Historians will remember the 2019 basketball team as a group of players with roles to resemble an ancient Greek tragedy. The Maravich Assembly Center was a stage for the polarity of magnificent feats and mournful failures. The season started with the death of 20-year-old Wayde Sims on September 28, 2018 and ended with the death of the prodigious promise of 36-year-old Will Wade on March 8. 2019.
In 151 days between the senseless murder of a player named Wayde and the revelations of self-destruction from a coach whose name is Wade, LSU packed the PMAC like the halcyon days of old and became the first Tiger team to post a 9-0 record in SEC road games.
At the close of February, Frank Williams Wade was hailed as the hottest coach in the country with Tiger partisans wondering if LSU had the mojo to keep Kentucky from hiring him in a few years. Wade had whipped the Wildcats’ John Calipari on his home floor and in the recruiting derby for Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Javonte Smart. This is the same Calipari who was spanked for infractions on his watch at Massachusetts and Memphis before migrating to a place where even Bear Bryant took a back seat when he bestowed the 1950 football national title to an ungrateful cult of basketball worshippers.
There was hope that Will Wade would rebuff offers from more prestigious locales for those of us who recall when Dale Brown turned down an opportunity to coach at UCLA and sit in the same chair once occupied by his idol, John Wooden. Brown recognized that the only role more perilous than carving a legend in uncharted territory is succeeding a giant on his own turf. It appeared that if Wade stayed, he was poised to lift round-ball stock to the zenith of 1981 when LSU went 17-1 in the SEC and 31-5 overall.
Brown kept LSU competitive with Kentucky in the 1980s, a decade that is the standard in TigerTown. Since then, the Big Blue has surpassed its conference brothers on the bayou and dominated the SEC through a parade of leaders in Lexington. Coaches named Hall, Pitino, Smith and Calipari have followed Adolph Rupp by hoisting championship trophies at the arena that bears the name of the man who built a program that twice survived scandal to endure as the best brand in the history of the NCAA.
LSU improved its league record to 16-2 and captured its first SEC basketball title in a decade with an 80-59 victory at home over Vanderbilt. The Commodores are coached by Bryce Drew, who was born in Baton Rouge 44 years ago when his dad, Homer, was an assistant to Brown. Drew is leading an honorable program in the city where Will Wade was born on Nov. 26, 1982. Following the rules got Drew a 0-18 finish in the SEC through a tortured tour of the league in his third season in Nashville.
Before the regular season finale at his birthplace, Drew noted that his father advised him to read the Book of Job. Those familiar with the Old Testament are aware that the prominent landowner lost his cattle, his servants, his children, then had excruciatingly painful sores cover his body. But Job never lost his faith.
At LSU there is a paucity of confidence in higher powers. Athletic Director Joe Alleva required a police escort to attend the net cutting celebration at game’s end. Alleva is facing the ire of students, who shouted continuously “Joe must Go” through the rout of Vandy. The No Joe crowd is an angry mob stirred by the newfound status of the program, but displaying little appreciation for logic. It was Wade who severed the relationship with the university when he declined to talk with his bosses about alleged misconduct.
We have a glimpse why highly recruited players from Connecticut and New York and another from Baton Rouge enrolled at LSU rather than venture to Rupp Arena, the monolithic monument in Blue Grass land. When it was announced that Wade was subpoenaed to appear as a witness in federal court, LSU’s brass should have discerned there was trouble in River City. The FBI appears to be doing the NCAA’s job of policing bad actors on campus fields of play. The almost overnight turnaround of the LSU program made Wade a person of interest for a government intent on cleaning up collegiate athletics.
Wade was recorded in an incriminating cell phone conversation with a rogue working on the fringe of the dark side of college sports. It is a given that most successful football and basketball coaches bend the rules while the NCAA looks the other way. Most of them protect their seven or eight figure contracts and multimillion dollar buyouts with plausible deniability. Wade’s taped comments are easy to interpret. He will never coach another game at LSU.
When John Wooden captured ten NCAA championships at Pauley Pavilion, he did not do the dirty work. That job went to a booster named Sam Gilbert. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1982 that Gilbert welcomed players to his Bel-Air home and provided funds that went for clothes, cars and abortions for players’ girlfriends.
Wade has no Sam Gilbert. He is accused of personally
spearheading an illegal enterprise from his university office. He was counseled
by attorneys to avoid providing incriminating information to supervisors that could
be used in a court of law to imperil his freedom, much less damage his future
as a strategist on the basketball court. Wade’s prepared statement says the
whole story has not been told. And he is right.
The coach has a chance to rock the college hoops world in a way more profound than he would by winning the NCAA crown. Wade may possess enough knowledge to destroy any remaining illusion that it is possible to win big in his game without being a cafeteria adherent to the rules. It is no secret that this coach viewed LSU Compliance Officer Bo Bahnsen as an adversary, not an ally.
The feds could grant Wade immunity and allow him to name names and tell the nation that college campuses are cesspools for corruption, and big-time athletics has evolved into a win at all costs proposition.
When molders of men at football and basketball factories pay for premium results, the temptation is overpowering for coaches within striking distance of the throne to keep pace with the cheaters. It takes a rock solid man to avoid the lure of disregarding codes of conduct as he competes in an occupation devoid of morality and ethics.
Some pay for their piety with their jobs while others fall prey to the seduction of success. One of those men has not only lost his position, but he has also forfeited his reputation and stymied a stampede to the pinnacle of his profession.
Those who were witness to this season over the brink are gripped by sadness rather than captivated by the crescendo of the crowd in a championship run. One life was lost in Act One of this tragedy. Another life was irreparably altered as the curtain closes on Will Wade at the PMAC.