Thad Turnipseed had a simple question when Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, his old college teammate, tried to lure him to the Tigers’ staff in 2013: What do you want me to do?
“He said, ‘Thad, I don’t care what you do,’” Turnipseed said in a telephone interview this week. Come, Swinney urged his old friend, and make us better.
“‘I don’t care if you don’t do anything for a year,’” Turnipseed said Swinney told him. “‘Just come. Learn. Be around. When you see something that can make us better — make us better, go to the next thing.’”
So Turnipseed went. In a matter of days — “I don’t know if it was the first week, the second week,” he said — he had his new title: director of recruiting. “A couple months later, I was director of recruiting and external affairs,” he said. “I think that’s what the title says now.”
The fact that Turnipseed can be so casual about the label underscores the jack-of-all-trades role he has taken on with the Tigers, who enter Monday’s national championship game against Alabama looking to avenge last year’s title-game loss to the Crimson Tide.
The fingerprints of Turnipseed, a 45-year-old former construction worker, are all over both teams: Before Swinney lured him to Clemson, Turnipseed spent 11 years in Tuscaloosa in a variety of behind-the-scenes roles as Coach Nick Saban laid the foundation for a program that is one win from his fifth national championship in eight years. On Monday, Turnipseed will get his second shot at delivering Swinney’s first title.
Turnipseed is the rare figure who has endeared himself to both men, adapting to their personalities and the culture of their programs: the N.F.L.-style preparation of Saban, and the more-fun-the-better philosophy championed by Swinney.
On the day of his initial visit to Clemson back in 2013, Turnipseed, a father of four, said that Swinney was “hugging every player, he’s asking about their extended family by name.”
“Just a totally different atmosphere at Clemson than it was at Alabama,” Turnipseed added. “I’m not saying better. I’m just saying different.”
“That atmosphere at Clemson, for a guy with young kids, a young family, that was the right fit for me at the time,” he said.
Turnipseed, a former Alabama football player whose career ended early because of knee injuries, was the owner of a construction and flooring business in 2003 when Mal Moore, the Crimson Tide’s athletic director, came to him with a not-so-modest request.
“Mal Moore sees me at a basketball game, asks me for a donation for this new capital campaign he was going to kick off,” said Turnipseed, who played at Alabama during Moore’s years as an assistant coach there. “I said, ‘Mal, I can’t give that much to you, but I’ll come build it for you.’ I said it just jokingly, and the next thing you know, within a week I was selling my company, getting ready to go to Alabama.”
He started as the director of capital projects, working his way up to roles as associate athletic director for special projects and, more important, as Saban’s director of football external affairs. The catchall job titles forced Turnipseed to perform many duties; he helped to design and oversee more than $200 million in athletic projects, including stadium renovations and expansions, and helped to build a room in Saban’s house dedicated to recruiting.
At Clemson, Turnipseed was tasked with building the Tigers’ recruiting department, which has added positions with new-media-era titles — assistant director of football operations and creative media, director of new and creative media, coordinator of digital content — not to mention dozens of student helpers. These seemingly amorphous roles are all aimed at spreading Clemson’s message in forward-thinking ways, using social media to connect with recruits from a distance while also monitoring their behavior for potential red flags.
Since he arrived, Clemson’s recruiting class rankings moved from No. 13 to No. 4 to No. 6 nationally, according to Rivals.com. Better players have yielded better results: Swinney’s Tigers are 27-2 over the past two seasons.
“I certainly don’t think that it’s any surprise to me that the things that he’s responsible for, because of the pride in performance that he has as a person, that he wouldn’t do a fantastic job of,” Saban said in a teleconference on Tuesday. “I know he’s impacted their recruiting in a very positive way.”
Turnipseed, a linebacker on the Crimson Tide’s 1992 national title team, said he endeared himself to Saban — who was hired by Moore in 2007 — early on because of his experience as a former Alabama football player. He has joked that his job titles were simply code for “keep Nick happy,” as he did virtually everything for Saban that did not involve the X’s and O’s of football. That included not only multimillion-dollar stadium projects, but also acting as a buffer for Saban and making sure the coach had influential people in front of him at speaking events.
It was around the time of Moore’s death, in 2013, that Swinney, a receiver on that 1992 Alabama team, made a push to hire him at Clemson. Turnipseed had aspirations of becoming an athletic director himself but seemed to have hit a professional ceiling at Alabama. So he made his own recruiting visit to Clemson to see Swinney.
“His pitch to me was this: ‘Thad, you’ve done everything you can do at Alabama. The one thing you haven’t been a part of is a staff. You might like it and stay forever, but worst-case that will help you be an A.D. anywhere you want to go,’” Turnipseed said. “And he was right. And it’s funny how you plan your life and God will change it, because I always thought I’d be an A.D.; now I’m thinking it’s pretty good to be on a football staff. I really enjoy the relationships with the players.”
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