On Saturday in South Carolina, Clemson University’s No. 1 ranked, defending champion football team faces No. 12 Texas A&M. The numbers say it will be Clemson’s toughest regular-season game, the best chance to keep the Tigers from coasting into the college football playoff for a fifth straight year and winning their third national title since 2016. Even then, Vegas doesn’t think the game will be that close: Clemson is a 17-point favorite.
Clemson has not historically been a blue-blood football program. The school did not achieve its current level of dominance in every facet of the game by having a name-brand legacy, a particularly loaded athletic department, or a super-rich benefactor, or by being situated in a talent-rich population center. (The town in which it’s located, also called Clemson, is about 200 miles inland of South Carolina’s coastal tourist destinations and has a population of about 17,000.) What it does have is a commitment to football that makes even other football schools look, if you will, like amateurs. That commitment is embodied by an individual named Thad Turnipseed, and in turn by Turnipseed’s commitment to head coach William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney.
The baby-faced Turnipseed, whose name is really Thad Turnipseed, is in his late 40s and is—like Swinney—an Alabama native and University of Alabama graduate. Turnipseed ran a construction company before getting into football operations under his alma mater’s coach, Nick Saban. He’s been at Clemson since 2013—his title is director of recruiting and external affairs—and his résumé documents expertise in fundraising, event management, and marketing. He’s not a coach, but he administers the team’s hypermethodical process for evaluating, contacting, and pursuing high school prospects. He also designed a recent $55 million renovation of Clemson’s football complex, which is now a 360-degree lifestyle palace that includes not just workout facilities and practice space but a movie theater, a miniature golf course, an artificial turf whiffle ball diamond, two bowling lanes, and an arcade.
If there’s something going on with Clemson football that isn’t directly related to the game itself, Thad Turnipseed is involved with it, and probably spending as much or more money on it as any other program in the country. As the Greenville News has documented, Clemson splashes out 10 times as much on recruiting today as it did 10 years ago. During the 2018–19 academic year, the team’s recruiting expenses—airfare, entertainment costs, a graphics team to design pitch materials customized for each potential player—totaled $2.9 million, more than any other program spent in the most recent period for which nationwide data is available. (Also perhaps germane: A former Clemson basketball assistant coach was recorded on a wiretap in a federal corruption case suggesting that the school’s football program is successful in part because players are getting paid under the table. The school said in April that it would investigate the claims, and in May its athletic director said that there was “nothing that we’ve been able to find at this point in time that implicates the football program.”) The aforementioned, Turnipseed-designed football facility has also surpassed the University of Oregon’s Nike-backed complex as the nation’s buzziest and most opulent.
Turnipseed’s job, in the simplest terms, is to bring the country’s best teenage football players into the fold and, once they’re on campus, to keep them as deeply inside that fold as possible. This is an explicit, literal goal: Clemson’s quarterbacks coach told the Anderson Independent Mail that the mini golf course, arcade, and the like are intended to keep the athletes in physical proximity to their coaches. “I think our players will be around here more, because there’s obviously so much to do, and that means we get to interact with them even more,” he told the paper, which noted that “for his players, Swinney doesn’t want the new building to be just an office; he wants it to be a home.” Among the amenities that create a homelike (or at least dormlike) atmosphere are a nap room and a dining hall equipped with a thumbprint scanner that will tell you how much to eat based on your coach-dictated target weight. (Clemson’s “director of football nutrition” told the site Clemson247 that he doesn’t ask players to report their outside meals to him because, “If we’re doing our jobs correctly, they’re going to be eating here under our eyes anyways.”)
This strategy is working. While Clemson has gotten increasingly good at recruiting top prospects under Swinney and Turnipseed, it’s also gotten disproportionately effective play out of the recruits it does have, winning its two recent championships despite having fewer four- and five-star players (per outside talent evaluators) than a number of its competitors. The Tigers also benefit from roster continuity: Per the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate metric, scholarship football players stay at Clemson, and graduate, at a level comparable to that of hoity-toity peers like Northwestern and Vanderbilt. (Clemson’s athletic tutoring facilities are located in its football stadium, and the football facility includes a career and “life skills” center that also organizes community service projects. If Turnipseed could find a way for the team to do community service without leaving the facility, I’m sure he would.)
In a sport where success leads to job hopping, Clemson has also managed to retain its coaches and staffers. While its main national competitor, Alabama, is constantly replacing top assistants, Clemson’s defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been with the team since 2012 and has spent much of that time confounding rival athletic departments by passing on their offers to interview for head coaching vacancies. A number of other assistants have stayed that long, too, in part because of the focused deployment of huge amounts of money: The Tigers’ 10 assistant coaches are paid more than any other assistant group in the country. But cash doesn’t entirely explain what’s going on here; Swinney’s crew also evinces a level of loyalty to the Clemson football “community” that is, depending on your perspective, either admirable or creepy.
Consider Turnipseed: Given his breadth of expertise, association with successful programs, and prior experience running his own organization, he would be a prime candidate to become a Division I athletic director. By his own admission, in a 2016 interview with the fan site Tiger Illustrated, this was his belief too—until Swinney convinced him otherwise:
I always knew I wanted to be an athletics director. That was always my goal. But what I’ve learned from Dabo being here is what he says all the time: Bloom where you’re planted. He says that weekly to us around here. Because it’s human nature to always want to be at the next step. But I guess you change with age. For 10 years, I was worried about the next job. Even though I was at Alabama, I’m thinking, “When can I be the AD somewhere? How long is it going to be?” …
Now, my goal is to be the best football guy in the country. Because while I chased that AD job for 10 or 12 years, there’s none out there that I’m chasing or looking for now. I’m happy and blooming where I’m planted. And a lot of that goes back to working for a guy I love.
“I’m happy and blooming where I’m planted,” says Turnipseed. “Just be great where your feet are and bloom where you’re planted,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott told the Greenville News when asked why he, like Venables, has not taken a head coaching position at another school. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Swinney told his team in 2016, according to the Orlando Sentinel, allegedly inspired by seeing a blade of grass growing on the steps of the school’s stadium. “He kept saying to us: ‘Bloom where you’re planted! Bloom where you’re planted!’ ” an offensive lineman told the Wall Street Journal about what Swinney took away from watching The Martian with the team. (Matt Damon’s character plants potatoes on Mars.)
A related catchphrase that Swinney embraces is all-in, as in: If you’re at Clemson, you’re all in for Clemson and for Dabo. There is, in fact, an annual “All-In Meeting,” whose theme is, in part, Don’t get any big ideas. Said Turnipseed to Tiger Illustrated: “That’s what I tell people in our All-In Meetings: It doesn’t get any better than this. You won’t find a better place or a better person to work for than where you are right now. And if you don’t believe that, you need to get out of here.” At 2019’s All-In Meeting, according to the Athletic, an assistant coach named Todd Bates missed seven calls from his wife because he’d turned off his cellphone to prevent himself from being distracted while listening to Swinney “re-instill the program’s culture.” Bates’ wife was nine months pregnant with twins and was calling to say she was about to be admitted to the hospital.
A big part of Clemson’s culture, as documented in a new Sports Illustrated piece, is Christianity. Swinney is an outspoken evangelical, and Turnipseed has cited the coach’s emphasis on spiritual life as a key reason he wants to remain “planted” at Clemson. It was also a selling point for the team’s mega-phenom quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who has said he derives his “identity” not from football but from “what Christ says, who He thinks I am and who I know that He says I am.” SI reports that Clemson football players are regularly baptized on or near the team’s practice field, and quotes the mother of a current recruit who says (approvingly) that Swinney told her that “every single player that comes through this program will hear about the Gospel of Christ.”
Turnipseed, in fact, has said that recruits are screened for prayerfulness (among other things) during their on-campus visits:
Do they open the door for a lady? How do they talk to their mom? Do they pray before they eat? How are they acting when they’re here? … What I look for is how they are treating their family or who they came with. Are they respectful? Yes ma’am, no ma’am. Look you in the eye. Little things. Just like if they were dating your daughter, things you would look for. And we document it. We have enough good people in place to document it, and Dabo values that information.
None of the former Clemson players quoted in the Sports Illustrated piece, including a wide receiver who told the coach that, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he didn’t feel comfortable participating in church activities with his teammates, said they felt Swinney pressured them to adopt Christian beliefs. (Clemson is a public school; it hasn’t responded to the SI article, but its athletic director has said in the past that the university complies with laws regarding church-state separation. When a New York Times columnist asked Swinney four years ago if he favored Christian athletes, the coach responded that he considered it his job to “recruit and play the best football players,” not “the best Christians,” and that he had no doubt that he had “coached a bunch of atheists” as well.) For those players who are so inclined, there are huge personal benefits to be reaped from voluntarily immersing oneself in the Clemson cocoon for four years. The team’s most recent senior class won four conference championships and two national championships while playing for the same head coach and coordinators; six former Tigers were selected in last spring’s NFL draft. From its cool locker room to its church-family atmosphere to its relentless winning, Clemson, Swinney, and Turnipseed have transformed a middling program, in less than a decade, into one that appeals, comprehensively, to a specific kind of elite teenage athlete.
That being said, the most tangible benefit of Clemson’s success—the money it makes—goes predominately to a few men at the top of the pyramid. And as Will Leitch recently documented in New York magazine, Dabo can be vengeful toward anyone who threatens the equilibrium of the system that has made him, at $9.3 million a year, the highest-paid coach in college football history. He routinely attacks the idea of player compensation, and suggested that players who protest police brutality are creating “divisiveness” and—truly—besmirching the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He pointedly declined to give a championship ring to Kelly Bryant, the team’s former starting quarterback, who left the program after getting passed on the depth chart in September 2018. Bryant wanted the chance to play somewhere else—he’s now the starter at Missouri—and Swinney didn’t like that. “I didn’t anticipate Kelly leaving. I thought Kelly would stay and keep playing and compete,” the coach said this August. “But he chose to move on. Trevor [Lawrence] took it and ran with it and got better and better.” Says Turnipseed: “With Dabo, you fear him because you love him so much. He creates fear out of love.” Well, maybe.
On one hand, being all-in and blooming where you’re planted are sort of just the Serenity Prayer. But it’s also a very convenient philosophy for a program to espouse in an era of increased player mobility (see: the transfer portal) and burgeoning player empowerment.
Clemson doesn’t excel because it’s figured out a new or different approach to college football—coaches everywhere try to build catchphrase-driven cults of intensity. Clemson simply does the intensity thing more, and more successfully, than anyone else, selecting for and attracting coaches and players who are OK with sublimating their personal ambitions in order to spend a massive amount of on-task football time in a small Southern town with Christians named Dabo and Thad who have particular visions for the way the men under their supervision should eat, pray, and make eye contact. Enjoy the game!