CLEMSON — Dan Radakovich recalled fondly those moments during his years on the athletics staff at South Carolina when he and then-baseball coach Ray Tanner commiserated over the challenges they faced.
When Tanner walked in the door at USC, Radakovich had been on Mike McGee’s staff about a year. Tanner never left, but Radakovich exited for posts at American University, LSU and Georgia Tech over the next 12 years.
Last year, the friends accepted new challenges at rival schools, Tanner succeeding Eric Hyman as USC athletics director and Radakovich replacing Terry Don Phillips at Clemson.
“We would sit down for a half an hour in the afternoon and (complain) at one another,” Radakovich said during a 45-minute interview this past week. “We would feel really good afterwards.”
Their relationship should become useful to both in the future.
Turning a deaf ear to sweet-talking suitors, Clemson under Phillips retrenched itself as a charter member of the ACC. Discovering that Clemson athletics was not as fit financially as characterized when he took the job, Phillips helped rebuild the department’s cash reserves while committing more than $140 million to facilities during a decade on the job, including his signature project, the West End Zone.
Radakovich, by his reckoning, stepped into a situation, “more than sound, from the standpoint of being able to have some of the resources to get some things started right away,” with a budget of about $65 million and healthy cash reserves.
Competitively, he said, Clemson is ahead of the curve in football with coach Dabo Swinney setting the agenda, as well as the nationally prominent golf and baseball programs.
“I think Clemson football under Dabo’s leadership is very, very healthy,” he said. “Larry Penley and Jack Leggett have done phenomenal jobs over the years, and we have had great successes intermittently with some of our other programs, but we have to keep up to that certain level of excellence.”
Second to football in its potential to generate revenue, men’s basketball seems to have lost momentum the past two seasons after four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Attendance has lagged during this third season under coach Brad Brownell, though in his defense, Radakovich pointed out the circumstances that left Clemson with a roster of two seniors and no juniors.
“Sometimes, you’ve just got to stick with someone that has the same values, understands the institution, embraces all of those things and works incredibly hard,” Radakovich said.
Radakovich warned that it might be tougher when the ACC adds basketball powers Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse over the next couple of years.
“It’s not a walk in the park, so we have to continue to invest in our basketball program,” he said, “and I am very confident in our leadership.”
Clemson’s win against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl was huge for a league that’s been raked over the coals for its lack of success against big-name opponents.
“Our football product has been and will be getting better,” said Radakovich, pointing also to Florida State’s victory in the Orange Bowl and Louisville’s in the Sugar Bowl.
ACC members have seen league revenues nearly double in recent years with the potential for more once Louisville and Notre Dame become part of the equation, but Radakovich anticipates even stronger returns as the league explores the possibility of an ACC Network.
“We need to look and understand what opportunities exist there for us, either singularly or in partnership with other leagues,” he said. “I think we are at a point right now where the ideas of collaboration need to be explored.”
Asked if he anticipated that Notre Dame, which will play a limited league schedule in football, might become a full league partner, Radakovich smiled.
“My gut’s been so wrong over the past couple of years when it comes to these things. I don’t trust my gut anymore,” he said. “I am just excited that we’re going to have these opportunities to compete with Notre Dame in football, but even more so to be able to compete with them in their very successful Olympic sports.
“I think, as you bring someone into your family and they begin to understand the ethos of the Atlantic Coast Conference family (and its) very good balance between academics and athletics, that sometime down the road there could be the opportunity to formalizing the football arrangement.”
Radakovich said he did not anticipate another period of conference free agency that led to this expanded and reconfigured ACC.
“If your question is will football ever secede,” he said, “I would probably find that discussion and the path of that conversation something that may be a bit more plausible than a massive change of conferences for a lot of people.
“I don’t think we would do that independently.”
Regardless of Clemson’s conference affiliation, he would seem wedded to a continued relationship with South Carolina because, “it’s an important, critical piece of our year.”
Though he and Tanner have yet to discuss it, Radakovich said he would eventually be open to examining all the benefits of where the football game falls in the schedule. Younger fans have only known it at the end of the season, but as leagues morphed into mega-conferences with championship games, the facilities arms race escalated and coaches’ salaries skyrocketed, adaptability has been a characteristic of the programs best able to stay at least a step ahead.
“There’s that fine line between tradition and habit,” Radakovich said, alluding to the Big Thursday game the first 60 years of the rivalry. “Is it a habit to be at the end of the year or is it a tradition for it to be at the end of the year?
“Now, with ever-changing television arrangements and the things we must do to gather fans to attend games,” he said, “we should never take it for granted that it will always be a sellout in Columbia or Clemson. Our fans are becoming much more sophisticated and we have to make sure that we are adding value to everything that we’re doing as it relates to selling tickets.”
With the season-finale game now butting against the conference championship games, it has become a nuisance for two ambitious football programs.
“Beginning, middle, end of the year? I think it would be intriguing at the right time to discuss all of those possibilities,” Radakovich said. “It’s just not as easy as Coach (Frank) Howard and Rex Enright getting together and saying when are we going to play. There are a few more people involved now.”
When he was wearing garnet and black, “it was never good” to lose to Clemson.
“No one likes to lose to its rival,” he said. “Having been around and in locker rooms that have been victorious and in locker rooms that have been on the losing end, it matters.
“It matters a lot.”