Jim Engster: A thin line between love and hate for Will Wade

Will Wade is suddenly a man without a contract at the strong-assed age of 39. If not for a barrage of allegations of NCAA infractions, Wade would be a hot ticket. Instead he is radioactive and unemployable at the highest level of “amateur” competition. He is pariah trapped in his Highland Road compound without the luxury of a $17 million buyout that football coach Ed Orgeron received for waltzing off campus under investigation for, among other things, covering for the sins of star player Derrius Guice.

LSU has determined that cheating charges are more consequential than allegations of sexual misconduct. A probe into the role of a representative of Our Lady of the Lake Hospital Foundation funneling funds to LSU football standouts continues, but it is Wade, not Orgeron, who is persona non grata at the Ole War Skule.

The rage against Wade for tipping recruits comes amid a cesspool of nefarious acts from peers in his chosen profession. The dissing of Wade is reminiscent of the crusade to punish baseball great Barry Bonds for steroid use at a time when benchwarmers were juicing up with superstars. The biggest distinction is that baseball chose to punish its greatest player while Wade was not able to evade a microscope on his program in the same way as NCAA darlings Duke and Kentucky.

Like Bonds, whose puffed-up body defied denials of pharmaceutical assistance in his epic quest for the Major League home run record, Wade has no plausible denial. That is his voice on tape boasting of an offer to a recruit. LSU President William Tate IV had little choice but to fire the fellow who posted the fastest first five years in the annuals of Tiger hoops. Wade was cast aside as a rule breaker on steroids.

Gone with Wade’s exit are a pair of 5-star recruits and every scholarship athlete remaining on his roster. Matt McMahon, the new guy in Tiger Town, starts with an entirely new cast of characters and the security of a seven-year contract. There is minimal pressure on McMahon to win immediately, but Wade does cast a large shadow. Big donors such as the ubiquitous Richard Lipsey were enamored with the embattled coach, and he managed to win as an outcast on the run from NCAA gumshoes since 2019.

Cheating in college basketball has been part of the fabric of the sport since the NCAA Tournament opened before WWII. The role of money men is so ingrained in pursuit of the brightest prep stars, bag men are essential to the success of the nation’s most celebrated teams. The NCAA hammer is far more arbitrary. Jerry Tarkanian noted that his teams at Long Beach State would travel through LAX with the UCLA team. Tarkanian’s troops were decked out in tattered jeans and t-shirts while the Bruins were glistening in their patent leather shoes and Brooks Brothers’ suits. Guess who got NCAA probation.

When Dale Brown was an assistant at Utah State in the late ’60s, he was seeking a gifted frontcourt stalwart from Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. Brown knew the address of Sidney Wicks by heart as the young coach frequently visited the impoverished kid at 1423 Ridgely Drive.

Wicks and Brown clicked and Wicks agreed to play at Utah State. When it came time to sign a National Letter of Intent, Brown found a vacant apartment at Wicks’ address. The star opted for the iconic entity a few miles away in Westwood. Wicks was the best player for UCLA between the eras of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. The Bruins were 86-4 in his three years as a varsity player with three national titles from 1969-71. Among the victories was a 133-84 rout of Pete Maravich and LSU on Dec. 23, 1969, at Pauley Pavilion.

Wicks reportedly migrated to UCLA at the same time his family relocated from the inner city to the shores of Santa Monica. It is a story that any coach who dared to challenge the Bruins on the recruiting trail during the heyday of Coach John Wooden knows well.

Wooden likely had no first-hand knowledge of the deft work done by booster Sam Gilbert, but he allowed Gilbert to become the kingmaker for a juggernaut that captured 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons from 1964-75. Sam Gilbert is a first ballot selection for the Hall of Fame of sugar daddies. He is interred at Westwood Memorial Cemetery near the graves of Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Dean Martin, Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe. Gilbert reigns as a Hollywood legend.

Forty years ago, the Los Angeles Times revealed Gilbert was affectionately called “Papa Sam” and “Papa G” by UCLA standouts, who were often guests at his Bel-Air home. He allegedly bought cars and clothes and arranged for abortions for girlfriends of the players. The exhaustive report did not uncover any collaboration of Wooden and Gilbert, who also served as agent for Wicks, Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Alcindor).

Fifteen years of substantial violations of NCAA rules resulted in UCLA receiving two years of probation. Wooden died in 2010 with his integrity intact. His Seven Point Creed was a gift from his father when the coach was in grammar school.

  1. Be true to yourself.
  2. Make each day your masterpiece.
  3. Help others.
  4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  5. Make friendship a fine art.
  6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Wooden lived modestly for 35 years after coaching his last game, a 92-85 victory over Kentucky on March 31, 1975 for the NCAA Championship at the San Diego Sports Arena.

The greatest coach never earned more than $35,000 per year and lived in a quaint apartment in Encino. “The Wizard of Westwood” could not afford to reside in the neighborhood he made famous.

Wooden was a good man in a corrupt profession. Wade is vilified as a scoundrel three years removed from the Baton Rouge business community launching a “Free Will Wade” movement. The truth is the line of demarcation for ethics among coaches is murky. Wade is the product of a religious family, the son of Frank Wade, a ruling elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville.

Unlike Wooden, who won his first championship at 53, Wade has possibly coached his last college game at 39. It is poetic justice for former LSU President King Alexander and athletic director Joe Alleva, who surrendered their jobs for suspending Wade, who declined to talk with his bosses about explosive allegations that have been corroborated.

Wade has the benefit of not being under criminal investigation, so he has the capacity to reinvent himself. He is 36 years younger than Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, a complex legend who will have his acts examined with retirement.

The best move for the latest LSU casualty is to come clean, admit errors and display humility. America believes in second acts, and Wade is a man who is not beyond redemption.

Tiger Rag is elated to unveil Tim Buckley as editor. Tim has logged more than a decade covering Louisiana sports in Lafayette and served as beat writer covering the Utah Jazz for 12 years before venturing to Cajun Country. He is a talented veteran who knows his way around a press conference and has covered prominent events across the land. I am confident you will like him.

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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