CLEMSON, S.C. — Jeff Davis’ office occupies prime real estate in Clemson’s gleaming new football operations building — just off the lobby, a few steps from the Tigers’ national championship trophy. The location was a considered choice by head coach Dabo Swinney. Davis is something of a showcase item for the program.
A poster featuring Davis’ former teammate, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, hangs on one office wall, and footballs memorializing some of Davis’ biggest games as a player line the shelves behind his desk. There’s a stuffed tiger perched on a bright orange chair next to him, which after some inspection, Davis realizes has been signed by former coach Tommy Bowden. It’s there, he said, to entertain any kids who might stop by.
The decor is something of a shrine to Davis’ alma mater, but he isn’t here to sell Clemson football. He’s here to tell players how small their chance of success on the field really is.
“I told ’em I wanted a sign above my door,” Davis said. “It’ll read, ‘The House of Truth.'”
You want to be an All-American? Davis has done that.
You want a national championship? Davis has a ring.
You want to play in the NFL? Davis spent five years there.
All players arrive with big dreams, ones Davis has already lived, but here’s the first truth he has learned about it all: It ends, and it usually ends quickly.
“If a football player is all you want to be,” he says, “you won’t be long. They’re chasing a dream, and once you achieve that — now what?”
That’s Davis’ job at Clemson. He’s the guy who knows what comes next.
As schools dole out millions for opulent facilities — Clemson’s includes a slide, a bowling alley and a nap room — a number of coaches are shifting their focus to a different sales pitch to lure football players. Davis is at the forefront of this new holistic approach.
One day after Swinney landed the head-coaching job in 2008, he told his athletics director he needed Davis on board as the director of player personnel. Davis had been working in fundraising for the school, but Swinney saw in him a perfect mixture of experience and passion for not just what happens on the field, but for building a life off it. Davis’ personality is infectious — part preacher, part coach, part fortune teller. He looks like he’s still in game shape, but as he gleefully points out, Swinney didn’t hire a five-star player.
“Those days are over,” Davis said. “He wanted a five-star man.”
With a focus on everything from volunteer opportunities to internships in the business sector, resume writing to networking with CEOs, the program Davis dubbed the P.A.W. Journey — an acronym for “passionate about winning” — is perhaps the most robust of its kind in the nation. It features a three-person, full-time staff and myriad resources dedicated exclusively to providing off-field experiences to the football team.
Outside Davis’ door, there’s a boardroom table, a photo montage of former star QB Deshaun Watson — one picture of Watson in a suit, another at work on a Habitat for Humanity build, another of him studying at a desk — and a list of Clemson’s academic All-Americans. The decor is intentional, said Allison Waymyers, who joined the P.A.W. Journey team last year. These offices, in the same building as the locker rooms and coaches’ offices, provide a haven from football.
Waymyers is actually a South Carolina graduate who left a job in nuclear procurement to work for Clemson after a chance meeting with Swinney at a local steakhouse. Swinney knew Waymyers had a well-stocked Rolodex, and he wanted her to use those connections to help his players. Less than a year into the job, she has already introduced dozens of business leaders to current Clemson players, sent a handful of Tigers on a mission trip to Haiti and helped seven players land summer internships at Adobe headquarters in Silicon Valley. She got a text from one of Adobe’s executives just a few days into the internship, lauding Clemson’s players and noting his desire to hire them upon graduation.
“I’ve had players leave this office crying, giving me high-fives, hugs, lifting me off my feet,” Waymyers said, “because they got the interview of a lifetime.”
Not surprisingly, this is exactly the type of story Swinney likes to tell when he gets in front of a crowd of boosters or in a living room with parents of a top recruit. Yes, he has a team coming off a national title and a football building with a whiffle ball field and a golf simulator, but those are all perks that last just a few years. For the big-money donors, for the recruit’s mom and dad, for the fans who cling to the highest ideals of amateurism, the P.A.W. Journey program is the real selling point. Other football programs are taking notice, too.
“We’ve formalized what we want to do, what we want to provide these players, and it’s awesome,” Swinney said. “Those are things we want to be tangible when you come to our program, and when you walk in, we have a boardroom, we have career days; it’s a place you can come even after you graduate. It’s great, and our players are going [to] thrive.”
Ron Coccimiglio likes to joke that he simply hung around the offices at Cal so long that someone finally decided to offer him a job. He played there from 1977 through 1980, but when he returned nearly a quarter-century later, it was as a volunteer. He had enjoyed a successful business career, and he wanted to help the new generation of players figure out what comes after football.
The result is one of the oldest programs in the country dedicated entirely to helping football players think about their futures off the field. Coccimiglio named it the L.A.B. program, short for “life after ball.” He has an article from Business Insider on his desk that he has shown to nearly every player who has cycled through his office. It illustrates the brief tenure enjoyed by most NFL players and the high rate of financial problems that often follow a professional football career. Like Clemson’s Davis, Coccimiglio is the guy who teaches the tough lessons about how fleeting all this football glory really is.
“A lot of kids think, if they can get three years in the NFL, they’re set for life,” Coccimiglio said. “Our guys realize they’re not. That’s a starting point.”
Coccimiglio is armed with more than one magazine article to prove his point. His support staff includes Tarik Glenn, a 10-year NFL veteran who returned to Cal to help mentor players professionally, and he has brought in speakers such as former Cal teammate Ron Rivera, now head coach of the Carolina Panthers, to talk about the need for skills that go beyond the football field. It’s about creating buy-in from the players before Coccimiglio can offer the tools they’ll need to thrive away from football.
Cal’s program is focused on mining its own resources, which include an impressive array of football alums now leading big companies around the Bay Area. Coccimiglio started hosting on-campus roundtables to let players meet professionals ranging from tech CEOs to a captain at a local fire department. During the spring, players come straight from practice, often still in sweatshirts and shorts, to network with executives in expensive suits, but given the demands of football, that’s the way business has to be done. And it works.
“I go to the events for selfish reasons,” said Doug Brien, a former Cal kicker with a 12-year NFL career who went on to launch a successful real estate company. “I’m trying to get an inside track on certain guys to get them in as interns and try to hire them when they graduate.”
It’s a win-win arrangement, really. Cal’s players get a taste of the world outside football, building networks for their Plan B. The alumni get first crack at young talent they hope to hire in a year or two. The school builds its alumni network, with the interactions with the football players in a professional setting helping to drive fundraising from donors.
“It’s people and it’s experience, and that’s a hard thing to put a price tag on,” Wilcox said. “The value comes in the relationships and the guidance and the expertise of these people who’ve done so many things. You can’t put a dollar amount on that and what that’s worth to somebody, how that can impact the rest of their life.”
When the freshmen arrive on campus at Cal, Coccimiglio has a surprise already lined up for them. They’ll file into a team meeting room, and their Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram photos flash on the screen at the front of the room.
“I feel a little bad,” Coccimiglio said, “but it’s actually quite amusing what some of these young kids are doing.”
The point is that it’s all out there for Coccimiglio and others to find. Sure, it draws laughs in the room, but how will it look to an employer? What will be the response from NFL scouts? Who’ll be reading this stuff down the road?
As much as programs like P.A.W. Journey and L.A.B. are designed to woo parents of top recruits, the sales pitch for the players sometimes needs to be a little more direct to grab attention away from football. That’s part of the reason programs like those at Clemson and Cal are focused entirely on football. The time demands on football players are immense, and too many opportunities for professional growth are missed in exchange for a few more hours in the weight room.
“People come into college, and when they’re recruited, their mindset is so much different,” Southern California senior Steven Mitchell said. “You have all these people in your head talking about four stars, five stars. You get here and you’re here for a few years and you’re not that first-round pick, and then you start thinking about something else.”
For Mitchell, however, that transformation took weeks, not years.
He arrived at USC in 2013 as an ESPN 300 recruit, the 11th-ranked receiver in the country. Two weeks into camp, he tore his ACL, and suddenly he was forced to look at his college career differently. He began to think about things beyond football, and for Mitchell, it’s a long list.
“I’m looking to do a lot,” said Mitchell, who graduated in three years with a communications degree and will wrap up his master’s this fall.
Mitchell has dabbled in work in front of the camera, and he was part of a tour of Paramount Studios arranged for USC players earlier this year. He wants to travel. He’s into fashion, and through USC, he landed an internship this year with JR286, a design company that works with Nike. The internship gave Mitchell a chance to design accessories for USC’s uniform this year, so when he takes the field this fall, he’ll be wearing gloves that evolved from sketches he made.
The way Mitchell sees it, he’s building his own brand, and USC has made that possible.
“I’m taking every opportunity I can get,” he said.
This approach from players is hardly universal — not even all that common, according to Glenn at Cal — but more and more, players arrive with an idea that football is a means to broader success rather than simply an end point.
Southern California’s player development program isn’t as robust as Clemson’s yet, but the school sees the growth potential. It’s Los Angeles, after all. Image matters, and selling experiences like Mitchell’s to incoming recruits makes a unique pitch. In fact, the school has asked veteran players to help interview player development staff in order to craft a program that fits their needs, but the benefits work both ways.
“The program has a contact list of employers looking to have a relationship with these students, and that often intersects with your donor base, too,” said Denise Kwok, the director of USC’s student-athlete academic services. “We’re interested in developing those relationships. It’s access to the best student-athletes, and people know they make great employees. That’s a program we can brand and market and package.”
That, in essence, is what drove Clemson’s P.A.W. Journey program. Davis had a vision, and Swinney bought in. Those skills Swinney was developing on the field translated so easily to other avenues, and Davis didn’t want that going to waste.
“They know all their work during the week culminates with a big game on Saturday,” Davis said. “We wanted to do the same thing transitioning from this market into the world. For a coach to recognize that and say, ‘I’m going to have someone dedicated to that just like I have someone dedicated to my running backs or quarterbacks,’ that’s the power.”
In April, Clemson hosted the Men of Color National Summit, and Davis wanted his guys involved. His “target audience,” as he calls it, is 70 percent black, and he viewed this as the perfect opportunity to showcase the products of P.A.W. Journey.
Davis selected five players to speak. The first was defensive end Richard Yeargin. In front of a standing-room-only crowd at the TD Convention Center in Greenville, South Carolina, Yeargin offered a speech on the importance of character, a topic Davis had covered with Yeargin again and again when they’d sit in his office talking about the future.
“It’s one of those tools that takes you further beyond the field than anything else,” Yeargin told the crowd. “Because it’s who you are.”
The crowd roared its approval, including Lori Pindar, one of Yeargin’s professors, in the front row. When Yeargin left the stage, Pindar pulled her student aside and told him that he’d taught her something with his speech.
“That doesn’t happen without P.A.W. Journey,” Davis said.
A few weeks later, Yeargin was seriously injured in a single-car accident in Greenville. As he noted on his Instagram account, he was lucky to escape death, but he suffered a fractured neck that erased any hope of playing in 2017. It was a brutal blow for a player hoping for a far bigger role this year.
Yeargin was still in the hospital when Davis and Waymyers went to visit. They found him surprisingly upbeat.
“I’m glad I’ve been working with you guys,” he said. “Now this isn’t as much of a culture shock.”
The response was the perfect distillation of what Davis had been preaching. Now, Davis told Yeargin, you’ll really get to lead. People will want to hear your story, want to latch on to your platform.
Two weeks later, Yeargin was back on the football field, leading drills at a camp. He won’t play this season, but he’s eager to do more with P.A.W. Journey. He plans to graduate. He wants to go to law school eventually.
“Football is just a platform,” Yeargin said. “Being able to impact people’s lives — I’m a testimony for it. I’m not able to play ball, but I’m graduating, and I still have an opportunity to be a voice. That’s a tremendous opportunity.”