CLEMSON — Graham Neff wrinkled his nose when asked whether Clemson’s athletic facilities were relatively lagging.
“To call it behind, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Clemson’s deputy athletic director, “because Clemson has been comprehensively successful, and the facilities are a part of that.
“But,” Neff added, “I think there was an opportunity to be first-class and trend-setting for a lot of the programs we’ve built facilities for.”
It sure seems like Clemson has been compensating for past measures, though athletic officials insist the school is simply attempting to set “the standard” (to borrow football coach Dabo Swinney’s mantra) in terms of particular sports buildings and upgrades.
The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Clemson’s athletic department finds itself in the midst of cutting the ribbon on three separate facility upgrades in a span of 18 months: a brand-new baseball operations center ($10 million) opened last October; renovated Littlejohn Coliseum ($63.5 million) will open its doors when basketball season begins in November; and the glittering new football operations center ($55 million) is on track to open Feb. 1, 2017, which is National Signing Day.
The bill for those three state-approved projects: $128.5 million, which on its own surpasses Clemson’s approximate yearly operational spending by more than 50 percent.
To gather intel on the concept of its 140,000-square foot football facility, a Clemson contingent of Neff, director of football administration Woody McCorvey and director of recruiting and external affairs Thad Turnipseed visited Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi State a few years ago. They also studied new facilities at Oregon and Texas A&M for ideas.
Alabama, where McCorvey and Turnipseed were previously employed, opened a 37,000-square foot strength and conditioning facility costing $9 million in 2013. That same year, according to the Washington Post, Tennessee’s 145,000-square foot training center cost $45 million, while Oregon’s complex of the exact same size was reported to cost between $95 and $140 million, a gift from Nike co-founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight.
South Carolina, meanwhile, has set aside $50 million for a football operations center. USC is in the process of seeking final approval, and hopes to break ground late this year or early in 2017. The Gamecocks’ $14 million indoor practice facility opened in 2015.
The moment Clemson hired Georgia Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich in the same capacity in 2012, the wheels were set in motion for cranes and tractors to invade Clemson’s athletic department acres. Radakovich’s reputation as a builder followed him from Atlanta.
“I just think in today’s world of intercollegiate athletics, it’s really important,” Radakovich said. “You need to be able to give your coaches and student-athletes the best opportunity to be successful. Facilities is a big part. I can’t control how the ball bounces, but that’s one of the things that administratively, we can control.”
Naturally, for skeptics who shake their fist at the accelerating costs of college athletics (very little of which actually goes in the pockets of student-athletes), this is the main question.
How can a school like Clemson, which according to USA Today’s database ranked No. 39 among public universities in athletic department revenues in 2014-15, afford all this? According to university documents provided at board approval meetings, state funds are not used on facility upgrades or capital projects.
The imaginary visual Clemson provides is three buckets of cash in which the athletic department can dip its hand to pay for nine figures worth of capital projects in a short period of time. All three buckets are essentially supported by IPTAY, Clemson’s 82-year-old scholarship fund and booster club organization.
• No. 1 — Existing bond fees are added to the price of admission for Clemson’s revenue sports.
“Every ticket that is sold for Memorial Stadium, for Littlejohn, and for Doug Kingsmore Stadium has a baked-in bond fee,” said Neff, a top Radakovich lieutenant who previously oversaw facilities and capital projects at Middle Tennessee. “That’s not an on-top cost to the ticketholder.”
Each football ticket contributes $4 to the bond; each men’s and women’s basketball ticket gives $2, and each baseball ticket gives $1. Clemson reaps about $2 million per year through this system.
• No. 2 — IPTAY’s annual fund, which raises between $6.5 million and $8.5 million set aside for departmental upgrades.
• No. 3 — A facilities trust called Clemson Athletics Trust, or “CAT,” covers the balance. In 2015, IPTAY announced a record-breaking $25.5 million in gifts from its 16,000 members, including five cornerstone partners donating major gifts.
“That’s a quasi-direct result, I think we would all argue, of the success of football,” Neff said.
The department gains interest off these investments. Pulling the money out is affordable, with bond rates for these projects currently under 3.75 percent, according to Neff.
“Some of our financial strategy from a facility standpoint, is right now, money is available at rates that are very advantageous,” he said. “We’re trying to be aggressive from that available bond market, but we have significant reserves and invested cash available in order to withstand that plan.”
Once Clemson football players move into their new home next spring, the reigning ACC Champions and College Football Playoff finalists will enjoy top-shelf training, dining and locker rooms along with amenities like an HD theater, a barber shop, a nine-hole putt-putt course, a golf simulator, a basketball court, laser tag, a bowling alley, an indoor slide and outdoor firepit.
The latter items have drawn ire from those who want to see spending curtailed, not increased on seemingly outlandish luxuries not commonly used by college-aged kids.
Gerald Gurney, an Oklahoma professor whose Drake Group organization advocates academic integrity in collegiate sports, told the Washington Post, “This is all about pandering to the fantasies of 18-year-olds. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the mission of a university. What’s probably next down the line is a floating river attraction. Why don’t we have a roller coaster? It’s embarrassing that we’re even discussing this.”
Clemson administrators emphasize the bulk of their spending was on essential needs for the facilities. At the new football operations center, for example, they say the recreational bells and whistles accounted for a fraction of the $55 million price.
Fans who support the university’s budget, be it through IPTAY contributions or nachos at the concession stand, won’t personally enjoy the football complex. But the theory is that facility upgrades spent behind the scenes placate coaches and players, which leads to better recruiting and more wins, which in turn makes fans happy.
“The ability to create a non-work environment, but still be safe and local and familiar, is where that all comes from,” Neff said. “Yeah, there’s a recruiting piece to it too, but we spend a lot of our time planning and designing and worrying about the efficiency of the coaches, how the kids function, how those pieces interact. That extra space where we have some land — and it’s cheaper to build — is a cherry on top.”