recruiting lounge, recruiting war room and theater. Swinney’s suite includes a 600-square foot office with floor to ceiling windows that overlook the practice fields and a picturesque view of Death Valley. A door opens to a patio that runs the length of the building past the other coaches’ offices. On the opposite wall is the door to Swinney’s personal area, including a private entrance to the building, dressing area and bathroom.
Back downstairs either by steps, a replica of The Hill with a cast-iron Howard’s Rock or down a slide to the locker room with custom-designed cubicles in rich elegant, wood. A place for anything and everything,including separate cabinets for helmets, shoulder pads, shoes and clothing plus a key-coded compartment for valuables.
Adjacent are a sauna, a cold tub with seats for 60 and a cleat drying room.
The weight room is ginormous with space for roughly 50 percent more equipment than the WestZone site, complete with a cardio balcony and nutrition bar. The largest in the country, Turnipseed said, trumping Alabama’s, which served as his inspiration.
Next to the spacious equipment room is an exhibit with current uniforms mannequins and a place for fans to snap a picture at a faux locker.
A sprawling training room includes a lap pool and four hydrotherapy pools.
The players’ lounge includes pool tables, ping-pong, video games and televisions viewable from every angle, a virtual reality room and golf simulator, barber shop, personal laundry and nap room with bunks supported by 4x4 steel beams, bean bags and an aquarium.
The dining room is a massive but welcoming area with huge windows, and the kitchen might be the best on campus with stations for everything from salads to baked goods, prepared on site and served to enormous appetites.
Finally, there’s the piece de resistance of fun – the Players’ Village.
At a cost of about $1.5 million, the village probably provides more bang for the buck than anything on the site, Turnipseed said. The anchor will be what the HGTV folks call a “water feature,” a wall roughly 12 feet high and wide in purple and orange mosaic with a raised white Tiger Paw that will be lit at night by floods from a wading pool, the safer option to a swimming pool.
The wall faces a football-shaped village green with outdoor lighting and comfortable lawn furniture. A 20-foot screen can be wheeled into place for watching games or movies. There are two covered areas, one with couches large enough for naps and another with more tables and chairs. If players want to cook a burger or pizza, they can fire one of two large gas grills.
Also dominant in the village is a covered full-sized basketball court (where Swinney might be found on occasion). There is a nine-hole miniature golf course, a horseshoe pit, a beach volleyball dune and a layout for Wiffle Ball that backs up to the moat which will surely become a target for the big hitters.
Players are encouraged to use the area as they would their backyards, to bring a date or a guest. The building will be open on weekends with security and supervision until midnight (Swinney said nothing “good” happens after midnight). This won’t be a fraternity house, Turnipseed said.
Just short of being a “home,” the 140,000 square-foot complex addresses virtually every player’s daily needs outside the classroom. Turnipseed said that by working with administration, everything he and Swinney wanted for this project they got.
Several of the major features Turnipseed borrowed from the more than three dozen facilities he visited back through his time at Alabama, which was his model for the weight room. Concepts for the locker room and cold tub, which remains a constant 47 degrees, were borrowed from the University of Oklahoma and the training room model was at the University of Tennessee.
Blending them with Swinney’s unique approach makes the complex the best in the sport, Turnipseed said. Key, he said, are the recruiting philosophy and structure, and the Paw Journey which they believe helps prepare players for life after football.
Recruits are tracked on war room boards for three years, six at each position. They might not be the highest-rated prospects, because Clemson conducts deep background to check on the character of each. In the last couple of years, Turnipseed said, they rejected a national top five prospect who wanted to attend Clemson because they discovered some off-field issues.
The Paw Journey enhances Swinney’s ideas of nurturing this culture and it complements the work of the academics and tutors at Vickery Hall while providing opportunities for football players to explore career development, leadership and team development and chances to interact with business leaders and captains of industry. Throughout are subtle elements that support the mission. The golf simulator, for example, can teach players the rudiments of a game frequently used by business people to close deals.
Working with Saban and Swinney has afforded Turnipseed to grow professionally and see it was possible to travel distinctly different roads to the same destination. His respect for both is immeasurable, though in Saban’s “process,” there were moments of confrontation and fear of recrimination. With Swinney’s culture, he said, it’s the fear of losing his respect and “love.”
On a campus where new buildings have recently sprouted like spring tulips, the complex still draws questions about the enormous commitment of resources to football. Turnipseed doesn’t apologize, referring to football as “the front door to the university.” Swinney’s reputation for graduating his players and consecutive national championship game appearances cast the Clemson name in grand light and aid the argument.
While his contributions to the Clemson Football Complex might not be evident to the naked eye, it’s clear by following Turnipseed room to room that his hands are all over the details, fielding calls from vendors, deciding on which wall to hang the bunks in the nap room – his idea – checking the curtains’ flow behind the lecterns in the team meeting room, and the concept and design of the Wiffle Ball field – another of his pet additions that was welcomed with a cheer when he proposed it at a team meeting.
Fun is at virtually every turn, but what do you expect in a program where the coach dances for the team after a win, swaps chest bumps with the president and throws pizza parties for 30,000 fans? The slide was all Dabo, Turnipseed said, an idea borrowed from the film “The Internship.”
Turnipseed chafes at the notion the complex was built as a carrot for recruits. Rather than focus on the bells, whistles and fireworks, he pushes the message of “why” it was built.
“It’s about people wanting to be here, putting them in a better culture,” he said. “I think that in 25 years, you’re going to look back and Clemson has changed the whole way college football is being run. Coach Swinney’s way of doing it through at culture rather than through a process.”
With the 2016 national championship and aspirations for a third, there’s no doubt about the seriousness of Clemson’s mission and what might be accomplished at Dabo’s World.
Some of the highlights of Clemson’s new $55 million, 140,000 square-foot football complex:
Includes a barber shop and shoe-shine area, arcade, two-lane bowling alley and laser tag. (Players must pay for haircuts and shoe shines.)
It will teach players about the game and feature 93 of the nation’s best courses.
Fans and their kids can run down the to-scale replica of The Hill.
After they weigh-in, players scan their thumb, and a detailed menu will pop up based on their weight and goals.
It features eight bunk beds, three massage chairs and bean bags.
At 26,000 square feet, it’s one of the largest in the country. It also includes a cardio deck.
There’s room for 60 players. There also are workout tubs (resistance training for injured players) and a lap pool.
It includes a covered outdoor basketball court, miniature golf and fire pits and grills.