Dan Radakovich was hired as Clemson athletic director in December with the reputation of a persistent, innovative fundraiser. Fans expect him to see to it that Clemson improves on football and baseball success by turning the tables on recent South Carolina dominance, while making strides in basketball and other areas. The grandson of Serbian immigrants, Radakovich grew up in Pennsylvania and learned about management from mentor Mike McGee while working at South Carolina from 1994-2000. He moved on to LSU and then to Georgia Tech, where he served as athletic director. Radakovich talked about a wide range of subjects in a recent interview with the Post and Courier's Gene Sapakoff.
It must have been pretty cool to have a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over one former employer in the city of another former employer as your first big event as Clemson's athletic director.
The whole week was really great. It was wonderful to be around our student-athletes in that kind of a setting and have a chance to get to know them a little bit while at the same time reacquainting myself with some really good friends from LSU. It was just a great college football game and, fortunately, we were able to pull it out for a victory. I have the greatest respect in the world for (LSU head coach) Les Miles and his staff. I'll always have a place in my heart for LSU – except when the good Tigers are playing.
The SEC recently had 63 players picked in the NFL draft, more than twice as many as the next closest conference, the ACC. And the SEC just unveiled its new TV network. Is this a scary time for a school trying to compete?
There are probably three questions there. From a draft standpoint, those things run in cycles. The SEC, along with the ACC, has been able to sign far and away the most ESPN top 300 prospects. So it comes as no surprise that they have been able to continue to move forward and have some great NFL prospects. But I think the ACC has that opportunity moving forward. With the new demographic, we have an incredibly large footprint within the United States. We will – now that we have our new grant-of-rights has occurred – begin substantive conversations with our partner, ESPN, on a potential ACC network. It took about three years for the SEC and ESPN to pull this off. Hopefully, it won't take the ACC that long. As we look forward, we're going to be in a very good place.
What's been the most surprisingly impressive thing you have observed about Clemson in your first few months on the job?
The student-athletes are phenomenal. Our coaches have recruited some really great young people who not only represent themselves very well on the fields of competition but represent themselves very well here on campus. That has been striking. Their communication and comfort level in being able to come in and engage me or our staff with questions has been really good. I've been very impressed with a number of our coaches. And with our staff, too. We just have to make sure that people's talents line up with where we want to go long-term.
What is Clemson's most pressing facilities need?
The biggest ticket item is dealing with the future of Littlejohn Coliseum, whether that goes through a renovation or we build new. We now have some data and have had conversations with members of the community, the board of trustees and our IPTAY (booster group) people to really see what might be the next best step.
And what is that?
There are only two answers. Well, I guess three: New, rebuild or do nothing. Not real sure that “do nothing” is an option.
Your resume suggests you're in the “build new” camp. Correct?
I'm not ready to say yet. There are some really, really positive things about building new. But there are questions that need to be answered. For example, what happens to Littlejohn Coliseum? It's a very valuable asset for the campus. We have to make sure that asset doesn't just sit idle.
How about converting Littlejohn into a massive, state-of-the-art indoor tailgating center with tiered fees?
Well, first of all, it might get really smoky in there because our folks really love to cook. Colleagues of mine say, “Wow, you have so much room to build things at Clemson.” In fact, we might not. If you put a building in one of our nice grass areas, that eliminates that area from one of our most important uses, which is tailgating. We have to be really smart.
Tell me something about your former South Carolina colleague Ray Tanner that few people know.
I think people know he's a great baseball coach, a very smart individual, a great husband and father. That's a tough question because Ray is such a public figure. But maybe people don't know that Ray is pretty stubborn. Like he wouldn't go to Omaha until he took a team there. Now he receives mail in Omaha.
This is an odd time in Clemson's rivalry with South Carolina with a four-game losing streak in football and their great baseball run, a large part of which came directly at Clemson's expense. Does that make harder for you to raise money, or easier?
I have not encountered it being harder. Clemson has great pride in its athletic programs and the fans are very passionate and want to see success. I've heard very loud and clear how important it is for Clemson to win those games, and so have our coaches and our student-athletes. Ray and Coach Spurrier and Chad Holbrook have done some really good things; we just have to get better. I have no fear that we are going to continue to compete at a high level and we're going to continue to knock on that door until we break it down.
You were innovative in coming up with new revenue streams at LSU and at Georgia Tech. Any sneak peek at some outside-the-box idea you have for Clemson?
Not really. These things tend to evolve over time based on circumstance instead of some great idea. You have to remember that Clemson's been a successful athletic department for a number of years, so great ideas have run their way through here. You go back to (former athletic director) Bill McLellan when they built the football suites; Clemson was way ahead of the curve there. What we have to do is improve upon some of the things in place right now. Whether it's an expanded multi-media rights arrangement with Learfield that puts more things under their umbrella that allows us to receive more revenue, or continuing to look at premium seating opportunities within Memorial Stadium, maybe create one or two at the baseball stadium that would go along with their expansion.
How about the contrast of Dabo Swinney as the rival from Georgia Tech days and all those close games and now as your head coach?
You always knew you had to come with your “A” game to play Clemson's football team because Dabo would have them prepared and Clemson would play hard for 60 minutes. I love his competitiveness. I love the way he pulls his team together and has a singular focus. I'm glad I'm on their side now.
Jack Leggett has set such a high standard for Clemson baseball that not hosting a Regional last year was seen as slippage. What do see as the Clemson baseball standard?
When you look beneath the surface of baseball, schools are not on a level playing field. Private schools, for instance, with the 11.7 scholarships may be able to give more non-athletic aid. Some states, like Georgia, have better in-state tuition programs for student-athletes. That's why I look at what Jack has done and say he is a great competitor who puts a phenomenal baseball team out on the field.
Brad Brownell is known as a good floor coach, and a great guy. But Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell before him had programs that gradually improved, Brad's record is going in the opposite direction. Are you concerned about that going into a bigger, better ACC with Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh coming in?
Not at all. You have to look at where everyone started. Brad came in and had a roster that wasn't set up very well for the next few years. After that first year, some of that began to catch up. What we see with a team with 11 freshmen and sophomores is a really good base that may not manifest itself in 2013-14 but may in 2014-15. Look at Tom Crean at Indiana. They moved backward and now they're moving forward. I believe in Brad. I believe he's a very good coach and he does it the right way. I think we have to give him the tools. We have to say, “Basketball is important at Clemson.”
I imagine growing up as the son of a steel worker in Aliquippa, Pa., instilled a solid work ethic?
I think so. I look at a lot of people who grew up with me and they just understand it's highly unlikely you're going to win a lotto ticket and be successful. It comes as part of a process. It comes as part of working hard and a lot about just showing up and listening and learning. College athletics is not about astro-physics; it's a lot about interacting and reaching out to the people who invest in your program and finding out what they're thinking. It's about interacting with student-athletes and coaches.
You were at LSU when Nick Saban won a national championship there. What did you learn from his leadership?
I admired how focused he was with so many other things going on around him. With all the distractions around him, Nick stays focused on the things that are important for him and his program.
At Georgia Tech, you raised student athletic fees, which was quite unpopular given rising tuition costs. Any plans to do that at Clemson?
At Georgia Tech they had gone an awful long time without an increase in student fees. We met with student leadership at the graduate and undergraduate level and had support of the administration and made our case. I met with students and did a lot of town halls and it was almost like a political campaign. Here, I think it's a little different. We're still looking at different alternatives about how to raise revenues. A fee, or finding out how students are engaged in our football program, is certainly something we need to study. But we're nowhere near the point where we would be able to make that recommendation.
At Georgia Tech, what did you learn from the NCAA placing the football program on probation and taking away the 2009 ACC championship?
I learned a lot. I learned that there is not the requisite expertise on a campus to deal with the NCAA. I don't want to sound flippant but common sense doesn't always apply. You need to understand that external counsel is incredibly important to help you make the right decisions.
Are you reading a book right now?
Yes, “Generation iY” by Tim Elmore. It's fascinating. Individuals born from 1990 forward have always grown up with the Internet, have always grown up with iPods and those kinds of devices. And those are the student-athletes we're coaching right now. So how do you relate to them? They're very different, looking at life as a cafeteria. It's really an interesting book.
All-time favorite movie?
Probably “The Godfather.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff