Note: The following appears in the NC State gameday football program
You can make the case that the fastest-growing position across the country in major college football programs is a sports dietitian.
In 2007, only 13 FBS schools had a full-time person dedicated to the nutritional needs of its football players. In the last 10 years, that number has grown to 73. And many of the schools have a staff of multiple full-time people, plus a strong group of graduate and undergraduate students.
“The first school to have a full-time dietitian was Nebraska in 1994,” said Paul Harrington, who is in his third full season as director of performance nutrition for the Tiger football program. “There were still only eight FBS schools with the position in 2006.”
The number of registered dietitians at college programs exploded in 2014, when the NCAA passed new rules allowing schools to provide more food for their student-athletes in all sports throughout the year. The NFL has followed suit. Ten years ago, only the New England Patriots had a dietitian. Today, 17 of the 32 NFL teams have a full-time sports dietitian.
Clemson is fortunate to have Harrington, who is one of the most experienced professionals in his field. He is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and a certified strength & conditioning specialist. His involvement in the profession began when he was a student at Florida. He graduated from Florida in 2004 with a degree in food science & human nutrition.
“I took a class my senior year that discussed the effects nutrition has on sports performance. I realized that was something I was very interested in.”
His first job out of school dealt with radiology. During that time, his father passed away.
“When I was working in radiology, I learned that was not my passion. When my dad passed away, I decided to get involved in something I was passionate about.”
Harrington had various positions in the field, including being a personal trainer and clinical nutrition technician. He earned a master’s degree in nutrition & food science from Auburn in 2009.
His career took a major turn in 2013, when he became assistant director of performance nutrition at Alabama.
He worked with various sports, including football. He executed gameday fueling strategies for various teams by working with the coaching, sports medicine and strength training staffs.
“Alabama was a pioneering program in many areas, and I learned a lot.”
After three years at Alabama, Harrington was in a good place.
“I had just bought a house and was looking to settle in at Alabama. Then I got a call from Clemson.”
Clemson created a sports dietitian position for the athletic department in 2012, and Lisa Chan had done a fine job in the position working with all 19 sports. Understanding the importance nutrition plays in the development of his team, head coach Dabo Swinney decided he wanted a sports dietitian that worked solely with his team.
“I had followed the SEC most of the time because I had been at three SEC schools,” stated Harrington. “But I knew about Clemson and coach Swinney.”
Harrington came to Clemson for an interview in June 2016 and fell in love with the school.
“Only 48 hours after the interview, I was driving in Alabama and coach Swinney called my cell phone. I had to pull over to see that it was really him. I wasn’t used to having a head coach call me. It meant a lot that he personally called me. I accepted and started five days later.”
Swinney’s personal touch extends to all areas of his staff, and Harrington sees that as one of the reasons for the program’s success, as it extends to his job.
“I go to all the staff meetings and hear concerns from position coaches. That is unique.”
Harrington takes all of this input and an examination of data derived from various test results to determine the dietary needs of all the players.
“We use the data to determine what is best for each student-athlete. Some have different body types. You have to look at more than weight. Dexter Lawrence is 350 pounds, but he is actually lean for his size. His diet plan is drastically different from a defensive back.”
Swinney is regarded as one of the top head coaches in the nation, and one of the reasons is his attention to detail in all aspects of his team’s development. That includes nutrition, and he has one of the best leading that aspect of his program in Harrington.