This time a year ago, whispers were already swirling about Will Wade and LSU. Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA was curious as to how Wade, just in from Virginia Commonwealth, had managed to assemble the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class at a place that hadn’t done much since Shady Brady and Big Baby took the Tigers to the 2006 Final Four. (Even the expected one-year Ben Simmons bounce had been a fizzle.)
Today Wade’s Tigers are poised, with a win over winless-in-the-SEC Vanderbilt on Saturday, to take their first regular-season conference title in a decade. Thing is, they’re Wade’s Tigers no more. He was suspended Friday, as he had to be, by the school after Yahoo aired the details of taped-by-the-Feds phone calls between the coach and the now-convicted fraudster Christian Dawkins. Highlights involved Wade referring to “a strong-ass offer” to Javonte Smart, now an LSU freshman, and joking that Smart would be paid above the “rookie minimum.”
LSU apparently is willing to let its team keep playing, albeit under an interim coach. From a statement by school president F. King Alexander and athletic director Joe Aleva: “Recent media reports regarding coach Will Wade are without question concerning to us all. As such, we and university officials have taken deliberate and purposeful steps to fairly assess and adequately address the situation.”
Here, though, we ask: Is allowing the team Wade assembled and coached for 30 games this season to celebrate a championship a “purposeful step”? And what of the SEC tournament in Nashville and the NCAA after that? Is there any way the Tigers should participate if there’s reason to believe – and there would seem to be – their coach cheated?
The surprising part about the purportedly earth-shaking investigations by the Feds into sneaker companies, recruits and college coaches had been how little the ground moved. Rick Pitino was fired by Louisville and a few folks were convicted by a court in New York, but that was about it. Bruce Pearl, whose team tied for the SEC regular-season title last year after assistant coach Chuck Person was indicted and two players suspended, was rewarded by Auburn with a contract extension. Cal State-Northridge hired Mark Gottfried, whose North Carolina State program had been implicated in a transaction from Adidas executive James Gatto, now facing prison time, to Dennis Smith Jr., now in the NBA.
Even Arizona’s Sean Miller, who missed a game in February 2018 after ESPN reported the existence of a tape on which he and Dawkins discussed a $100,000 payment to recruit Deandre Ayton, still has his job. (And, as of today, the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.) Was it possible that college basketball, after seeing its seamy side brought to light, would simply go on as before?
The Wade tapes are proof that the Feds aren’t done, that business-as-usual might, in the end, prove to be risky business. It’s hard to believe LSU would allow Wade to keep coaching after this. Said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey: “The information in recent reports is very disturbing, if true.” And here, we say again, is the difference between the FBI and the NCAA’s toothless investigator; the former has the power to tap phones and issue subpoenas, and that power is why this case still has legs.
In 2003, Georgia faced a similar issue at roughly the same time. Former Bulldog Tony Cole told ESPN he received money – and a TV – from Georgia coaches. The day after the regular season ended, the school removed its team, then ranked in the Top 25, from the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Coach Jim Harrick would be gone by month’s end. (Update: Harrick is Gottfried’s assistant at Northridge.)
The Georgia team, led by Jarvis and Jonas Hayes, staged an impromptu protest on president Michael Adams’ front lawn, and it was a shame that one of the better teams in school annals saw its season end with a road victory on a Sunday at South Carolina. Still, Georgia did the right thing. A self-respecting university – which you’d like to think all universities would be, but you never know – cannot in good conscience allow a tainted team to represent it.
LSU has a strong team that has had an outstanding season, but that team and its season are now, as they say in law school, fruits of a poisonous tree. The Tigers can’t be allowed to keep playing beyond Saturday, and there’s a good chance that anything they win by beating Vandy will soon be vacated. LSU trusted Wade to resurrect a program. He might have built a house of cards.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.