Who is Will Wade?

By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor

Editor’s note: This article appears in the April edition of Tiger Rag Extra, on newsstands April 15 across Baton Rouge.

Will Wade has done it all in basketball: he’s been a student manager, a graduate assistant, a full-time assistant, and a head coach.

He’s even done play-by-play.

Conversations with those who know Wade best – former employees, high school friends, and, especially, his mother – reveal LSU’s newly hired head basketball coach as a hard-working, baby-faced, blue-collar skipper with a progressive perspective on analytics and mental performance and an old-school approach to hard-nosed defense.

According to his peers, the 34-year-old Wade is a delegator, a doer, and a Doogie Howser doppelgänger who’s not afraid to take on the SEC’s top coaches, on the court or on the recruiting trail.

And, should Chris Blair need assistance on the LSU Sports Radio Network broadcast, he’s pretty handy with a microphone, too.

“ON ANOTHER LEVEL”

Jay Salato was an underclassman at Franklin Road Academy in Nashville, Tenn. when the school’s athletic director approached him with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The school was set to host the district tournament and needed a knowledgeable tandem to offer commentary on a handful of broadcasts. Salato, then a young squad member for Franklin Road hoops, signed up for color commentary.

Lead man on the call? The basketball team’s student manager, Will Wade.

“You can really tell a lot about how much someone knows about basketball hearing them commentate games,” Salato says. “He was absolutely on point with everything he was saying. I was trying my best to keep up with him.”

Wade, two years Salato’s senior, and Salato had each put a bug in his athletic director’s ear about the opportunity to do some broadcast work. When Wade got the microphone, he made full use of it.

“He probably did a lot of my job as well as the color guy,” Salato laughs. “There weren’t a lot of silent moments. He always had something to say.”

Will Wade at Clemson. Courtesy of Clemson Athletics.

Wade didn’t play high school hoops, in spite of his 6-foot-4 frame. He was a golfer by trade, but his love for basketball earned him a role as a student manager in between tee times. While some managers offer little more than free labor in the laundry room, Wade took a more active role in the program, Salato recalls.

“He was, honestly, at a lot of times, just as knowledgeable as the coach,” Salato says. “You could see a 17- or 18-year-old kid thinking about basketball at such a high level. Even though he wasn’t playing for the team, everybody had a lot of respect for him. Even the stars of the basketball team respected Will. Everyone understood he was much more than a student manager.

“Will was on another level.”

Especially when he was on the call. His energy and love for the game were, quite literally, contagious. Salato, named Vanderbilt University’s Senior of the Year in 2006, earned his M. Ed. in 2009 and is back at Franklin Road, teaching French and coaching basketball. For the latter title, he credits Wade, and their brief work as a broadcast duo, as a major source of inspiration.

“He was always thinking a play ahead,” Salato says. “Even when the mics were off, the things he would say to me about the game and about the things that were about to happen, it inspired me to think more seriously about basketball and maybe coaching one day.”

Like Salato, Wade, clearly, followed a career path to the bench rather than the booth. Salato has a theory: coaches, for the most part, are allowed to say whatever they want. Doing play-by-play requires a certain filter, and Wade, while capable of restraint, has never been one to keep obvious truths to himself.

“When you’re doing broadcasting, you’re trying not to critique the officials, you’re trying not to critique the players, and you’re trying not to second-guess the coaches,” Salato says. “But you could tell Will, Will was biting his tongue. Sometimes he may have let something slip out – ‘He should have called timeout there,’ or, ‘I can’t believe he’s not going zone after that timeout.’ At a pretty early age it was clear that was what Will wanted to do.”

Photo courtesy LSUSports.net

“DREAM JOB”

Wade’s approach to basketball is unique, because his path to the game was unique. He didn’t play the game at a high level, but he always thought it at a high level.

That’s probably why he and Greg Graber became – and remain – fast friends.

Graber’s full-time job is as Head of Middle School at the Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. On the side, he operates as a mental performance consultant to coaches and athletes. He was working with Josh Pastner at Memphis when Wade was head coach at Chattanooga. There, he had a former Tiger, Trey Draper, as a graduate assistant, and Draper mentioned Graber’s work to Wade, who was immediately interested.

“It’s funny,” Graber recalls, “when I met him the first time, [Wade] told me that since he was at a small D-1 school, he didn’t have any money to pay me, but he was really interested in what I do. I found him a very personable, charming guy. We really clicked and became friends right off the bat. So on weekends, a couple times a month, I’d drive six hours to Chattanooga and work with him for no pay.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]

“Will is one of these guys who is really forward-thinking and progressive,” Graber says. “He realizes players getting the mental edge is really going to help. He’s willing to try whatever.”

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Graber’s work focuses on de-stressing the mind using deep breathing techniques, visualization, and meditation. The key is using mindfulness to “give players a mental toolbox to work with to get them focused and to de-stress,” Graber says.

It’s outside the box, sure. Which means it’s also right up Wade’s alley.

“Will is one of these guys who is really forward-thinking and progressive,” Graber says. “He realizes players getting the mental edge is really going to help. He’s willing to try whatever.”

Graber’s techniques worked so well with Wade’s players that Wade himself signed up – and, when he inherited a larger budget at VCU, started paying him. In his two years in Richmond, Wade wore a bracelet with “breathe” inscribed on it and utilized a pre-game breathing routine to clear his mind.

That’s not all he picked up from Graber. One of Graber’s challenges to Wade’s Chattanooga team was to try a “365 streak” – to do, in Graber’s words, “something productive that was going to make them better people and build their mental discipline to do something worthwhile once a day, every day, for 365 days a year.” It could be posting an inspirational quote to social media, or reading scripture – or, in Graber’s case, running at least a mile.

Every. Single. Day.

“Will asked me what [streak] I did,” Graber recalls. “I think he was trying to call me on it a little bit. And when I told him, his response was, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life.’”

“So I find out a month later from his players that he’s doing it too.”

Graber is 36 days ahead of Wade, and both are well over 800 days into their streak. Graber was sure to remind Wade to get his miles in the Tuesday he arrived in Baton Rouge.

Wade complied. The campus lakes offered a scenic view for his first run in Baton Rouge, a place Wade has long eyed as a potential landing spot, Graber says. Graber traveled to Nassau with Wade for VCU’s clash with LSU in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and recalls Wade’s admiration for LSU’s program and tradition both before and after the game.

“He’s talked about this to me before,” says Graber. “He really wanted to be in the Southeast. Even though he’s a Clemson alum and he loves Clemson, he’s a big LSU fan and really respected LSU. I know he’s just excited about this.

“This is his dream job.”

Photo by Jeff Horne/Creative Commons

“HE’S A KILLER”

Jeff Goodman knows college basketball as well as anyone. ESPN’s leading college basketball reporter since 2013, with previous stops at USA Today, the Associated Press, and CBS Sports, Goodman understands the sport’s landscape as well as anyone.

A Boston resident, Goodman has also known Wade since Wade’s days as an assistant on Tommy Amaker’s staff at Harvard in 2007.

“[Wade] helped get things going with Tommy Amaker at Harvard,” says Goodman. “People don’t really know that, but he’s the one who kickstarted it. When Tommy Amaker took over at Harvard, it was a nothing job. Harvard was terrible in basketball. No tradition, nothing. And I’m telling you – Will Wade was the guy who really got everything going from a recruiting standpoint to make it cool to play basketball at Harvard.”

Goodman thinks the Wade-LSU match is a perfect one. A program in desperate need of an infusion of energy meets a coach bubbling over with enthusiasm.

“He has so much energy,” says Goodman. “That’s the thing you’ll see that’s completely different than Johnny Jones. He’s going to infuse a ton of energy. He doesn’t look the part. He’s got that Doogie Howser type of look to him. But don’t let it fool you. He will not back down. He’ll go after (John) Calipari if he has to, and he doesn’t care. Not intimidated.

“He still looks like he’s about 16 years old, but he’s a killer.”

Those who’ve worked with Wade confirm Goodman’s assessments. Trey Draper and Tyler Soffiantino were both graduate assistants under Wade at Chattanooga, and both recall just how relentless Wade was as a worker.

“It’s not just a show,” says Soffiantino. “He’s energetic at all times. He has unmatched work ethic.”

Soffiantino, as a new member of the staff, said he hatched a plan to get on Wade’s good side. He’d arrive early at the Chattanooga offices, before Wade’s arrival, and stay until after he left.

He just didn’t realize how early Wade woke up and how late he stayed up.

“It was a full time job just to keep pace,” Soffiantino says. “He has energy at all times.”

“He never sleeps,” adds Draper, who played at Memphis and calls Wade “the hardest working coach I’ve ever been around – it’s not even close.”

“That’s no slight to the other coaches I’ve been around,” Draper adds. “But he approaches every day with a workmanlike attitude. He’s a blue-collar guy. He’s just going to get the job done.”

One of Soffiantino’s jobs was to work with the numbers. Utilizing stats sites like KenPom.com and Group Stats (now Open Look Analytics), Wade and Soffiantino worked to find any little detail in the data that would give the Mocs an edge. He even sent Soffiantino to the Boston Celtics for training with advanced basketball data.

“He is a percentages and numbers guy,” says Soffiantino. “I think he took that on early being a young coach. He took that on more so than coaches that have been in the game a while and use the eye test more than the numbers game. He played the percentages, and look where it got him.”

Draper, who focused more on player development, picked up on Wade’s love for numbers, too.

“Coach Wade is a big numbers guy,” he recalls. “He used to always say, ‘The numbers don’t lie. Women lie, men lie, but numbers don’t.’”

As a boss, Wade was great to work for, both former GAs agree. Draper, now an assistant coach at Memphis Mitchell High School, recalls how Wade trusted him to work hands on with Chattanooga’s point guard, giving him the freedom to mentor the player as Draper saw fit.

“This is the starting point guard of a high mid-major basketball team, and Coach Wade gave me the opportunity to mentor him,” Draper recalls. “He didn’t stay on me about it. He let me do what I do and just made sure I got the job done. That will always stick with me.”

Soffiantino, himself an assistant at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., remembers Wade would often walk to the end of the bench in games to get his opinion on lineups and how their efficiencies compared to other options.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of say so in games,” Soffiantino says, “but he would come down there to the end of the bench and ask me what I thought.”

The same treatment he afforded his staff, Draper says, was enhanced for his players.

“Coach Wade’s motto is players first,” Draper says. “It’s not staff first, it’s not fans first, it’s not administration first. It’s my players first.”

Photo courtesy LSUSports.net

“Always a Student”

Wade’s rise from high school student manager to head coach at LSU might come as a surprise t some.

Not Mom.

Dr. Margaret Wade – she goes by Sissy – is a retired educator who was the headmaster at Franklin Road when Will and his brother, Jay, were growing up. She saw Will at home often; in her office, rarely. Children of school administrators often behave in the extreme in either direction. Will went the right way, says Sissy.

The consummate educator raised the consummate student.

“He was always a student of anything he did,” Dr. Wade says. “He learned a lot about it, and he always analyzed it. And he’s a leader. It was a natural tendency.”

How was he as a brother? That’s probably a better question for Jay, but in Mom’s eyes, things obviously went well enough. Sissy and her husband, Frank, traveled to Baton Rouge for Will’s introductory press conference and first day on the job, and Jay – a Notre Dame grad who works in analytics in Chicago – spent the whole day texting his parents for updates and tidbits.

“[Will] was a typical big brother,” Dr. Wade laughs. “They’d mess with each other, try to beat each other at every sport imaginable. I can’t tell you he always treated Jay with tender love and care, but today they are very close.”

Will’s wife, Lauren, is due with their first child. All that purple and gold filling up his closets these days will soon have to make room for pink, it seems.

“I’m thrilled he’s having a little girl,” Dr. Wade says. “It’s going to be great for him. He said to me, ‘I’ve only ever been around my brother.’ And I said, ‘Honey, here’s the deal: she’s going to wrap you around her little finger and never let go.’ It’s going to be good for him.”

Dr. Wade said she and her husband were ecstatic about Will’s move South. Speaking from the New Orleans Airport just before their return flight home, they described LSU and the people they encountered in Baton Rouge as “genuine, authentic, and welcoming.” They sat just off stage at Will’s opening press conference, held in the LSU Student Union and attended by hundreds of fans and students.

The crowd was impressive, Dr. Wade says, and so, too, was the coach they were there to see.

“It really is pretty crazy,” she says. “Every time I hear him speak, I go, ‘Wow. This is our son?’ He’s pretty grounded, and he doesn’t think too much of himself. I like that about him. I want him to be a great coach, but I want him to be a great man, a great husband, a great dad, and a great mentor.”

 

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