|Athletic Director of the Year Dan Radakovich of Clemson
Dan Radakovich had been the Tigers’ athletic director for just a few months and was still getting the lay of the land in early 2013 when he went to dinner with football coach Dabo Swinney, who was coming off glitzy back-to-back seasons of 10 and 11 wins.
Radakovich, a results-driven, no-nonsense AD best known for his expertise in facilities and finance, had one question for his ultra-popular football coach: “What’s next?”
As the No. 2 in charge at LSU more than a decade ago, Radakovich had studied another highly successful coach — Nick Saban — whose ambition was matched only by his singular focus to hurry up and get better, a characteristic that rubbed off on Radakovich.
“How do we go from here,” Radakovich asked Swinney with his hand at chest level, “to here,” his hand moving above his head.
First Look podcast, with AD discussion beginning at the 12:35 mark:
|Radakovich has helped put the Tigers among college football’s top programs on and off the field.
“Any time you have a change in athletic director, there’s some uneasiness, but Dan really wanted to know what my long-term goals were for the program,” Swinney said. “That was the start. It’s been a good match ever since.”
Swinney’s vision for Clemson football was right in Radakovich’s wheelhouse. The AD knew how to finance and build facilities, having overseen major football and basketball projects at GeorgiaTech, LSU and South Carolina before Clemson.
He told Swinney that he’d invest $55 million into a cutting-edge football operations center that would be unlike anything else in the nation with a bowling alley, whiffle-ball field and miniature golf course for players when they weren’t in class or at practice. It’s where they’d eat, sleep (there’s a nap room), train and heal.
The building became the cornerstone of Radakovich’s $176 million master plan to overhaul the Tigers’ facilities and breathe life into a proud program that, from a facilities standpoint, had grown tired and outdated.
By the time Clemson’s football ops center opened earlier this year, on the heels of winning the College Football Playoff championship, it firmly placed the Tigers among college football’s elite, right next to Alabama and a handful of others on and off the field.
For those reasons and more, Radakovich was recently named SportsBusiness Journal’s Athletic Director of the Year.
“Dan really proved to be the right guy at the right time for Clemson,” said Graham Neff, Clemson deputy AD. “With the passionate fan base we have and Dan’s football background at places like LSU, he was the AD who could really super-charge this program and help push it to a championship level.”
As for Saban, the Alabama coach who remains a friend of Radakovich’s, he summed him up this way: “The guy’s just got the right stuff, not just about running a program, but also managing the people.”
The partnership Radakovich crafted with Swinney and the ensuing CFP championship created a wave of momentum that has propelled Clemson athletics in unprecedented ways.
While Swinney guided the football team to the school’s first national title in 35 years, Radakovich put the pieces in place for the Tigers to fully capitalize when the on-field success reached championship heights. Total athletic department revenue has topped $100 million for the first time in the school’s history.
In addition to the football ops center, Clemson in recent years spent $63 million to renovate Littlejohn Coliseum, $25 million on Memorial Stadium suites, $8 million on the west end zone and $9 million on baseball, while soccer and softball projects are in the works.
|Radakovich has had a strong relationship with Dabo Swinney since taking over in 2012.
Radakovich worked with the IPTAY Club, the Tigers’ fundraising arm, to revise how they ask for major gifts and set higher goals, which has led to $60 million in pledges for capital projects, on top of what donors give to the annual fund.
“We needed to change how we fundraise,” Radakovich said. “For years, it was a river a mile long and an inch deep. There were a lot of people giving, but we also understood there were donors that had more capacity.”
Davis Babb, who became IPTAY’s chief executive shortly after Radakovich’s arrival, worked with the AD to create a much more aggressive strategy. Total donations, including annual giving and pledges for capital projects, soared from $32 million in 2014 to $60 million in 2016-17.
Those gifts became the engine to drive Radakovich’s facilities plan forward.
“Dan has really set the vision for where we need to go and how we’re going to get there,” Babb said. “He showed Clemson, ‘This is how we’re going to be elite.’ Dan keeps people thinking big and moving ahead.”
Radakovich also showed a knack for marketing and branding with refreshed end-zone logos, a new approach to communications that emphasizes video over long game stories, an award-winning social media team and a recently signed, total campus marketing deal with JMI Sports worth close to $10 million annually.
Pretty soon, Clemson will go back to the table with Nike in a highly enviable negotiating position — coming off the CFP championship — with the expectation of greatly enhancing the revenue from that deal.
“He’s a really smart businessman, but if you look around Clemson, Dan is much more than just a finance guy or a facilities guy,” said Tim Match, Clemson’s associate AD for external affairs and a 28-year veteran at the school. “Yes, he’s built facilities, but look at what he’s done for the student-athletes and coaches, look at what he’s done with social media, look at our licensing growth. There have been some things he’s done that really required a leap of faith.”
Radakovich had a message for his administrative staff after the CFP championship: “Let’s not keep patting ourselves on the back.”
The AD isn’t one for victory laps. It’s just not how he was raised.
“You’d wake up early and you’d go to work,” Radakovich said. “That work ethic came from my upbringing. That’s all I knew.”
The 59-year-old from just outside Aliquippa, Pa., grew up in a family of steel mill workers at a time when the industry dominated the banks of the Ohio River, near Pittsburgh. Radakovich’s father, Dan Sr., was a diesel mechanic for the Jones & Laughlin steel mill.
“When something would break, he’d go fix it,” Dan Jr. said.
Radakovich’s youth was dominated by sports and large family gatherings. His mother was one of 13 children; his father one of six. His grandfather, who lived next door, immigrated to the U.S. around 1910 from Yugoslavia to look for work on the railroads.
The family get-togethers were epic.
“We’d all go to my aunt’s house on holidays and I still marvel at how many people we got in that little house,” Radakovich said. “It was a special time.”
Radakovich was good enough to play football at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and later pursued his master’s in business at the University of Miami. The focus of his MBA was health administration.
“I thought I was going to run a hospital one day,” he said.
Instead, a friendship at Miami led to a job with the Hurricanes in the early 1980s, kick-starting a career in athletics after stints as an accountant and mortgage banker.
Many of Radakovich’s friends don’t know that his father was a diesel mechanic, but their reaction is always the same when they find out — it makes sense.
Radakovich is a serial problem-solver who likes to tinker and try new things. Like his dad, he sees a problem and he fixes it. Or in the case of building out a model social media team, he sees an opportunity and pounces.
“Dan’s got a great blend of curiosity and methodical thinking,” said one of his longtime friends, Texas A&M AD Scott Woodward.
At his first bowl game as Clemson’s AD, Radakovich thought the Tigers’ end-zone logo was too wimpy, so the school worked with top collegiate licensee Knights Apparel to create a fiercer look — the Paw Hammer font — that debuted the next season.
More recently, Radakovich hired Matt Cobb to be the athletic department’s first data analytics expert.
Arkansas AD Jeff Long, who serves with Radakovich on the CFP selection committee, said he isn’t surprised by Radakovich’s interest in data. In fact, Radakovich has created some of his own analytics to evaluate teams, which he then shares with the committee.
That attention to detail stuck with those who worked with him before.
“We’d be working on multimillion-dollar projects and he’d be looking at the color on the walls, the tile, the plants,” said Wayne Hogan, one of the senior administrators on Radakovich’s Georgia Tech staff. “He’d be worried about what kind of boxwoods we’re using. His mind just never stopped working.”
For Radakovich and the Tigers, the challenge is no longer reaching the pinnacle, it’s staying there.
Now others are asking Radakovich the same question he asked Swinney:
“What I’ve learned from Dabo and Nick is to do something every day to get better,” Radakovich said. “Now, they do it in very different ways, but they’re similar in that regard. Let’s get better today.”