By Cam Huffman
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton doesn’t just see Greenbrier County as a place to practice. The Super Bowl-winning coach sees southern West Virginia as the Saints’ new second home.
Payton, who was at the Capitol building in Charleston Thursday to witness Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s signing of a new tourism development act — which helped bring the Saints training camp to The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs — said the Saints will quickly become part of the community for the three weeks they’re in town each summer and well beyond.
“Good training camps aren’t about facilities,” said Payton, preparing for his ninth season as the Saints’ head coach. “It’s the relationship the organization has with the people that are hosting the camp and vice versa. I think you’ll love meeting our players. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on.
“When we go to training camp, everything goes. We’re talking computers, video, weights, office desks, etc. We travel truck loads and literally bring the organization to a spot.”
It was a festive atmosphere Thursday as Payton, wearing a Super Bowl ring that couldn’t be missed, and Greenbrier owner Jim Justice walked to the podium to speak as a trumpeter blared, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“This is exciting news for West Virginia,” Tomblin said of the move first envisioned by Saints general manger Mickey Loomis three years ago. “This new state-of-the-art facility will offer a tremendous opportunity not only for the team that will practice, but for us, the people of the Mountain State, to showcase everything our state has to offer.”
Payton’s team will arrive at The Greenbrier in late July — he explained that the exact date depends on the NFL preseason schedule, which will be released soon — and hold three weeks of training camp at a new facility currently under construction on The Greenbrier’s property. The facility will include offices, locker rooms, training facilities and three football fields — two natural grass and one synthetic.
“We’re excited and honored to be here,” Payton said of the three-year agreement, which Justice hopes will eventually be extended. “I’ve met so many people in West Virginia, and I might argue that’s the crown jewel — much like the people of Louisiana and the Gulf South region. That passion that they have I’ve witnessed here from the people of West Virginia with WVU and Marshall. I think the opportunity for our team to be in a different climate will provide a great challenge.”
Justice, who will foot the bill for the new facility, said the move isn’t about improving the bottom line at The Greenbrier. It’s about showcasing the state he loves.
“There may be those who love our state as much as me, but there’s nobody anywhere that loves it more,” said Justice. “I am so proud of the fact that we’ve got the organization coming to West Virginia. It’s incredible to think. For West Virginia, this is another grain of sand.”
Payton also fell in love with the state and The Greenbrier when he served as caddie for PGA Tour golfer Ryan Palmer during last July’s Greenbrier Classic, but for him the move is about finding the right climate and the perfect environment to run a successful camp.
“For us, it’s about winning,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about approval ratings. We have to worry about wins and losses.
“One of the great things about working for (Tom) Benson, our owner, is that he’ll ask, ‘Is this going to help us win?’ If the answer’s yes, then he’s all in. We’re always looking to improve our team in any way, shape or form. There’s an expense coming here as opposed to staying at home for training camp, but if it will help us be successful, he’ll do it. We think this will help us win another Super Bowl ring.”
The Saints will benefit from the environment, and West Virginia will benefit from the tourism dollars generated from the practices, which will be open to the public, and the positive exposure the area is likely to receive.
But as Payton explained, football fans may be the biggest winners in the new move.
“My memories of a child at training camp were of waiting after practice to carry someone’s helmet,” said Payton. “Having an opportunity to watch an NFL team practice is very impressionable, especially with the right team. I think you’ll see that with our players.
“Our guys are great about signing autographs. Typically we practice twice during the day, and we’ll always have players willing to sign. There will be some advance stuff. Our youth camps director does a great job, and the marketing department (will do some things).
“We’ve got the No. 1 fan base in the NFL. We’re in the business, beginning today, of converting some Steeler fans. There’s a lot of seats on this wagon.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH