BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU and suspended basketball coach Will Wade are working toward a meeting, multiple sources told Sports Illustrated, a somewhat stunning development unfolding only after the coach hired a new attorney. Steven Thompson, a Chicago-based lawyer known for his work with coaches in NCAA matters, is now representing Wade and is spearheading discussions with university leaders. The news comes a week after the Tigers’ season ended in the Sweet 16 and nearly a month after school officials placed the coach on indefinite suspension for declining to cooperate in an internal investigation regarding a wiretapped phone conversation between the coach and a recruiting middleman. Thompson also represents Arizona coach Sean Miller and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who like Wade were both caught in the FBI’s probe into the seedy underworld of college basketball.
A meeting would put an end to a monthlong standoff between coach and school that has, at times, included public sparring from both sides and outrage from a restless fan base eager to defend its coach. A meeting would be just the first in what could be a multi-step process that would potentially clear him to return. Full cooperation from the coach is imperative throughout what could be a weekslong series of interviews conducted by NCAA investigators and school officials. The 36-year-old Wade, who in two years turned LSU from an SEC cellar-dweller to the regular season conference champion, had previously refused to meet with school leaders and discuss a March 7 Yahoo! Sports report that detailed a conversation recorded on FBI wiretaps between Wade and recruiting middleman Christian Dawkins in which the coach discusses a “strong-ass offer” he made to a recruit. Wade was suspended a day before the Tigers secured their first conference title in a decade with a thumping of Vanderbilt in the regular season finale.
Wade did not return multiple messages seeking comment. "This is something we have been working on for weeks and I can confirm the most recent talks with Will's legal counsel have been productive," LSU senior associate AD Rob Munson said in a statement. "As we have said since day one, we would welcome Will and his legal counsel's cooperation in this process. With an NCAA inquiry, where it leads will depend on the level of cooperation with LSU and the NCAA. But, we have certainly made clear our desire to take the first step."
In the immediate aftermath of the decision, university leaders received dozens of emails from disgruntled and angry fans, many of them calling for administrators to resign or be fired while others announced their plans to stop financially supporting LSU athletics. Meanwhile, in an email from his sports agency to LSU officials, one current college coach expressed interest in replacing Wade. Sports Illustrated obtained the emails through a public records request for emails received and sent by president F. King Alexander, athletic director Joe Alleva and members of the LSU Board of Supervisors, a powerful 16-member body that makes significant school decisions.
The outrage from fans poured into LSU inboxes, some of them full of vulgar language and threatening messages. In just a four-hour period following the suspension announcement, officials received more than 50 emails about Wade, just two of them in support of the move. Over half of the emails demanded Alleva, Alexander or both men resign or be fired, and about a dozen conveyed the senders’ plans to withdraw their financial support from the school. Messages from LSU alums came from across the country: a professor at a university in Virginia, an attorney in Mississippi, an accounting manager in Alabama. Many referred to the decision as a “knee-jerk reaction” by LSU brass, and one man claimed to have rallied 15 other LSU donors in agreeing to pull their support from the department.
Meanwhile, in an email sent to Alleva and deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry, an agent from GIG Sports, which represents first-year Detroit Mercy head coach Mike Davis, conveyed the coach’s interest in the potential LSU vacancy. The email was sent just 90 minutes after the school announced Wade’s suspension. Davis coached Indiana to a Final Four his second season in 2002 before the program slipped into mediocrity. He resigned in 2006, then spent six years at UAB followed by six at Texas Southern, where he won a regular season or conference tournament title in every season.
The standoff between Wade and LSU is entering its fifth week, but progress is being made to unite the two parties. Wade canceled a scheduled meeting on March 8 after the university did not meet his attorney’s demands: to hold the meeting without an NCAA representative present and to limit the scope of the questions. University leaders felt forced to suspend an employee who refused to answer questions about key matters that could eventually impact the school through potential NCAA sanctions. The NCAA has requested to be involved in all interviews on this matter, LSU general counsel Tom Skinner told SI last month. In fact, the NCAA often leads the questioning in these joint interviews, such as the ones conducted last month with LSU guard Javonte Smart, who was held out of the Vanderbilt game before being cleared by investigators to return during the NCAA tournament.
Wade’s refusal to speak in this joint investigation could be cited by the NCAA as unethical conduct and failure to cooperate, a damning sanction that could result in a show-cause penalty for the coach. Wade and LSU, while not speaking directly, have lobbed shots at each other through the media over the last four weeks. On March 13, LSU administrators issued somewhat of an ultimatum to Wade—talk or remain suspended—in a meeting with The Advocate editorial board. A day later, the coach released a statement requesting he be reinstated and calling the school’s decision “inappropriate,” criticizing the athletic department for suspending him for “exercising my constitutional rights.” In a statement to Sports Illustrated that same day, Skinner said, “In everything that’s been said by Will and his folks in the past week, not once have they denied any wrongdoing.” That remark speaks to a strained relationship.
LSU’s basketball program is in a peculiar position at a fluid period of the calendar. Players are deciding whether to turn pro, the recruiting cycle is wrapping up (the late signing period begins April 17 and extends to May 15) and the coaching market is buzzing (two SEC schools have already filled vacancies with splashy hires: Nate Oats to Alabama from Buffalo and Buzz Williams to Texas A&M from Virginia Tech). Freshman center Naz Reid became the first LSU player to declare for the NBA draft Wednesday, and other highly-touted Tigers are expected to make their decision over the coming days while their head coach remains in purgatory. LSU signed two recruits in the early signing period, but the team has room to sign at least two more. The current leader of the program, interim coach Tony Benford, is rumored to be joining Williams in College Station, though Benford denied to The Advocate that he has communicated with Williams about such a move. “We’ll keep moving forward until they let us know,” Benford told the newspaper. “They need to let us know something soon.”