NEW ORLEANS, La. — LSU administrators Verge Ausberry and Dan Radakovich peered from, of all places, the window of a Daytona Beach Holiday Inn, squinting toward the parking lot below as Jack Del Rio drove in circles while on his cell phone.
If this seems weird, it’s because it is a tale from a college head coaching search, fascinating endeavors with bizarre twists and turns. This one included.
Del Rio, then the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, had strong enough interest in replacing Nick Saban as LSU’s coach in 2004 that he made the 90-minute drive south to meet school officials for an interview. He never got out of his vehicle, circling around the parking lot and then leaving it all together as LSU athletic director Skip Bertman and five others on the search committee watched from a second-floor room. Radakovich got a call from Del Rio’s agent with an explanation: Because the Jaguars’ owner hadn’t given the coach permission to interview for any other jobs, Del Rio’s contract with the franchise would void if he met with LSU that day.
“I went in the room, pulled Skip out and I said, ‘Skip, he’s not coming. Are you going to tell the Board?’ He says, ‘No no. You’re going to tell the Board,’” Radakovich recalls. “As soon as I’m done telling the Board that we’re not going to interview Jack Del Rio, Skip goes, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to hire Les Miles.’”
As LSU and Clemson barrel toward one another for a titanic showdown of undefeated teams here in New Orleans, there is one man who shares a deep connection with both places. Radakovich, 61, is the Clemson athletic director and also the administrator who helped architect what many believe is the golden age of LSU football. While most believe the hiring of Nick Saban 20 years ago started the run, two more decisions allowed it to endure: a new ticket licensing fundraising effort and the hiring of Miles—both of which Radakovich helped pioneer. “Once you work at LSU, there’s always a part of you that stays there,” says Radakovich, speaking from Saturday’s media day at the College Football Playoff site.
As if these two teams don’t already share enough—animal mascots, stadium nicknames, down-home coaches—they’ve got another connection. Radakovich was second in command of the athletic department at LSU for five years, arriving a year into Saban’s tenure in 2001 and leaving in 2006 a year after the program hired Miles. In between, Saban won two SEC championships and a national title in 2003, transforming a middling program into a perennial juggernaut. This golden area is now in its 20 year, having seen a season average of 10 wins and a combined 13 division, conference and national titles.
While Saban publicly led the on-field efforts, a group of administrators privately operated from behind the scenes. Years later, they are a who’s who among college football giants. Mark Emmert, then the LSU chancellor, is now the president of the NCAA, and Scott Woodward, a former political lobbyist in Louisiana and then serving Emmert in a liaison role, is now leading LSU’s athletic department. Ausberry, now the ranking No. 2 in LSU athletics, Chris Howard, overseeing football for the NCAA, and Herb Vincent, now the right-hand man to SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, were all administrators then. So was, of course, Radakovich, then Bertman’s No. 2. “We were the group that got this thing started. It was good times,” Ausberry says.
The crew made key decisions, most notably implementing a then-maligned plan to boost the program’s athletic fundraising to keep pace with surrounding SEC schools. They spearheaded a movement to connect seating priority in Tiger Stadium to financial donations to the school’s fundraising arm, the Tiger Athletic Foundation. Other college programs were operating under such a plan for years. “We were way behind,” says Vincent. Radakovich and other administrators toured the state to convince LSU’s fan base that the plan would benefit the university in the long run. Seat prices for many longtime season ticketholders jumped significantly. Emotions were high. Tempers flared. “I remember meeting with Skip and Dan in Skip’s office and he was showing us the diagrams for all the facility improvements that would come from this money,” Vincent says. “They start talking about the price increase on the tickets through donations and he says ‘I’m going to do all this and they’re going to fire me.’”
Nearly 20 years later, LSU is a recruiting giant in the sport, one of the most profitable brands in college football with a recently renovated facility and a spruced-up 95-year-old stadium. “We had a really great group of people that worked really, really well together at LSU,” Radakovich says. “There was that alignment that exists at Clemson right now. Coach Saban had a clear vision of what he wanted to do within the program and what was needed and necessary from a research perspective to get it done.”
Radakovich learned from one of the best. His office on the sixth floor of LSU’s athletic building shared a wall with Bertman’s smoke-filled lair. His days were spent trying to convince his boss to smoke his cigars with his office door closed. Most of the time, he didn’t listen. “He’d go ‘Why? What’s the deal? It’s just a cigar!’” Radakovich laughs. Bertman was a people person who dealt well with high-level donors as well as casual fans sitting in the nosebleed section. He provided leadership to Radakovich and the others while allowing them to run the day-to-day operations of the department. “It was a unique setup and one of the only people that I know of who could pull that off,” Radakovich says.
Despite his 870 wins and five national championships as the school’s baseball coach, Bertman’s legacy hung on the 2004 coaching search. And Radakovich was with him every step of the way, two of six members of a search committee that took more than a dozen flights and visited at least five cities during a five-day search preceding Saban’s final game, the 2004 Capital One Bowl. “Dan and the staff had conversations with Skip,” Ausberry recalls. “We said, ‘We can’t mess this up. This is a career killer for us.’ It got to the point where we said, ‘All the championship you’ve won, all of that goes down the drain if you don’t hire the right one.’”
Radakovich took the lead on connecting with many candidates. The group cut a list of 20 to five finalists who they interviewed in various cities, including Dallas, Orlando, San Antonio and Memphis. They included then-LSU assistants Bobby Williams and Jimbo Fisher, then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, Miles and then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. A sixth candidate emerged amid the search. In the middle of the night, Bertman and wife Sandy were awaken when their hotel room phone rang. The caller encouraged Bertman to at least grant an interview with former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum.
“It was George Bush,” Bertman said in an interview years ago, referring to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
“OK, Mr. President,” he responded.
Meanwhile, Del Rio showed enough interest that Radakovich made plans through his agent for the meeting in Daytona Beach. With LSU’s football future at stake, he peered out of that window as the coach below circled the hotel parking lot. Bertman claims the meeting was scheduled at a Daytona Beach restaurant, but Radakovich is certain it was a Holiday Inn. He’ll never forget that bizarre occurrence. It all led to the hiring of Miles, winner of two SEC titles and 114 games in more than 11-plus season. “When it was done and we were sitting in one of the hotel rooms talking, I asked Dan ‘You think this is the right guy?’” recalls Vincent. “He said, ‘I think he’s going to win two national championships.’ Well, he won in 2007 and got close in 2011.”
On Monday night, LSU returns to the national championship game since losing 21–0 to Alabama in that 2011 title bout. On the other sideline, decked in purple and orange—not gold—will be the man partially responsible for Ed Orgeron’s juggernaut of a team playing. Radakovich spent enough time in Louisiana to know that a game against LSU on this soil isn’t necessarily fair.
“When we walk into that stadium,” he smiles, “we understand it—this is a road game.”