WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — It might seem odd that the New Orleans Saints have come to this tiny, picturesque West Virginia town in the Allegheny Mountains, about 900 miles from their home city, for their training camp this summer.
But take the team’s desire to find an out-of-the-way camp destination with a cool climate, and add in the willingness of a billionaire resort owner to build a $30 million training facility, and the decision makes perfect sense.
The Saints say things are working out even better than they’d hoped in their first year in their new summer home at the luxurious Greenbrier resort.
“The weather is great,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said as he stood alongside the fields following Wednesday’s practice. “The facilities are awesome. … It is a resort so there’s a little bit of a connotation with that. And yet our players are in this building from 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, basically. So they’re not partaking in the things that you can do at the resort. It’s a great setting and we’ve been able to eliminate as many of the distractions as you possibly could, so I think that lends for a pretty good camp.”
The temperature was 64 degrees as practice got under way Wednesday morning; it was a still-mild 72 when Coach Sean Payton and his players wrapped things up a couple hours later. The sun was shining and there was a hint of a breeze. A train carrying coal from nearby mines passed by on the tracks down the hill from the fields a little more than an hour into the practice. The stands, mostly empty when the session began, filled up a bit as things progressed.
“It’s been great,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “To see what they’ve done in what took them, what, five months is pretty special. And to see all they did for this team, it’s a tribute to the people up here in West Virginia. It’s been a blessing, obviously, with the weather. We’ve got a young team with a lot of new talent, and I think it benefits us because you’ve got the first three weeks of camp when guys are really learning and it’s not more of, ‘Let me just make it through the next play.’ That’s how sometimes it can get in Louisiana when it’s, you know, 98 degrees.”
The Saints held their training camp at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., from 2006 to 2008. They split their camp in 2009 between Oxnard, Calif., and their regular season home base in Metairie, La., then remained in Metairie for all of training camp between 2010 and 2013.
“Sean and I both feel like every four years or so, you need to do something different for training camp,” Loomis said, “to kind of re-energize your players and your staff. … And so one of the things we talked about and wanted to do was get to a cooler climate because we thought that might impact some of our soft tissue [injuries suffered by players] and things that have to do with the players’ well-being. So that was number one. We thought we wanted to go north.
“The other thing, too, is with the rules these days, 15 years ago [or] 20 years ago when you have two-a-days, you get 50 or 60 training camp practices. Now, when you really just have a one-a-day and you have a walk-through, you have 30. So you’ve got to maximize every minute, right? And so in order to do that, you have to eliminate as many distractions as you can. And distractions come in a lot of forms. It’s the heat. If the last hour of practice, your players are just trying to find a way to get through it, they’re not really focused on their assignment and the things that you want them to learn. So that can be a distraction. If your room’s not right, that can be a distraction. If the food’s not right — all these different things. The pull of being in New Orleans — you have the city, the things that can be done there in your off hours. You’ve got your family and friends that are there. You’ve got all these things.”
The Saints had The Greenbrier under consideration for three years, Loomis said, recalling a conversation he had with Washington Redskins executive Bruce Allen about the resort as a possible camp site.
“I think it was Bruce Allen told me that he had looked at the Greenbrier at one point,” Loomis said. “I remember calling him and asking him, ‘Hey, what was the deal there?’ He said, ‘Hey, the setting is awesome. They just didn’t have fields. There were some things that were going to have to be created.’ So they went a different direction.”
Enter Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $1.6 billion. When Payton served as caddie for a friend, golfer Ryan Palmer, at the Greenbrier Classic in 2013, that led to conversations with Justice about training camp.
Loomis said he told Payton, “Whatever you do, see if you can meet the owner and mention that hey, we’re looking at a training camp site and, hey, would you be interested? I know the Redskins looked at it.”
Added Loomis: “So Sean made that connection when he was here and that got the ball really rolling at that point.”
Justice, who is described as a longtime Saints fan, told USA Today: “This is on me — I spent $30 million of my own money. The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals. Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.
“And I wouldn’t have wanted them to. The economic impact of the number of people who come to this camp will be substantial and great for tourism.”
The camp site had to be carved out of the side of a hill, yet the project was completed in a little more than three months. The results include two immaculate grass fields at the top of a hill, plus an artificial turf field below. The Saints’ offices, meeting rooms, locker room, trainer’s room and weight room are in a two-story building next to the grass fields. A fitness company owned by a friend of Payton helped to make the weight room closely resemble what the team has at its regular season facility.
The Saints, according to a team official, are staying in the resort’s West Virginia Wing, built in 1962 to conceal the underground construction of a Cold War fallout shelter for members of the U.S. Congress.
“Our number one concern was: Can the fields get done? And can they be growing in a way where you’re not gonna just chew it up?” Loomis said. “And they’ve done a fabulous job with that. The building is really a bonus. If the building hadn’t been completed, we’d have found a way to use hotel space and all that to do our deal. But they did such a fabulous job here. I can’t compliment them enough. They far exceeded our expectations.”
The Saints agreed to a three-year deal to hold camp here. Team officials say there are plans for an indoor practice bubble. Famed orthopedist James Andrews is involved in a project to put a medical facility at the site.
For now, what matters most to Saints players is that they believe they’re getting in good preparations for the season, and not being overly taxed in doing so.
“I feel great,” backup quarterback Luke McCown said. “I think the weather helps a lot. It’s amazing what the weather will do, especially when you get older.”