BATON ROUGE, La. – They came with their shirts and they came with their signs. Some wore the words on their chests, “Free Will Wade,” and “Fire Joe Alleva.” Others wrote them in marker on sneaked-in poster boards, “Take Alleva; Give us Wade.” They coordinated chants, and they orchestrated taunts, “Free! Will! Wade” and “Joe! Must! Go!” They were mad and they were sad, and then they were happy and they were glad. “Ladies and gentlemen, your 2019 SEC champions,” boomed the public address announcer in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, “the LSU Fight’n Tigers!”
On a most peculiar night in Baton Rouge, a team won its first SEC championship in a decade, with its coach suspended for refusing to disclose information to his employer, its athletic director publicly skewered by rowdy fans during a televised game, its star freshman guard withheld from play for potential eligibility concerns and, now, its season, arguably the best here in more than 30 years, in a most precarious position. The Tigers, winners over lowly Vanderbilt 80-59 Saturday, are 26-5, 16-2 in the league, the top seed in next week’s SEC tournament and poised to possibly grab one of the four illustrious No. 1 seeds in the Big Dance.
This is a tale you cannot make up, a story you couldn’t possibly imagine, a book that must one day be written. A day after the university placed head coach Will Wade on indefinite suspension, two days after the release of the bombshell Yahoo! Sports story that put him there, and just hours after the school suspended guard Javonte Smart, the LSU Tigers won the SEC. “This has been amazing, man. Wow,” said freshman forward Darius Days, the hero on this night with his 15 points in 21 minutes. They reveled in a championship, not soon forgetting the absent man who crafted this ship, the guy who turned a bottom feeder into a title winner. “We did it for Coach Wade and Javonte,” LSU interim coach Tony Benford said during an on-court TV interview, before players individually cut down the nets, even Smart clipping his own piece to a rousing ovation. Purple-and-gold streamers fell from the ceiling, the band played a half-dozen fight songs and hundreds of students lingered long after. “We feel like we’re on top of the world,” junior guard Skylar Mays said.
But this championship is cloaked in scandal. It is dirtied by its own architect. At the center of this night was, no, not the game or this championship, but the reaction from those present––the cheers and the jeers––to the decision university leaders made in suspending their 36-year-old wunderkind of a coach, a man who’s endeared himself to a fan base with his revival of a once dormant and disappointing program. Officials suspended Wade for not cooperating with an internal investigation into a Yahoo! Sports report detailing an FBI-intercepted 2017 phone conversation between Wade and former Adidas consultant Christian Dawkins. The men were discussing a recruiting deal offered to a prospect, one that Wade describes at various points as “the Smart thing,” “a strong ass offer” and “a piece of the pie.”
The decisions have prompted a battle fought on mostly social media grounds and among disagreeing factions, all strongly opposing or condoning the school’s handling of Wade and Smart. As national media members overwhelmingly applaud the move, a fervent fan base – some local reporters, too––are lambasting what they’re calling a quick-trigger decision. A few boosters have expressed their frustration to university leaders, and many fans have in their crosshairs an athletic director who’s been the target of routine criticism for years. They spoke loudly and clearly Saturday, especially a full-throated student section, creating pro-Wade-themed lyrics to school fight songs and heaving boos on the head of their athletic department. At the entry gates, the school confiscated posters, and near the rafters, they removed massive banners, all of them calling for the ouster of Alleva. The band drowned out Wade chants, and DJ music on the arena speakers muffled Alleva taunts. Fans here have thrown their collective weight behind a coach caught on FBI wire taps, so suspicious that the school demanded answers from him––and he refused.
They love a good scandal here, where the bayou meets the booze, and they sometimes embrace the perpetrator. After all, this is the state that elected a man as governor in 1992, Edwin Edwards, who had earlier stood trial for mail fraud, obstruction of justice and bribery, a campaign that spawned bumper stickers with the message, “vote for the crook.” This scandal has shook a state that holds such a strong allegiance to its only power conference program. This place bleeds purple and gold, the colors figuratively spilling into the Louisiana State Capitol, standing like a beacon in downtown Baton Rouge, three miles north of LSU’s campus. Here in this place, LSU athletics and state politics are paired together like crawfish boils and beer kegs, synced to one another like jazz bands and Mardi Gras, woven like the purple and gold that drips from this place. The governor, John Bel Edwards, is a big LSU fan. He’s hunted with the head football coach, thrown passes at football practices and routinely attends LSU athletic events, as he did Saturday. He entered the building Saturday just as Alleva strode to his seat in the stands, a move that caught the attention of students. With the governor steps away, the arena filled with boos.
Everything here is political. The decisions made this week regarding Wade and Smart go well beyond the athletic director, his group of high-ranking administrators and, even, the president of the university. An influential and powerful group of decision-makers were heavily involved. The 16-person LSU Board of Supervisors, its members hand picked by the governor himself, have the authority to hire and fire many of this campus’ key leaders. The board is chaired by a trial attorney and former member on the Louisiana Supreme Court, James Williams, a man whose role in this week’s decisions cannot be understated.
On the court, meanwhile, there was basketball. With an interim coach stalking the bench, their top rebounder, Naz Reid, out in concussion protocol and their fourth-leading scorer, Smart, in street clothes, the Tigers hammered the SEC’s worst team. They jumped to a 20-10 lead seven minutes in, were up 23 points with 13 minutes left and easily shoved aside the Commodores, saddling them with a goose egg in the conference win column––they finished 0-18. “We’re not done yet,” Benford said afterward. The future is muddy, though. Reid is expected back for the SEC tournament, Benford said, and the coach is hoping Smart can return in time for practice Tuesday––an optimistic outlook with an investigation in its early stages. School officials only just Friday interviewed Smart and his mother Melinda.
And Wade? His future as LSU’s basketball coach is in serious jeopardy. His lawyer advised him not to discuss the Yahoo! Sports story with his own bosses. “That’s a red flag,” one LSU official told Sports Illustrated. On the court Saturday, “He was there in spirit,”’ said Tremont Waters, the team’s heartbeat and point guard. “I’m pretty sure 101 percent he watched the game. Pretty sure when we messed up he was yelling and throwing something at the TV.”
He missed Senior Night festivities and the net cutting. He missed them cheering for him and booing his boss. He missed a orchestrated chant toward the end of the game that is sure to stain in everyone’s memory. With about four minutes to go, LSU cheerleaders attempted to lead a “Go” and “Tigers” chant from opposing sides of the arena. The student section had other ideas. Instead of “Go,” they said “Will.” Instead of “Tigers,” they said “Wade.” To drown them out, a familiar tune, Callin’ Baton Rouge, came rumbling from the arena speakers. Moments later, the final horn blasted, the streamers popped and then, and only then, came the final chant––“L-S-U! L-S-U! L-S-U!”––not meant for the suspended basketball coach or the beleaguered athletic director, but for a team of teenagers and 20-year-olds who accomplished a feat that may one day, on paper, have this next to it: *.