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Phillips-Bordelon Locker Room, at more than 8000 square feet, is built for relaxation, recovery, and comfort. It features one-of-a-kind lockers with a specialized ventilation system and bacteria-resistant phenolic surfaces. See at a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour at LSU's new Football Operations and Performance Nutrition Center, Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

The idea for sleeping pods in LSU's $28 million renovation of its football operations building came from a travel issue nearly three years ago.

The football team found itself stuck in an airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin, following its 16-14 loss to the Badgers in the 2016 season opener.

The plane that was supposed to carry the team back to Louisiana broke down, LSU equipment manager Greg Stringfellow recalled, and the team instead used the plane that Stringfellow and the team's support staff had used to fly to Wisconsin.

Stringfellow and the support staff hung back and flew on an international plane home. The plane had four rows of first-class pod seating. 

"It was really cool sitting there," Stringfellow said Wednesday, when LSU hosted a ribbon-cutting and tour of its renovated Football Operations and Performance Nutrition Center.

"You could watch TV. There was an air conditioner blowing."

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At the time, the LSU football program was in the planning stages of building a new locker room, and Stringfellow said a sleeping area had always been in the plans.

At first, he'd floated the idea to designate an entire room for sleeping, but adding another room would shrink the size of the locker room. When it came down to it, the locker room and the sleeping space had to be combined into one.

Several ideas got tossed: fold-out Murphy beds. Pull-out beds. Futons. 

While on that plane ride in Wisconsin, the idea occurred to Stringfellow: "Who does a better job of maximizing spaces than an airplane to make you feel comfortable? An airplane pod is made to be comfortable, made to sleep, made to sit down."

Stringfellow and Jack Marucci, LSU's head athletic trainer, started taking pictures of the airplane pods and brainstormed ideas.

Three years later, Stringfellow stood among the 120 purple and gold pods inside LSU's new state-of-the-art locker room. Designed and built by Indiana-based OFS furniture, Stringfellow said the cost of the new locker room was somewhere between $1.4 and $1.6 million.

One of several features in the new ops building, which included 24,830 square feet of newly added space, the sleeping pods are what made the biggest waves on social media when the athletic department released videos and photos Sunday night.

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The renovation also added a new nutrition center — a wide and open cafeteria that can seat as many as 180 people, complete with a chef, Michael Johnson, who spent three years cooking for the Seattle Seahawks.

The new facility included a players lounge, funded by a $1 million donation from former LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, with arcade games, a theater and a Ping-Pong table.

There was also a "Walk Through Room," a 50-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall room with a turf floor, where football players can stand in front of a virtual field — made by four projectors shining the opposite wall — and practice how they will line up during a game.

Several hundred donors contributed money to the project, Tiger Athletic Foundation President and CEO Rick Perry said.

"They saw the advantages," Perry said. "They saw how it helped the kids out, and they stepped up."

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The ribbon-cutting event was in front of the ops building at noon Wednesday. LSU President F. King Alexander, board members and athletic director Scott Woodward attended.

"I live by the mantra that (former LSU chancellor) Mark Emmert told me," Woodward said. "That we're going to be great in physics and football and everything in between. That's what you want if you're LSU."

Since LSU released the pictures of the facility Sunday, debate swirled on whether the extravagant upgrade was a useful way to spend money. The debate included an exchange on social media between LSU mass communication professor Robert Mann and quarterback Joe Burrow.

The upgrades, Marucci said, each have a practical purpose and also are intended to help recruit top athletes who could consider going elsewhere.

"We try to be as up to date as we can and we also try and be a step ahead," Marucci said. "That's what we did on those pods. We didn't need to make a fancy locker space. We made a functional locker that made a big impact."

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The LSU athletic training staff has been monitoring athletes' sleep patterns in recent years, and Shelly Mullenix, a 23-year member of the training staff, said aiding athletes with sleep was "one of the main things that we thought about in the construction of the building."

Students struggle getting enough sleep in general, Mullenix said, and the training staff was looking for ways to help athletes sleep long enough to enter cycles that help the body and brain recover.

"One of the things we talked about was the sleep issues that they have and the time constraints that they have," said Mullenix, who was promoted in July to oversee health and wellness in athletes. "If we can get them in here and rested here, that's a bonus."

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LSU's pods look like the seats you'd find in the first-class sections of airplanes. The purple seats are made of vinyl fabric that is intended to feel like plush leather, Stringfellow said, and the armrest on either side separates the pod from the others in its row.

The pods have an upright seating position, but the bottom seat can pull out into a lengthy bed. Players can lift the cushion, and beneath is a locker storage space.

Above the pods, there's a cabinet space for the player's helmet. Each helmet has sensors inside, which Marucci said LSU has used for the past five seasons to track the forceful hits players receive to the head. The sensors can plug into a charging station inside the cabinet.

A ventilation system constantly sucks air out from the pod space and replaces it with fresh air.

Locker rooms aren't known for their clean smell, and Stringfellow added what is called a "mud room" to store the LSU players pads and equipment. The mud room is nearest to the practice field, and players will hang up their equipment before entering the locker room.

"Greg is genius," Marucci said. "That is a room that keeps the odor in. You don't have to worry about the stink, the shoes. I mean, what an idea."

And are LSU's sleeping pods practical? Will they get used?

"Absolutely," said Matt Flynn, former LSU quarterback of the 2007 BCS national championship team. "That's part of training camp. You've got to find time to get some rest. You might have 45 minutes in between lunch and lifting weights. You may have an hour and 15 minutes between a walk-through and practice. So you find time. You always either rolled up a towel and you slept on the floor, or you tried to go back to your apartment and you got less sleep and less rest." 

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.