South Carolina Clemson Basketball

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley (left) and recently fired Clemson coach Audra Smith greet each other before a game last season. File/Richard Shiro/AP

CLEMSON — It was just two weeks ago when Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich made the news official, parted ways with women’s basketball coach Audra Smith and started the search for who he hopes will be the face of rejuvenation for a program desperately needing it.

He started soliciting interest, found out there was plenty and has already hosted multiple candidates on campus for interviews.

Now, it is Radakovich's plan to wrap up the search as early as this week.

No time to waste.

Given Clemson’s lopsided 9-70 record in ACC games over the last five years, the Tigers need someone who can make them relevant again — in the conference, and perhaps more importantly, against Dawn Staley and her South Carolina basketball program about 130 miles down the interstate.

And so the new era is set to begin sooner rather than later.

“I think that when you look at our program, we need someone who’s going to come in and evaluate. And if there’s the opportunity for success right away, that would be wonderful. But really, it’s more of a long-term play,” Radakovich said. “Progress and a really good, firm foundation from which to grow upon (is what we need).”

Whoever lands the job will have to hit the ground running.

As Radakovich mentioned, what Clemson needs the most right now is someone who can change the culture of the program. For more than a decade, the women’s basketball team has been floundering. The Tigers haven't had a winning record since 2003-04, when current players were still in elementary school.

The hope from the administration’s standpoint is that the new coach is able to flip the program and show progress over time. But fan bases tend to crave immediate results and when it comes to Clemson, nothing reigns more supreme than beating South Carolina.

The problem is South Carolina is — and will continue to be so long as Staley is in charge — one of the top programs in the country.

Staley has not lost to the Tigers since her first and second years at South Carolina in 2008-09 and 2009-10. In 2014-15, the Gamecocks crushed Clemson by 58 points and this season the Tigers lost by 30 at home.

When the Gamecocks won the national championship in 2017, Smith dressed in all black to support her former Virginia teammate, but admitted it hurt to know that Staley and South Carolina were celebrating a national title while Smith’s own program back home was struggling immensely. While the Gamecocks trended up, Clemson simultaneously lost its footing.

So the question remains: Can Clemson catch up?

Much of Clemson’s future against the Gamecocks depends on who Radakovich hires. Unless it is one of the sport’s most respected names, it appears it will still be an uphill battle for the time being.

Staley’s name and credentials give South Carolina a tremendous advantage. As a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the current coach of the U.S. Women’s National team, Staley owns the Palmetto State. She landed A’ja Wilson — the best women's college basketball in the country — with no problems in her own backyard, and Staley’s reputation lends itself to national talent, too. She has her pick of the litter while Clemson labors over the rest.

Clemson officials hope the major renovations to Littlejohn Coliseum will make a statement to recruits that Clemson values women’s basketball just as much as it does men’s, and certainly that will help.

But whether the Tigers can bridge the huge gap with the Gamecocks remains to be seen.

“In women’s basketball, the stratifications are, there’s UConn — they’re over here, then there’s another group, and then there’s another group and another group,” Radakovich said last March, referring to the gap between programs.

“We want to start making steps. What has to happen for any program that is trying to move forward is to get someone to come in and believe and be that bedrock and then good things usually build off of there.”

That was the blueprint at South Carolina. Now, Clemson wants to follow suit. 

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

Grace is the Post and Courier's Clemson reporter. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism.