Graham Neff’s office contains the usual mementoes that one might expect from the workspace of a Georgia Tech grad. They include both of his diplomas (bachelor’s in civil engineering and an MBA), a Tech football helmet, a Buzz bobblehead doll and a Coke bottle commemorating the Yellow Jackets’ 1990 national championship.
What makes the collection a little unusual is that Neff’s office is located in Clemson’s McFadden Building, where he serves as deputy athletic director.
“We keep him on high alert when we play Georgia Tech,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
That would include this week, when Neff’s alma mater and the school where he has flourished professionally meet Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“I take a lot of pride in my Georgia Tech degrees,” Neff told the AJC. But also, “Clemson has been great.”
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He is a credit to both. At 35, Neff holds a position that often belongs to former athletic directors 10 or 20 years his elder. With the experience gained and leadership demonstrated at a pace-setting athletic department, it won’t be a surprise if he is running his own department before long, following the lightly trod path of athletic directors with Tech degrees.
“He’s just a rising star,” said Clemson AD Dan Radakovich, who gave Neff his first job in athletics when he was AD at Tech before hiring him again at Clemson. “There’s no other way around it.”
Neff spends most of his time connected to the football and men’s basketball teams. But he is also involved in virtually every facet of Clemson’s sporting fiefdom, including coaching searches, personnel, revenue generation, facilities and fundraising. Radakovich showed his trust and confidence in Neff by creating the deputy AD position for him in 2015 to be his second in command.
He was all of 32 at the time, and a young-looking one at that. Swinney said that when he first met Neff upon his hire from Middle Tennessee in 2013, he thought the department’s new chief financial officer was a student.
“He’s been awesome for Clemson, he really has,” Swinney said. “He’s been awesome for Dan Radakovich. He’s kind of his righthand man.”
Neff followed a similar path as Radakovich, who also earned an MBA at the start of his career.
“Seemingly every decision has a financial proposition to it, so I think just having that as a default has helped me be involved in just a lot of different areas,” Neff said.
Beyond the finance background, Radakovich said, Neff “has a really good way about him” to communicate, understand a situation from multiple vantage points and deliver a solution. The job “is probably more art than science, and that’s coming from an engineer,” Neff said.
It’s a long way from folding towels and passing out water bottles, jobs he did as a student manager for the men’s basketball team at Tech while he was an undergrad. (His first team was the 2004 Final Four squad, whose captain was Marvin Lewis, now Tech’s CFO and a good friend of Neff’s.) Then-coach Paul Hewitt remembered Neff Wednesday as hard working and personable.
“Not surprised he is doing well,” Hewitt wrote in a text.
Even while he was earning his degree in civil engineering, he felt the pull to a career in college athletics. Neff recalls being at practice, seeing administrators and figuring out who they were and what they did.
Neff graduated in 2006, worked for two years as a consultant at Deloitte & Touche before deciding to heed his calling to college athletics. He returned to Tech for his MBA in 2008, concurrently taking classes and working in the athletic department before graduating in 2010.
From there, he went to Middle Tennessee as an associate AD, working three years there before Radakovich, now at Clemson, came for him again in 2013.
Growing up in Gwinnett County (he’s a graduate of Parkview High), Neff expected to live his adult life in Atlanta. But he, wife Kristin and 2-year-old son Grady have come to embrace Clemson.
“We love it,” he said. “It’s certainly a different pace just from a day-to-day standpoint, but people are great.”
If you’re wondering, his loyalties Saturday will be undivided. He does feel emotion hearing the Tech fight song and alma mater, but Clemson is his community (and his source of sustenance). Much of his job is supporting the football players who will tangle with the Yellow Jackets.
“I don’t feel pulled when we play Georgia Tech,” he said. “It’s absolutely, ‘Go, Tigers!’”
He has had chances to leave Clemson to take an AD job, but has passed, wanting to wait for the right opportunity and time. As for the idea of someday returning to Tech once Todd Stansbury (himself a Tech grad) finishes his time in that office – “Oh, gosh, sure,” Neff said. “Of course.”
Wherever the job takes him, though, chances are that he’ll make room in his office for two diplomas and a few other keepsakes from a school that will always be dear.