Audra Smith grabs second chance to help make Lady Tiger hoops something special

'Things always seem to come back around full-circle. When Barbara came back and recruited me again, and I just couldn't say no'

Women's basketball coach Audra Smith

Photo by Mark Crammer

Women's basketball coach Audra Smith

The first time Barbara Kennedy-Dixon came knocking on Audra Smith's door, she got a polite, but firm 'thanks, but no thanks' from Georgia's high school Miss Basketball.

The second Kennedy-Dixon came calling, Smith was all ears.

"Things always seem to come back around full-circle," said Smith, after being introduced earlier this week as Clemson's sixth women's basketball coach. "When Barbara came back and recruited me again, and I just couldn't say no."

Twenty-five years have passed since Kennedy-Dixon, then an assistant under head coach Jim Davis, made her first pitch to Smith, one of Georgia's most highly recruited players. In the interim, Kennedy-Dixon - the leading scorer and rebounder in ACC women's basketball history - kept her eye on Smith as she went on play at Virginia for Hall of Fame coach Debbie Ryan, helped lead the Cavaliers to three Final Fours, and then served 10 seasons on Ryan's Virginia staff.

Smith moved on to Alabama-Birmingham as head coach nine years ago, and she was one of the first candidates who popped into the mind of Kennedy-Dixon - now Clemson's Senior Women's Administrator - when a search committed was formed to find a new basketball coach.

"I'm so grateful that Barbara thought enough of me to contact me about the position," said Smith. "This is the most incredible day of my professional career. I've always wanted to be a head coach at a premier BCS institution, and today that prayer has been answered."

The Clemson women's basketball job is a challenging one. It's been nearly a decade, and two head coaches have come and gone, since the Lady Tigers had a winning season. And the ACC is getting only more difficult with the addition of NCAA finalist Louisville and two other teams - Notre Dame and Syracuse - who just made it to the Sweet 16.

Yet Smith, who remembers Clemson women's basketball in its heyday under Davis, believes she'll have the necessary resources to restore the program as a viable ACC contender.

"Dan Radakovich, Barbara Kennedy-Dixon and the rest of the administrative staff have done everything in assuring me that we'll have everything we need to create a top-tier program and create a championship culture," Smith said. "I'm extremely excited about the talent that's already here - there's a lot of it.

"I feel like this is a great opportunity to come in and make some changes and start to build. I remember coming into Littlejohn and that (tunnel) door closing, and that tiger being there, and not being able to get out of there without a fight. As a player, I think I lost here twice. And then as a coach, in the 10 years I was at Virginia, there was a stretch of five or six years when we couldn't get out of here with a win. That's what I want to bring back."

Smith, Kennedy-Dixon and Radakovich all mentioned 'resources' and 'commitment' on Monday. Radakovich said Clemson's planned facilities improvements are just part of the equation.

"I think the most important thing is to have great leadership inside the program, and I feel like we have that now with Audra as our head coach," Radakovich said. "Unlike some sports, I think basketball is sort of a tandem event. We have great leadership in our men's basketball program, so I look forward to having both Brad (Brownell) and Audra tell us the things that they need to be successful.

"We have a lot going on right now. We're looking at some strategies related to Littlejohn Coliseum long-term, and that's one piece. But there are other things inside the program that I look forward to our coaches letting us know 'these are things that are separators in the basketball world.' They're the experts in that area, and we, as administrators, just try to facilitate things that allow them to do their job in the best way possible."

Recruiting will be a top priority. Radakovich said that's one reason why head coaching experience and first-hand familiarity with the ACC were at the top of the search committee's list of criteria.

"I don't think you can be successful in the ACC unless you're a good recruiter," Radakovich said. "I've been at places that have recruited well, graduated student-athletes and had success on the floor. Those are things where when we boiled it all down, Audra came up aces in all those areas."

"We feel like this is a great opportunity for a lot of young women," Smith said. "We have our hands in a lot of different areas across the country. I'm blessed to have a staff that has connections from Minnesota to Texas and nationwide. We feel we can go anywhere and attract players to come and help Clemson be successful."

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