The slowest NCAA infractions case tied to the federal investigation of college basketball has been the one targeting LSU. It also might be the juiciest, given Will Wade’s infamous, “strong-ass offer” wiretap. Of the dozen schools caught up in the feds’ web, none has a head coach so closely tied to a potential violation.
Now there is a new layer to the drama, folding LSU football into the mix and potentially raising the stakes. The tussle between NCAA Enforcement and the school regarding football’s role in the investigation may well impact the overall severity of the case, and any sanctions that arise from it.
According to a story published Tuesday by The Advocate that cites correspondence between the NCAA and the school, Director of Enforcement Jon Duncan believes the case should be referred to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP). That’s the recently devised “off-ramp” in infractions cases, steering it outside the Committee on Infractions—a route adopted for cases involving Memphis, North Carolina State and Kansas, with others possible.
According to The Advocate, Duncan cited five factors for referring the case to the IARP in a July 15 letter. Among them: contentiousness arising from Wade’s lack of cooperation with the investigation. Duncan noted Wade’s chronic inability to produce requested phone records, saying that it took the coach 13 months to produce documented calls from two different cell phones. The NCAA made repeated requests between September 2018 and the arrival of the records in January 2020, according to The Advocate.
But another element of The Advocate story could have a greater impact on the overall tenor of the case: What becomes of recent NCAA violations pertaining to the LSU football program?
Basically, this part of the case is Kansas 2.0. In that one, the school sought in June to separate admitted football violations from the larger and more spectacular basketball allegations. Kansas wanted the football infractions to be decided by the more traditional Committee on Infractions route, independent of the ongoing basketball case.
In July, that request was denied and the entire case was tracked to the IARP. Enforcement rolled the Kansas football and basketball allegations together for a reason: It helped make a case for one of the most serious charges against the school: lack of institutional control. That’s a Level I violation, which is the most severe in the NCAA’s penalty matrix.
LSU appears to be working to avoid a similar scenario. The school has no objection to the basketball probe being diverted to the IARP, according to The Advocate, but does not want the football violations included.
Per The Advocate’s documents, LSU is trying to put the football allegations to rest quickly via summary review, which would result in agreed-upon penalties without a formal hearing. They center on three separate incidents:
- The father of offensive lineman Vadal Alexander received $180,000 in stolen money from LSU booster John Paul Funes, who admitted in 2019 that he embezzled more than half a million dollars from Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge. The money was payment from 2012–17 for what the NCAA characterized as a “no-show job,” according to The Advocate.
- Former LSU standout Odell Beckham’s cash payments to players immediately after the Tigers won the College Football Playoff championship game in January. LSU officials initially told reporters that Beckham was handing out fake money, but later retracted that assertion after quarterback Joe Burrow acknowledged in an interview that the cash was real. LSU said the payments totaled $2,000, which Duncan characterized as a Level III violation.
- An impermissible recruiting contact in January 2019 by LSU football coach Ed Orgeron. The Advocate said the school self-imposed recruiting restrictions on Orgeron.
Meanwhile, the NCAA’s case against LSU basketball crawls on. No Notice of Allegations has been filed yet, multiple sources confirmed to SI. Previously, the NCAA has submitted NOAs related to the federal probe to North Carolina State, Kansas, Louisville, USC, Oklahoma State, South Carolina and TCU. NOAs are believed to have been submitted to Creighton and Auburn, but the schools have refused to publicly acknowledge them. Alabama and Arizona remain under investigation as well.
In March 2019, Yahoo Sports reported on the existence of a federal wiretap from 2017 in which Wade tells Christian Dawkins—who was at the center of the FBI’s sting operation—that he made a “strong-ass offer” to a third party representing then-recruit Javonte Smart .
“Dude,” Wade said to Dawkins, “I went to him with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong.
“The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit,” Wade continued. “It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”
After that story published, Wade refused to cooperate with LSU’s internal investigation and was suspended. Wade later changed his mind and submitted to an interview by the school and NCAA investigators and was subsequently reinstated.
LSU renegotiated Wade's contract as part of his reinstatement. The new pact included a clause that makes it easier for LSU to fire him with cause if he or the school is charged with a Level I or Level II violation.
Wade has yet to offer a public explanation for what the “stong-ass offer” consisted of.
There has been some question among those with experience in NCAA investigative circles whether the wiretap is enough to form the basis of a formal violation charge. It was never introduced as evidence in the federal trials, and The Yahoo Sports story might not have been constituted firsthand evidence, enforcement experts told Sports Illustrated. But the airing of the wiretap on the HBO documentary, The Scheme, might provide an avenue to use it.
The documentary also contained a snippet of conversation between Wade and Dawkins in which Wade referred to paying a player “more than the (NBA) rookie minimum.” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward issued a statement after the documentary was aired, saying, “There is no change to Coach Will Wade's employment status at LSU and we will continue to cooperate with all reviews into this matter."
The only school from the federal probe that has gone through the NCAA hearing process and received a ruling thus far is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys, which had one of the least complex cases, were hit with a one-year postseason ban in early June—a penalty that shocked the school. Oklahoma State has said it will appeal.
The COVID-19 shutdown of much of the country affected the timeline for many schools under investigation, elongating the already laborious NCAA crime-and-punishment process. As it currently stands, many of the charged schools may be able to complete the 2020–21 season without sanctions—if indeed there is a 2020–21 season.