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January 22, 2014

Hood: New deals reflect rivalry's new reality



Undeniably, the new contracts recently given to Steve Spurrier and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney signal a historic and dramatic shift in the dynamics of the heated Palmetto football rivalry.

Clearly, Spurrier was being rewarded in part for USC's stunning success against Clemson over the past five years when the Board of Trustees last week unanimously approved to increase his yearly salary to $4 million and extend his contract through the 2018 season.

Until USC beat the Tigers, 31-17, in late November at Williams-Brice Stadium for their 18th straight home victory, the Gamecocks had never beaten Clemson five years in a row.

Now they have.

For that reason, the eye-opening numbers of Spurrier's deal are hardly surprising or shocking considering the amount of money the Gamecock football program currently generates, and that the HBC has introduced two essential components that were missing from USC when he accepted the job in 2005 - consistent winning and coaching stability.

Swinney's eight-year, $27.1 million deal, on the other hand, raised eyebrows throughout the Palmetto State and beyond, and was met with a mixture of happiness (he won 11 games in 2013) and trepidation (wait, he gets a large raise even though he's lost five straight games to USC and is 0-4 against the Gamecocks and Florida State in the past two years?) among Clemson supporters.

Considering the circumstances, the lengthy and lucrative terms of Swinney's contract are fascinating for one simple reason - Danny Ford, Ken Hatfield, Tommy West and Tommy Bowden, Clemson's four previous coaches, would have never survived losing five straight games to the Gamecocks.

Had that happened, they would have been tossed through the exit door by an angry and disgusted Clemson fan base.

So, what has changed? Well, everything.

Back in the 1980s and 90s and extending into the early 2000s, Clemson dominated the rivalry and most years was clearly the superior team. In fact, USC won just four times in an 18-year stretch from 1988-2005 as the Gamecocks struggled in transitioning from being an independent to SEC membership.

But the tables have turned.

So, why did Clemson ink Swinney to a lucrative long-term extension despite five straight double-digit losses to the Gamecocks?

In my opinion, the answer boils down to five words: Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich.

If you're old enough to remember, Radakovich was a senior associate athletic director and chief financial officer for the USC athletic department under Mike McGee from 1994-2000 before leaving to become the AD at American University before Lou Holtz's second season as head football coach.

During Radakovich's six football seasons at USC, the Gamecocks compiled a woeful 23-43-1 record under Brad Scott (1994-98) and Lou Holtz (1999). Radakovich's final two falls in Columbia were tarnished by the infamous 21-game losing streak that made the Gamecocks a national laughingstock until the nightmare mercifully ended in the 2000 season-opening win over New Mexico State.

Happily, the USC football program is about 1,000 light years ahead of where they stood in the late 1990s, the lowest rung of the SEC ladder. This past season, the Gamecocks were the second highest-ranked SEC team in the final AP and Coaches polls, even finishing ahead of Alabama, a treasonous thought six months ago.

Nobody comprehends USC's remarkable ascension better than Radakovich. First and foremost, he is a numbers guy, so he realizes greatly improved finances are a major reason for USC's surge (42-11 mark in last four seasons) towards the top of the polls.

Consider: in Radakovich's final academic year at USC (1999-2000), the USC athletics department produced total revenues of about $35 million and received from the SEC office a distribution of $8.2 million from the SEC office.

Thirteen years later, USC athletics generated revenues of $90.49 million and was given a check for $22.35 million from the SEC office in 2012-13, a nearly 160 percent jump. Where has most of this newfound money gone? Paying for upgraded facilities, of course.

Assuredly, when Radakovich drove through Columbia on his way to Williams-Brice Stadium for the Palmetto Bowl in late November, he marveled at the many USC athletic facilities that didn't even exist a few short years ago - Rice Athletic Center (main administration building), Carolina Stadium, the Dodie and, of course, the enormous improvements to Williams-Brice benefitting players (Crews Facility with weight room and meeting rooms, renovated locker room, players' lounge and medical treatment room, etc.) and fans (video scoreboard) alike.

The next time Radakovich arrives at Williams-Brice Stadium for a USC-Clemson clash in 2015, he'll see the new practice fields and indoor facility dominating the landscape towards the rear of Gamecock Park (f/k/a The Farmers Market) along with the genesis of the pedestrian plaza surrounding the stadium.

Radakovich also realizes the money tree for USC isn't going to be chomped down anytime soon.

Bolstered largely by multi-billion TV deals with CBS and Disney/ESPN, the SEC's total distributions to its member schools has risen dramatically from $73.2 million in 2000 (Radakovich's final year at USC) to $289.7 million last June.

Yeah, I would argue the $50,000 entry fee that USC paid to join the SEC in 1992 has proven to perhaps be the best investment in school history.

And with the SEC Network going on the air in August, the rich will only get richer. Within five to seven years, as the SEC Network, fueled by the most passionate fan base in the nation, undoubtedly grows and prospers within the changing cable and satellite TV universe, the $22 million payment the SEC delivered to USC last June should pale in comparison to future sums.

All those tens of millions of dollars lead directly to three things: better facilities, better recruiting and better coaches.

Spurrier was just given a raise to $4 million per year. Let's assume he coaches the Gamecocks for another five years. How much will his successor earn annually? $5 million? $6 million? Higher? Bet on the latter.

Which means, of course, plenty of big name coaches will eagerly apply for the job when it finally comes open years down the road.

As far as the USC-Clemson rivalry is concerned, Radakovich recognized the handwriting on the wall. College football is a much, much different world than the late 1990s when USC suffered through the ignominious "Dark Ages."

With money gushing from the SEC's oil well, Radakovich knows that gloomy period will likely never be repeated again for the Gamecocks.

Instead, the dark days are gone and now the Renaissance is upon us, and with its arrival a new chapter is being written in the Palmetto State's biggest football rivalry.

After five straight losses to the Gamecocks, Swinney's freshly minted contract proves Clemson views the rivalry from a different perspective than a decade ago when they held the upper hand.

Now they don't.

Once upon a time, Gamecock fans wondered if they would ever beat Clemson two years in a row, let alone five. Now Tiger supporters ponder the same thing as Swinney celebrates his newly inked multi-million deal.

When push comes to shove, Swinney's contract is essentially a concession by Radakovich and Clemson that, in terms of the Palmetto State rivalry, the salad days of past decades are over, and limiting USC to six wins over a 26-year span (1980-2005) will likely never happen again considering the significant financial resources and the superior coaching and administrative leadership available to USC now and in the future.

In short, Radakovich understood Clemson's "USC problem" isn't going away anytime soon regardless of who the Clemson coach is, so he decided to bite the bullet and give Swinney the dough.

DM


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