Now that one of the fattest characters in the history of a notoriously sketchy sport has been fired, let’s take a moment to do two things.
First, let’s congratulate Will Wade, the LSU men’s basketball coach, on earning a special note in history. Has anyone ever been fired the day before their NCAA Tournament squad finds out their seed and opponent? This is a special level of repudiation. Wade earned all the humiliation that goes with it.
Second, consider the collateral damage that accompanied LSU’s cowardly and brazen activation of Wade’s con job for four years.
Consider aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins and Adidas consultant Merl Code, arrested for their roles in a federal corruption scandal. Dawkins was on the other end of the phone when Wade was talking about his infamous “strong ass offer” to recruit Javonte Smart. Wade went on to earn millions as a Tigers coach for three years after the contents of that bugged call were released. Dawkins and Code are currently in federal prison.
Consider the black assistant coaches who lost their jobs as federal authorities kept their investigative goals narrow, never putting Wade on the witness stand or pursuing charges against him. Wade was going to NCAA tournaments as they were kicked out of the profession.
Consider Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin and Georgia coach Tom Crean, both fired this week for not winning enough games in the Southeastern Conference. They were a combined 1-11 against Wade, with his continued employment tangibly affecting theirs.
Consider Florida coach Mike White, who is catching heat from the Gators fan base because his team is likely on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble. A January loss to LSU and Wade could be the difference between the NCAA and the NIT.
Then there’s former Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew, whose last loss to cement a winless SEC season in 2019 was a 21-point thrashing of LSU. Drew was fired shortly thereafter.
And there’s Mark Turgeon, who parted ways with Maryland early this season; a last-second loss to LSU in the 2019 tournament kept their Terrapins out of the Sweet 16. Is he still the Maryland coach if Wade’s team didn’t stand in the way of this tournament?
Yeah, a lot of people paid quite a bit as Wade continued to get paid by LSU. Now that he’s finally gone, he was fired on Saturday following the school receiving a huge notice of allegations from the NCAA’s Complex Cases Unit, including the existence Sports Illustrated first reported on Tuesday – the surge of schadenfreude around the sport is palpable.
For three years, the most asked question I received from college athletics was, “How does Will Wade still have a job?” The answer: LSU, in its rush to the depths of athletic responsibility, simply didn’t care about Wade’s mockery of NCAA rules and competitive fairness. The school should be embarrassed today, but I’m not sure LSU is capable of embarrassing. If it did, LSU wouldn’t face a charge of lack of institutional oversight from the NCAA, which alleges eight years of sustained misconduct in multiple sports. In the eyes of investigators, LSU was running a rogue operation and didn’t care too much about it as long as the wins kept coming.
Wade became its face and voice. His words on a wiretap of a call intercepted by the FBI made it clear he was buying a player (and, as the NOA claims, Javonte Smart wasn’t the only one). Listening to that tape and not coming to that obvious conclusion was lying to yourself and everyone else. LSU took the dishonest route and stuck to it.
Wade’s reaction to the wiretap news when Yahoo! Sport broke it in March 2019 was to refuse to meet his bosses and answer questions. This earned him a suspension from the SEC tournament. Watching the team accept the trophy in Nashville as regular-season champions while their coach was back in Baton Rouge would humiliate a coach with any credibility. Wade never seemed too ashamed about it.
But after Wade changed course and met with school and NCAA investigators, LSU caved to aggressive attorneys and kept him on the job. He added an amendment to his contract that made his dismissal easier, saying he could be fired for cause if he was accused of major violations. But LSU administrators refused to step in and deal firmly with a popular and winning coach.
Things got worse during the SEC Spring Meetings in May 2019. Wade shoved his way through a laughable press conference, refusing to answer tough questions, looking and sounding like a teenager trying to explain to his parents why he broke curfew. LSU sat idly by, watching its coach make a fool of himself.
Then, as NCAA infraction cases tend to do, the case sat underground for a long time. LSU fans and the fanboy media, so desperate to believe nothing would happen, declared it a dead issue. LSU administrators seemed hopeful that the thing would dry up and fly away as well.
But, behind the scenes, the work continued. NCAA law enforcement personnel, then the Complex Cases Unit of the Independent Accountability Review Process, methodically built their case.
And hello, did they issue a NOA. Eleven violations alleged, including eight Level I (the most serious), with the accusation of lack of institutional control as icing on the cake. CCU pitched both to LSU, and Wade in particular.
In addition to the “solid offer” allegation, there is one alleging that Wade paid silent money to a former player’s ex-fiancé in 2017. The LSU apologists who attempted to explain wiretapping are really going to be taxed with regard to dismissing this one.
Another allegation: In 2020, long after Wade was under the microscope for wiretapping, he and assistant coach Bill Armstrong provided a range of impermissible benefits. The Notice of Approval specifically states that Armstrong “offered to provide [name redacted] and/or his family members or associates with $300,000 in cash. …” A source connected to the LSU program said Sports Illustrated it’s been years since Wade and his team made six-figure offers to multiple rookies and named two of them who went on to become standout players for the Tigers.
There was also an allegation that Wade obstructed (and prolonged) the NCAA investigation by refusing to provide records. (The texts with the former fiancé show exactly why Wade was unwilling to cooperate.) Although there are no attached details, a look at the timeline of the affair makes it clear that the disputes over the documents and other legal disputes prevented faster resolution. And while Wade was stonewalling, LSU was still sending him big paychecks.
Football allegations in the NOA are no small potatoes either. The biggest is an $180,000 recall payment to a player’s dad for a no-show job, but if you want a window into how LSU works, the fallout from handing out money from Odell Beckham Jr. in the immediate aftermath of winning the College Football Playoffs in January 2020 offers beauty. The breach itself isn’t terribly outrageous. But when the school’s response to the media was that Beckham was handing out counterfeit money, it showed his first institutional instinct was to lie outright. It wasn’t until later, when quarterback Joe Burrow acknowledged in a national media appearance that the money was real, that LSU backtracked.
No wonder the rogue basketball coach feels right at home there.
LSU said in a statement Saturday that it doesn’t agree with all of the charges and will likely dispute some of them (although it has already conceded the football charges). All of this may not stick with the Tigers in a subsequent hearing and decision, which will come sometime in 2022.
Yet it would take a miracle – or staggering incompetence on the part of the CCU or the IARP Hearing Panel – for this not to result in major sanctions. Will Wade will never coach college basketball again, and the profession will be better off for it. And the school will pay the price for steadfastly refusing to be accountable.
But none of this helps those who have just been fired or who are in prison. Will Wade continued to get paid as they paid a price.
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