CLEMSON — It was opening night, and the home crowd was buzzing. Upon entering, fans were treated to free T-shirts and calendar magnets on the right side of the walkway. On the left they were offered a question:
"You want a picture with the trophy?"
There it was, propped on a purple-clothed table underneath an orange, purple and white inflatable tent: The 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship trophy. Many Clemson fans took the team staffer up on the offer, posing with friends beside the hardware, smiling and sticking one finger in the air.
This was not Memorial Stadium but Historic Riggs Field, home to Clemson's men's and women's soccer teams. Football season, in fact, was a week away. Aug. 22 served as the Clemson women's soccer team's home opener, which featured the Tigers claiming a 2-0 win over Utah.
Clemson is a public institution with an undergraduate enrollment upwards of 19,000. Some students come for the esteemed College of Business. Some come for the in-state tuition. And some come for the school spirit, a gloriously contagious energy that traces back to the football team's massive success — as does the athletic department's rising annual revenue.
Clemson football generated $53.9 million during the 2017-18 academic year, accounting for 42 percent of the department's total reported revenue, according to a database of college athletic revenues compiled by USA Today Sports. In '17-18, the bulk of that revenue came from $24,856,086 in ticket sales.
Football coach Dabo Swinney, in turn, looms over campus, and last Thursday his program's tentacles had extended to Historic Riggs.
"Football has helped us build the program with our nationwide brand," women's soccer coach Eddie Radwanski said.
Swinney himself has become a nationwide brand in recent years, the swaggering, smiley architect of two of the last three football national champions; Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse are just two in a long line of coaches to have picked Swinney's brain recently.
Count Radwanski among that group. Radwanski, in his ninth season at Clemson, called Swinney a "good friend" who has spoken to his team on multiple occasions. Radwanski credits Swinney for helping push Clemson out from "under the radar."
"All of the sports play a part in it, but football obviously is in the biggest spotlight," Radwanski said. "Them being successful, and the way they win, the way they play, the way they conduct themselves has put a positive spotlight on our university."
For one thing, Radwanski said, the Clemson brand has helped him recruit nationally. Indeed, six of the Tigers' seven-member freshman class are not from South Carolina, including Hal Hershfelt, an Atlanta native who scored the opening goal of the Tigers' season.
Hershfelt, whose father is in the military but made it to Clemson for the opener, bumped Migos songs in her headphones before the game. Her nerves persisted. Five minutes before game time she joined her team and took the field.
"I've never played in front of a crowd that big before," she said. "I looked up and was like, 'Oh my god. There's too many.' "
There were 1,572 in attendance — admission is free for all women's soccer games — and the spectators were brimming with enthusiasm for the first athletic event of the fall semester. The bleachers were a sea of orange, and more students leaned on side fences, including sophomore Judson Richards.
"I was actually going to the gym," he said. "Then I saw this was was going on."
Richards was not outfitted in a shirt offering tribute to the Tigers' football team, as many of his classmates were — 'All In' was a popular shirt emblem. He instead wore athletic shorts, with earbuds dangling from his tank.
He enrolled at Clemson from the Charlotte area a big soccer fan, but he has become more interested in football as time has worn on, a product of both wanting to fit in and genuine interest. He said he skipped over an email earlier in the day promoting the women's soccer game.
Back in the stands, in the calm after Hershfelt's goal, conversation trickled in different directions. References to (former Clemson wide receiver Hunter) "Renfrow" and "Death Valley" popped up. The buzzer sounded signaling halftime, sending many students for the exits, surely to dive into fresh syllabi, or whatever else college students do on Thursday nights when the weather is warm.
Those who stayed were treated to another goal, this time off the foot of senior Dani Antieau, a defender from Pembroke Pines, Fla. Aidan McClay, a freshman from the Philadelphia area was among those still in attendance.
An engineering student, he said the football team's success "definitely" played a part in his college decision.
"The school itself, it brings it up, the football team does a lot for a lot of different things around the school and the town," McClay said. "I'm sure in the future Clemson will become a bigger school, even just academically, it'll become a little more prestigious, I feel like. More people (will) want to come here."
Radwanski was all smiles after the game. He spoke glowingly of the turnout and expressed hope that fans would be back in the stands for the next home match.
More students trickled out as the second half wore on, until the bleachers were mostly empty. A group of two dozen fans stuck it out, congregating behind Utah's goal. Central Spirit, the student organization dedicated to rooting on all Tigers teams, cheered and hollered against the background of a beating drum until the very end.
After pausing for the singing of the Clemson fight song, Tiger Rag, the women's soccer team turned to Central Spirit, clapping their hands above their heads.
Central Spirit returned the gesture, and the groups traded claps, back and forth, before disappearing into the night. The field fell quiet. The campus fell quiet. But not for long. Football season was just a week away.