- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Thad Turnipseed knows a thing or two about the power of recruiting, having come from Alabama. The Crimson Tide won consecutive recruiting (and national) titles in the final two seasons of Turnipseed’s 11 years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the associate athletic director for special projects and the director of football external affairs. His position -- Clemson’s director of recruiting and external affairs -- is a bit different, but the returns so far have been great for Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney, who brought his former college teammate aboard in 2013.
ESPN.com caught up with Turnipseed recently to talk about how he helped orchestrate a 2015 Clemson class that ranked fourth nationally.
What has Dabo Swinney tapped into that has allowed [Clemson recruiting] to take off in recent years?
Thad Turnipseed: He calls it ‘Clemson Google.’ Everybody has a recruiting board, per se. Dabo's different. Of course he's highly intelligent. Most coaches look at that board and say, 'I want my top two guys on the board. My top three guys on the board.' Dabo doesn't care about that. He wants to know who's the best fit. The biggest difference is that the culture here, now after six years in place, kind of recruits itself. You get the right kid in town, and they feel and see it. Sometimes it takes a couple visits, but that's what he does different. Look at the Super Bowl. There's only like two- or three- or four-stars on the [participating teams]. But the culture, the character, we spend more of my effort on.
Is he a Clemson guy? A good fit? What's he say on social media? It's illegal for me to evaluate talent, so I don't care who the coaches put on the board. Who they put on it, my job is to help recruit him better, get better graphics, get the videos done, be in-touch with them more often when they're on campus, give them more attention. That's what I do. Dabo, he's more concerned: 'OK, when they're here, what are they like? What are their grades? Are they good people? What's their family like? Are they going to be a fit here, first and foremost? And then, are they a good player?' And that's the No. 1 difference in Dabo Swinney and anyone I've been around, because everybody else wants the best player. You don't know who the best player is for two, three years down the road. It's a guess. That's probably the best way I can describe it.
Alabama's been the gold standard in recruiting. How much of what you took from there is applied to the vision you guys have at Clemson?
TT: Our two programs are completely different; great in their own ways. I'm not saying we're any better, they're any better. It's just different. I saw the structure, I saw how Coach [Nick] Saban did it with the recruiting room, boards, the travel, just being around it. So I probably took 40 percent of what they had. The structure's in place. But we knew we had to get more mail, we knew we had to get in touch with them more, we knew we had to have a better experience in their ear. We touch them better. We do have a more organized board. We're in touch with the mailouts and the graphics, and now we have a video department. Alabama created their whole brand, the 'Built by Bama' brand and all of that, so I brought a lot of the branding concepts here that are totally different than the concepts at Alabama. I think it's like 40-60 -- 60 percent Clemson.
The uniqueness is the culture here. Most schools don't recruit to a culture. They recruit to a system. I brought every freshman in last year. I said: Why did you come to Clemson? I was trying to get ideas to recruit better. Deshaun Watson and Artavis Scott were the first two I brought in, and they said, 'First, Thad, it just felt real here.' And I know that sounds like recruiting talk to you, but it just feels different here. And then second, I go to the board, I say 'OK, I'm about to start mailing all these 2016 kids when it's legal, on Sept. 1.' I said: How much of an impact did that have on you? They said, 'That was nice for about a month, but by then we got so much. What stuck with me the most was the mail I got in ninth grade. That's when I first started getting the mail.' Well, we wouldn't mail that much. So now what do we do? We mail 12 times a year to ninth- and 10th-graders. Now, all you can do is legally mail them camp brochures and questionnaires or NCAA compliance material. So we just divide that up 12 times. That's what Alabama was doing good -- staying in touch with them as much as they could legally. So that's what I'm making sure we do.
How have you seen the operation grow in terms of personnel?
TT: I'm breaking it up two different ways: Event management/mail operations, and then recruiting war room -- managing the board, our data management, making sure who's on the board, the right people are ordered the right way for the coaches. So I hired an event management girl named Jessica [Carroll], as soon as she graduated. [Carroll and I] did all the student help until this summer, we got to hire the 10 extra students. And then this December, we were allowed to hire a second full-time person, named Jordan [Sorrells]. He helps me in the recruiting room.
Another thing I learned from Deshaun Watson and Artavis, they didn't open the mail. They said some people got creative. If it was handwritten mail they'd open it, but everything they do is on social media. So what do we do? Jordan spends three or four hours a day scanning everything we mail out and direct-messaging it to them through their social media. So all of our  guys, we'll send out 150 direct messages. That's the only way they look at it. If we're going to spend the effort to make it, let's make sure we spend the effort to get it to them. And why Dabo calls it 'Clemson Google' is because of that culture factor I was telling you about: Everybody he recruits, he wants to follow their social media, do Google checks on them constantly to make sure there's no issues with them. So we literally Google all those names constantly, we get on their social media, and that's how we give him a report that says, 'Hey, here's everybody the coaches have on the board, here's how they rank character and academically.'
What’s the next step for Clemson? How high do you think you guys can go?
TT: I hate to say it because you just think it's coach-talk or recruiting-talk, but the only limitations we put on Clemson are the ones we put on ourselves. We're as good as anybody out there, and we're starting to believe we're as good as anybody out there, and when we get that belief -- because we're already there -- we put that belief with it. I think we're as good as anybody, including Alabama. They're the gold standard. I truly, truly believe Coach Swinney will be the man in college football, starting the next couple of years, for years to come. I think as we brand him along with Clemson, then we can go hand-pick some others maybe a little further out of our geographic region that we normally recruit hard in. And that will only continue to build during his time here at Clemson.
Clemson director of recruiting and external affairs Thad Turnipseed talks about the process of recruiting top classes for the Tigers.