Selectivity leads Georgia Tech grad Graham Neff to dream job as Clemson AD

As his star at Clemson rose over the past decade, Graham Neff had opportunities to leave his role as the No. 2 person in the athletic department and become an athletic director himself. It was an opportunity that he had earned along a path that started at Georgia Tech as a student manager for the men’s basketball team.

Hired as the chief financial officer at Clemson by AD Dan Radakovich (who first got to know Neff when Radakovich was in the same role at Tech) in 2013, Neff was promoted to be the deputy AD, the department’s supervisor for the football and men’s basketball teams and a trusted aide to Radakovich. But while holding the desire to go out on his own, the allure of staying at Clemson and possibly someday succeeding Radakovich began to grow, too.

“It was just more of like I probably got increasingly more selective because of the role that I had, and (his wife) Kris and I loving Clemson,” Neff said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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There was no formal plan for Neff to succeed Radakovich, Neff said, but Radakovich and school President Jim Clements dropped enough hints of the possibility.

“Dan was increasingly forward and transparent with me, as was President Clements, of like, ‘Hey, things are really great here,’” Neff said. “A ‘be selective’ kind of idea.”

Neff’s patience and selectivity were rewarded in December when Radakovich made the jump to Miami to become its AD. Clemson made Neff, 38, the 14th athletic director in school history, the fulfillment of a career dream and goal. The first regular-season football game that Neff will preside over as AD – against Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night – will be in his hometown (he grew up in Gwinnett County and graduated from Parkview High) against his alma mater.

“I’ll have a moment or so on Monday night before toe meets leather and appreciate that,” Neff said, invoking the signature phrase of Tech broadcasting legend Al Ciraldo. “Really, really cool. Full circle on that one.”

Neff is believed to be the youngest sitting AD at a power-conference school. The holder of both a civil-engineering bachelor’s (2006) and an MBA (2010) from Tech, he also arguably is the highest-profile Tech graduate currently in sports administration at any level, holding the top job at a department that houses a football powerhouse.

“Graham is a highly sought-after athletics administrator, a brilliant and selfless leader, and we’re thrilled about his vision for Clemson athletics,” Clements said in a statement at the time of Neff’s hire.

He enters the job while the college-athletics industry is in flux. Major conference realignment, the potential dissolution of the ACC and football’s possible breakaway from the NCAA are on the radar. Neff also is charged with guiding and positioning Clemson to adapt to the transfer portal and to engage with athletes’ ability to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness. He is finding himself in discussions and meetings with colleagues where nothing less than the future of the conference and college athletics itself are the subjects.

It has been, he said, “a really interesting balance” to be the newest (and youngest) AD in the conference and also the one representing one of the top brands in college athletics.

“I know the respect and the need for Clemson to be a leader, and for our brand and the success that we’ve had across the board, particularly in football – the voice that that carries and the need to further that voice for Clemson,” Neff said.

Part of that leadership entails, on the one hand, being committed to the ACC and its success, but also being mindful of looking out for the school’s best interests in a possible world of super conferences, where Clemson’s appeal to the SEC and Big Ten is vastly superior to most of its ACC partners.

“Absolutely,” Neff said. “I think every school in every league has to think that way, period.”

Not only that, but Neff has been kept fully busy within Clemson’s athletic department. With January his first full month on the job, he had to decide whether to retain men’s basketball coach Brad Brownell (he did) and baseball coach Monte Lee (he did not), hire Lee’s replacement (Erik Bakich from Michigan) and hire a coach for the new women’s gymnastics team (Amy Smith from Utah State) within his first six months on the job.

“At the end of the day, I certainly found, and have found, your mind just runs more when you’re trying to go to bed and waking up in the morning than in the prior roles, just because of the expectations or the need for ultimate decision making,” Neff said.

He also oversaw the launch in February of Clemson-Plus, an in-house video streaming service, and has been preparing for the start of a second sport, women’s lacrosse, in the spring.

All that plus his marriage and three young sons.

Said Neff, “It’s certainly been a lot.”

He has had the support of Radakovich, his mentor. They had worked together since Radakovich’s time at Tech, when Neff felt the pull of college athletics and left a consulting job to pursue his MBA while working in the Tech athletic department. He left Tech to work at Middle Tennessee and then was hired in 2013 by Radakovich at Clemson. From there, his titles and responsibilities grew, with responsibilities including facilities projects, fundraising and athlete welfare, before becoming the AD in December.

He is in frequent communication also with Tech AD Todd Stansbury.

“He and I have grown together in that regard, but also, if you take a half-step back, we’re both Georgia Tech alums, and so you just kind of have that esprit de corps as it just relates to the relationship,” Neff said.

Stansbury, in fact, nominated Neff for inclusion in the alumni association’s recent “40 under 40″ list, a group full of founders of technology and science startups, researchers and NASA officials. He has been named to other such lists, but said of this honor that “It’s Georgia Tech. It means a whole lot.”

That connection will be strengthened again Monday night.