Will Wade's Suspension Casts a Pall on LSU's Banner Season

Will Wade's success in bringing LSU from the SEC cellar to first place in two years has taken on a new tone after the latest leaked wiretap has taken him off the sideline.
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BATON ROUGE, La. — In an impromptu moment, Will Wade grabbed the microphone after his team’s rousing overtime victory over then No. 5 Tennessee on Feb. 23. Standing at center court, a purple-and-gold-clad crowd celebrating before him, the captain of the LSU basketball program’s rebirth delivered a message of appreciation to a loving audience, showering them with praise before he ended with a bang. “Boot up, baby!” he bellowed into the mic, a somewhat new rallying cry this school has embraced. Fans roared. A tweet with the details of Wade’s speech garnered more than 1,500 likes and garnered dozens of comments from fans. One of them: “Is this guy too good to be true?”

Maybe so. LSU is conducting an internal investigation into the men’s basketball program, multiple sources told Sports Illustrated. The investigation comes a day after a report from Yahoo! Sports detailed a 2017 phone conversation intercepted by the FBI in which the coach is heard discussing a “strong-ass offer” he made in the recruitment of a prospect. The school is expected to at least interview Wade and LSU guard Javonte Smart, a freshman from Baton Rouge who is believed to be the subject of the latest leaked wiretaps in a much larger FBI investigation into college basketball’s recruiting practices. The school may also interview those connected with Smart.

School officials were somewhat blindsided by the Yahoo! report, multiple sources say. University leaders spoke to Wade about the matter earlier this year following initial reports linking him to the FBI probe, and he assured them that what had already been made public represented the full extent of his involvement. Sources confirm that Wade, under advice of counsel, refused to discuss the situation with LSU officials this morning, which prompted the school tosuspend him indefinitely, with assistant Tony Benford taking over as interim head coach. Wade's actions constitute insubordination and failing to cooperate with an investigation, both grounds for a firing for cause, according to a copy of his contract, obtained by Sports Illustrated. The school can fire him without owing him his remaining salary. 

If officials determine that Wade did not fully disclose information about an NCAA violation or committed a violation, that too is grounds for a firing for cause. On Friday afternoon, Wade released a statement to local media outlets that called for patience: “I cannot comment at this time on various media reports, except to say that they do not begin to tell the full story. I understand the University had to take action before all the facts are in, but I would ask everyone to withhold their judgment until the record is complete.”

The suspension comes less than two weeks after the win over Tennessee gave the Tigers the lead in the SEC and the day before a regular season finale against last-place Vanderbilt, in which a win would earn LSU its first regular season conference crown since 2009. In seven days, Wade’s team will be playing in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, three wins away from another championship and, if things break right elsewhere, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Thursday’s story from Yahoo! Sports is one in a series of pieces that have linked Wade to the FBI’s investigation into college basketball’s seedy underworld. In the latest report, a 2017 phone conversation intercepted by the FBI reveals Wade and former Adidas consultant Christian Dawkins discussed a recruiting deal offered to a prospect that the coach referred to as “the Smart thing.” At one point, Wade speculated his offer had not been accepted because he hadn’t given a third party a big “enough piece of the pie” and instead “tilted” the offer toward the player and his family. Earlier this spring, Yahoo! Sports also reported that Wade and Arizona coach Sean Miller are expected to be subpoenaed in the second federal basketball corruption trial in April, and a separate wiretapped conversation between Wade and Dawkins detailed suggestive discussions of 2019 recruit Balsa Koprivica, who eventually signed with Florida State. Dawkins was sentenced to six months in jail earlier this week after being found guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges for facilitating payments to the families of recruits.

Reporters from multiple national media outlets have challenged the school to fire or suspend Wade in light of the latest report. Even jovial ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, a former coach who’s known for his apologetic tone toward the profession, chided the university and Wade in a tweet Friday morning, calling this “grounds to fire Wade” and “an embarrassment to LSU.” Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, it is a time of mixed emotions. The basketball team is ranked No. 10 in the nation with a record of 25–5 and is preparing for a celebratory Saturday. The only thing standing in the way of an SEC championship is an opponent winless in conference play, an unimaginable position for a squad that two years ago was 2–16 in the league.

In just his second season, Wade has marched LSU from the cellar of college basketball to its summit, amassing blue-chip talents on the recruiting trail and endearing himself to a fan base thirsty for successful hoops. The Tigers have advanced to just two NCAA tournaments in the last 12 years, and the program’s history is littered with heartbreak and disappointment. Men’s basketball has taken a backseat to baseball, football and, for a stretch, the women’s basketball team in Baton Rouge. LSU is 0–6 all-time in Final Fours—twice losing the now-defunct third-place game—and the school has fired two of its last three coaches (Trent Johnson resigned under fire to take the TCU job). In 2016, the team missed the tournament while employing future No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons, a national humiliation that contributed to the firing of coach Johnny Jones a year later.

This season is arguably the most successful in decades. The Tigers are poised for their best SEC record since 1981, and they’ve already won three more games than the next-best LSU team in the last nine seasons. For just the first time in program history, LSU beat two top-five teams in less than two weeks, including its first road win at Kentucky in nearly 40 years. Despite the Tigers’ turnaround, Wade was not included earlier this month among 15 nominees for Naismith Coach of the Year. While he has enlivened the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, he has ruffled the feathers of his colleagues and the NCAA. Last spring, Yahoo! Sports published a report detailing an inquiry by the NCAA into Wade’s recruiting tactics. LSU signed the fourth-best class in 2018, according to 247Sports.com, a group that included top-50 players Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams and Smart.

This is not the first time the eyes of the NCAA have fallen on LSU’s basketball program. The team was placed on probation in 1998 after the NCAA found that a former booster paid basketball player Lester Earl about $5,000 while he attended LSU and before he transferred to play for Kansas. Earl later claimed NCAA enforcement staff members pressured him into making false claims against then coach Dale Brown, an outspoken critic of the NCAA who led the Tigers to 10 straight NCAA tournaments in his 25 years as coach. Contacted earlier this week, Brown politely declined to comment on the scandal involving Wade. The 83-year old still resides in Baton Rouge and attends LSU games. “I’ve been around LSU basketball for 47 years,” Brown says. “This is one of the truly most exciting teams. It’s been a magical ride.” But how will it end? Dozens of vacated victories? Rescinded championship banners? Some here don’t even care. A portion of the fan base has even started campaigns on social media to show their apathy: Memories are immune to NCAA penalties, they say.