GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Georgia Tech folks figured Dan Radakovich’s ultimate goal was to be athletic director at a school with a brand-name football program, which isn’t to say Tech is absent of tradition and didn’t play good football while D-Rad was there. But he’d apprenticed at LSU, among the biggest of the big, and those around him just assumed he’d someday flee the Flats for a slightly greener pasture.
Sure enough, Radakovich exited in 2012 after six years at Tech for a campus that has lots of green grass – and orange paw prints painted on the roads.
Let no one say that D-Rad hasn’t used his bigger pulpit to maximal effect. For several weekends a year, he sits in a room with famous folks like Archie Manning, Tom Osborne and Condoleezza Rice on the College Football Playoff selection committee. And, as fate would have it, Radakovich’s program was to play Monday night in the playoff’s championship game.
Throughout the fall, Clemson’s AD had to leave the committee room more often than a nervous test-taker with a pea-sized bladder. Whenever the Tigers were discussed – and they were No. 1 in every set of rankings – D-Rad would recuse himself. What would he do while waiting outside? What every human being in the 21st Century does: He fiddled with his phone. (He was famous at Tech for answering every email.)
Ful disclosure: I’ve always liked Radakovich. (Fuller disclosure: My daughter works for the same Marietta-based firm as his son.) The one time I felt moved to criticize him – when Tech was slapped with four years’ NCAA probation stemming from its mishandling of the Demaryius Thomas case, which had the ancillary effect of vacating the Jackets’ 2009 ACC title – I gritted my teeth while typing. He’s a smart guy who did some fine work for Tech, and now he’s presiding over an athletic program that houses a football team that figures to stay really good for a long time.
After tonight’s title tilt, D-Rad will begin the business of sweetening Dabo Sweeney’s contract. From accidental interim head coach in 2008, Dabo has grown into a polished steward – though still homespun, and still given to treating every media question as fodder for a filibuster – of a burgeoning program. There’s thought now that Dabo, an Alabama grad, could someday succeed Nick Saban. That notion would have been laughed out of court not long ago.
“It’s important to have continuity,” Radakovich said. “He loves Clemson, and the Clemson family loves Dabo. He’s in the top echelon of coaches.”
When he came to Tech, Radakovich inherited Chan Gailey and Paul Hewitt, both of whom had onerous buyouts and whose programs began to evince diminishing returns. Radakovich fired Gailey two days after the Georgia game in 2007 and hired Paul Johnson, which was an immediate upgrade. Hewitt was two days after the Jackets were eliminated from the 2011 ACC tournament, a dismissal only made possible by D-Rad’s ability to free the $7 million the coach was owed. He hired Brian Gregory, whose program is showing signs of life after four desultory seasons.
Inheriting Dabo was rather different. He’s so doggone ingratiating that even Johnson, who likes almost nobody, calls him a buddy. “There’s a very short list of people who don’t like Dabo,” Radakovich said.
On Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center, the AD who as a CFP committeeman has to stay objective showed no such restraint. He wore an orange Clemson sweater and orange sneakers. When I saw him before Tech played at Clemson in October, he sported a purple vest and orange pants. Working for the Tigers is not for the fashionably faint of heart.
Was this journey to the pinnacle of the biggest college sport what D-Rad had in mind when he took the Clemson job? “Absolutely,” he said. “No question. Our administration looks at our program as a really good partner.”
I reminded him of what the splendid Tech player Ken Swilling, who’d grown up just across the state line in Toccoa, said of playing in Death Valley: “You look up and you think, ‘Where’d all these people come from?”
D-Rad laughed. “There aren’t a lot of people in Clemson,” he said, “but there are a lot of people in the Upstate. And on game days, a lot of roads leads to Clemson.”
Further reading: Does Clemson have a chance against Bama? Yes, I say.