Despite producing more than half a dozen very problematic headlines in approximately 22 months, Will Wade remains the basketball coach at LSU. He’s like a battered South Louisiana shack that somehow keeps surviving every storm roaring in off the Gulf of Mexico. Except Wade is his own storm creator.
Even within the brass-knuckles recruiting world of the Southeastern Conference—where four basketball programs are currently under NCAA investigation—Wade is reviled by his peers as a next-level cheater. But a bad reputation and bad publicity haven’t yet pierced the Baton Rouge bubble to the point of costing him his job.
In fact, the word that was tossed around in three different Wade-related conversations Wednesday was “confident.” As in, LSU officials are confident that Wobbly Will can survive yet another swirling tempest.
The latest came Wednesday, courtesy of a document written by NCAA Director of Enforcement Jon Duncan that said his staff received information that “Mr. Wade arranged for, offered and/or provided impermissible payments, including cash payments, to at least 11 men's basketball prospective student-athletes, their family members, individuals associated with the prospects and/or non-scholastic coaches in exchange for the prospects' enrollment at LSU.”
There is a difference between receiving information and issuing formal allegations, of course. But still: 11 players. That number jumps off the screen. Especially when you consider Wade has been at LSU for only three seasons, and you consider every other blast of bad press he’s gotten in that time.
“As far as what’s out there in the public record for Will Wade, I think of Dezi Arnaz saying, ‘You’ve got some explaining to do,’ “ said Atlanta-based attorney Stu Brown, who has represented coaching clients in many NCAA infractions cases.
Wade’s past explanations have ranged from nonexistent to comically weak. Nevertheless, school officials are still propping up Wobbly Will. They seem to believe that the NCAA’s long-running (but still expanding) case against the coach will blow harmlessly out to sea.
Wade has had his phone records subpoenaed by the feds. He’s been recorded on FBI wiretaps talking in rather brazen terms about at least two players (Balsa Koprivica and Javonte Smart) with agent runner Christian Dawkins, who was making cash deals for recruits nationwide. One conversation was detailed in federal court and the second in a Yahoo Sports story. He’s refused his superiors’ order for a sit-down meeting to discuss said wiretap. He’s endured a suspension for that, and a reworked contract. He’s attempted a wildly unconvincing explanation of himself at SEC spring meetings. And then in the spring everyone got to hear the actual audio of the infamous “strong-ass offer” wiretap as part of an HBO documentary about Dawkins.
For the Spicoli van full of smoke that is engulfing Wade, LSU appears to still be asking, “Where’s the fire?” But three NCAA infractions experts who spoke with Sports Illustrated this week believe the fire is coming—for the coach and for the school.
Start with the “strong-ass offer” wiretap, which is Wade talking with Dawkins about a deal he’s attempting to make through intermediary Shannon Forman. The pertinent transcript:
Wade: “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. 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.”
Wade: “It was a [expletive] hell of a [expletive] offer. Hell of an offer.”
Wade: “Especially for a kid who is going to be a two- or three-year kid.”
Dawkins subsequently said on the documentary that Wade was “100% talking about money."
When the wiretap’s contents were only part of the Yahoo Sports story, it wasn’t tangible enough to produce an NCAA allegation. But once the tape was aired by HBO it became more useful for NCAA Enforcement.
“I think they have a much stronger claim to be able to make that case,” Brown said. “Now that we have Will Wade’s actual voice, and the person he’s talking to is saying that’s what was said.”
Said former Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager, who was a longtime member of the NCAA Committee on Infractions: “If I was sitting on the committee, I’d consider it evidence. And I think a lot of the people I worked with would also.”
Added Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, another former head of the COI: “If I were the Enforcement staff I would do [build an allegation around the audio]. It’s ridiculous to have that information out there where everyone in the free world knows about it, and not use it. Then let the coach make whatever argument he wants to about it.”
The argument appears to be that Wade was offering Forman a job as an assistant coach. In a letter written by his attorney, Steve Thompson, rebutting some of the NCAA’s claims, Thompson says, “Coach Wade discussed an offer to an individual associated with a prospect to be an assistant coach, which is completely permissible under NCAA legislation.” (Emphasis added by Thompson.)
If committee members were to believe that fanciful interpretation, there still could be compliance issues. Forman, who is in his 40s, presents virtually no credentials to be hired as high-level college assistant. A story in The Advocate in 2019 said, "Forman has coached youth basketball in Baton Rouge for several years but hasn’t been involved in any area high school programs, nor does he appear to have coached summer or travel teams for high school-aged players…” Smart characterized Forman as “my mentor” in 2019. NCAA bylaw 11.4.2 spells out the violation that seemingly would have accompanied an attempt to hire Forman.
LSU’s other primary point of contention with the NCAA at present is the attempt by Enforcement to bundle football violations with whatever allegations are made against the basketball program. LSU is fighting that in no small part to avoid what would be a higher likelihood of a Lack of Institutional Control allegation, which can bring a heavier institutional penalty.
If the wiretap or other information regarding Wade results in at least one Level I allegation, it could pair explosively with a major football violation that already has been admitted to booster John Paul Funes for funneling $180,000 in stolen money from a hospital to the father of an LSU offensive linemen from 2012-17 for what the NCAA termed a “no-show job.”
“Without a doubt, it’s better to have problems in one sport than two, in terms of Lack of Institutional Control,” Yeager said.
“Having a booster pay that much money over a long period, that’s pretty serious,” Potuto said. “Certainly a Failure to Monitor charge, and I think an Institutional Control charge, would be fair.
“Schools used to be more aggressive in not retaining coaches who have an infractions record, or a potential infractions record. That’s less and less true. It’s now more an emphasis on winning. It’s really sad.”