PART I: THE WORKOUT
IT IS 5:45 a.m. on Tuesday, October 10, exactly one month before basketball season tips off, and Will Wade, LSU’s precocious first-year basketball coach, the newest and youngest skipper in the SEC who, somehow, looks greener than his 34 years and has been tasked with restoring a once great, recently underwhelming basketball power to its former glory, is picking up trash.
It’s small, whatever this particular item of refuse is, but Wade’s eyes hone in on it like a hawk circling a field of mice. Wade stoops, scoops, and deposits it in a trash can just outside Tiger Stadium’s weight room, and then he scans the ground for the next item in need of disposal. In Will Wade’s world, every detail matters, from the numbers in the boxscores to the litter on the ground.
Wade sweats as he cleans, and it’s not just because of the anxiety inherent in the monumental task he faces at LSU: transforming a roller-coaster program with far more downs than ups in the last quarter-century into a consistent winner, something it hasn’t been in 25 years – he was not yet two years old when Dale Brown began his streak of 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances in 1984 and was just shy of 11 when it ended. Nor is it the pressure of the $15 million LSU has invested in him to right a foundering ship and steer it through an SEC that perhaps has never been as deep or difficult to navigate. It’s not even the product of the greatest pressure Wade confronts on a daily basis: his all-consuming, unquenchable obsession with winning.
Today’s perspiration is simply biological, the product of a 3.5 mile run on a humid Louisiana fall morning, beginning at 5 a.m. from LSU’s practice facility and concluding at the weight room approximately 30 minutes later. Wade has run at least a mile daily since January 1, 2015: more than 1,000 consecutive days, through illness, jet lag, and, last season, his final one at Virginia Commonwealth, whom he led to consecutive NCAA tournaments before taking the LSU job, a broken toe suffered when he kicked a scorer’s table during a game. Routine is central to Wade’s world.
“Never bet against consistent behavior,” he says.
Wade is eternally early, and his morning run is no exception. He arrives a few minutes before five, but there’s no stretching or warming up – just a walk past the PMAC and a quick hello to the morning staff already filing in for the day. Wade greets them by name, admires their work ethic. His father, an insurance salesman, was an early riser. “Up at 3:30 or 4,” Wade says. “Every day.” He inherited the early bird gene. Wade tends to reach destinations earlier than expected, which explains why, at 34, he is an SEC head coach at an age when most are working their way up the ladder he’s already scaled. His hyper-punctuality pays other, less obvious dividends, like the time he saw someone steal a Suburban from the parking lot outside Thomas Boyd Hall. “You see some things at 5 a.m.,” he says.
Wade isn’t the only Tiger up early this morning. As he wraps up his run, strength coach Greg Goldin pulls up in his truck, music blaring and eyes bright as headlights. Like his truck, Goldin is already revving, a half a pot of coffee already consumed with half hour to kill before workouts begin. The assistant coaches are not far behind, nor are the players. Wade declared it “a new day in LSU basketball” when he was hired in March, and that day begins well before sunrise. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘Good things come to those who wait?’” Wade said at his introductory press conference in March. “Not true. Only the scraps from he who hustles.”
As Wade collects the scraps from those who litter, the effervescent Goldin goes over the day’s workouts with him. The two engage in a familiar banter practiced together since Wade was an assistant at VCU, where Goldin was a G.A. They lived on the same floor of the same building, and Wade brought Goldin to his first head coaching gig at Chattanooga, back to VCU, and now to LSU. “I hope I never have to coach a game without him,” says Wade, who prizes, among other traits, Goldin’s detailed preparedness. The day’s lifting is broken down, lift by lift, station by station, lifter by lifter, on two clipboarded sheets. He’s catered his workout to the specifics of not only prior lifts, but also to what Wade has done in practice the day before and what he’ll do today.
Mid-conversation, Goldin breaks into a grin. “You’re lucky,” Goldin says. “You get to see the 6 a.m. workout group greeting.” Almost on cue, he spots the first of LSU’s two groups of lifters groggily turning the corner of the PMAC, dragging heavy legs and eyelids toward the weight room. Without hesitation, Goldin leaps on top of a six-foot concrete pedestal, hands clapping and mouth bellowing one-liners. “If you’re currently having a bad day,” he shouts, “it’s your fault.”
The players, now grinning, are sore from yesterday’s apparently brutal practice. Wade dedicated an hour and twenty minutes of the three-hour session to 4-on-4 rebounding drills, the closest thing to armed combat college basketball practices have to offer. Before and after were sprints for insufficient effort and 30-second splits on the VersaClimbers – a full-body, $5,000 cardio machine LeBron James calls “his girlfriend” and the one piece of equipment he would train with the rest of his life – for misremembered plays. Every mistake has a consequence, and today’s consequence is head-to-toe tightness and tenderness.
It’s been seven months since Will Wade was hired, but the team is still feeling him out, and he them. He’s learning how much they can take, and they are learning exactly how much he can dish out. Only five scholarship players and two walk-ons returns from last year’s team. The rest, like Wade, are new. “If you come to our first game, you better get a program so you can figure out who’s who,” he says.
Goldin has split the new-look Tigers up into the smallest possible groupings for the morning’s workout, combing through their collective class schedules to ensure each athlete can get as much individual instruction as possible. He knows each athlete’s physiological and psychological makeup like a mechanic knows every inch of the custom car he’s poured hours into. He spends time crafting workouts, formulating meal plans, and charting heart rate data for every player from every practice. “If they are going to put in that much work,” Goldin says, “we have to put in that amount of care.” For the next two-plus hours, the Tigers grind. Coaches, too: assistant coach Greg Heiar sips coffee and runs over post drills with fellow assistant Tony Benford, who does bicep curls while he listens. Wade hops on the elliptical for another cardio session while the second group works out.
All the while, Goldin bounds and bellows, demanding perfection of every lift. He chastises one player in the first group for looking like “a sloppy soup sandwich.” He accuses another of having “a case of the womp womps.” “Today is like paying rent,” he says. “Nobody wants to pay rent. But everyone likes having a roof over their head.” He makes them take their shoes off and do barefoot walking on the outsides and insides of their feet. He puts them into a stretch called “prone cobra” and leads them through “four-way hip activation,” before four three-station rotations of intense training, using body weight, medicine balls, Olympic lifts, dumbbells, kettlebells, and resistance bands.
The results of an offseason of rent-paying are tangible. Brandon Sampson, LSU’s top returning scorer in SEC play from a season ago, has bulked up by 10 pounds; Duop Reath, LSU’s leading rebounder, by 20. Guard Skylar Mays has shed 10, burning baby fat and replacing it with lean muscle. It’s been a summer of “road games” – Goldin’s 6 a.m. surprise workouts on Fridays at unannounced locations, from the bowels of Tiger Stadium to the banks of the Mississippi River – capped off by fall’s “boot camp,” three days of 90-minute to two-hour conditioning litmus tests Mays calls “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Sampson calls “three days of hell” and Reath, oddly, calls “a lot of fun.” All agree: the degree of difficulty is unprecedented. They’ve never been pushed quite like this, and, motivated by a 10-21 season directly in the rearview mirror, they aren’t pushing back.
“People want to be pushed and they want to reach their potential,” Wade says. “If you give them a map that says this is what helps us win, this is what wins, it’s proven that it has won, they will do it, and especially when they see that they get better.”
Today, LSU has gotten better. By 8:15, every player cleared for lifting has completed his session. Despite the rigorous nature of the workout, they all seem, oddly enough, more energized than when they started. Perhaps it’s post-workout endorphins or their circadian rhythms have finally caught up. Maybe Goldin’s enthusiasm is contagious. Or maybe it’s the satisfaction that comes with knowing the rent has been paid – no matter how painful paying it might have been. They leave for showers before class, their feet falling on a sidewalk free of litter.
PART II: THE OFFICE
WANT TO DRIVE a coach crazy? Chain him to a desk.
Will Wade is no exception. If he could, Wade would probably spend all of his on-campus time as close to the gym as possible. For now, though, he’s physically constrained. LSU’s $15 million practice facility, opened in 2010, has no office for coaches. There’s only a locker room with a couch and a TV tray, which Wade will sometimes utilize when time is short. After most morning workouts, however, he showers, then makes the short trek in his Tahoe down North Stadium drive, dodging fearless jaywalkers before settling into his office on the third floor of the LSU Athletic Administration building.
There to greet him is administrative assistant Brittany Carvalhido, the first visitor of the morning. She and Wade begin finalizing his fall speaking schedule, which has been almost presidential in its nature since his hire in the spring. Wade hasn’t turned down many speaking opportunities, if any. Fraternities, sororities, men’s clubs, alumni events, sports administration classes, work safety programs: all, and more, have been stops on his one-man offseason tour to promote a program in dire need of promotion.
But November is around the corner, and Wade’s schedule is congested with practices, film sessions, workouts, recruiting, and other program-building tasks, leaving less time for public appearances. He’s going to have to start saying no, he knows. “You’ve still got a lot of people who want to hear you,” Carvalhido says. “Just wait’ll we lose a couple games,” Wade cracks back.
Wade hasn’t lost many games in his young career. This year projects to be the exception. He’s 91-45 through four seasons, and each season has seen him improve on the win total of the previous, culminating in a 26-9 record and NCAA Tournament appearance last season at VCU, his second straight trip to to the dance. But he now inherits a 10-21 team that won two SEC games, lost a program-record 15 games in a row, and was picked by the media to finish last in the SEC this season.
He knew what he was getting into, and still he had no hesitation taking the job. Three days after VCU’s second round loss to St. Mary’s in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and former associate AD Eddie Nunez, flew to Virginia to interview Wade for the LSU vacancy. Alleva was already familiar with Wade’s work, having served five years on the NCAA Tournament committee, and Nunez, who played under Billy Donovan at Florida and is now the athletic director at New Mexico, is well-connected among college basketball coaching circles. “When we left,” Nunez says, “I had goosebumps. I turned to Joe, and I said, ‘Joe, everything about that guy – his demeanor, his mannerisms, the way he talks – everything reminds me of Billy Donovan.”
Like his ascension into the college coaching ranks, Wade’s move to Baton Rouge was rapid. LSU interviewed him Sunday, offered him Monday, and flew him in Tuesday. “I was on the phone with a recruit’s dad when Joe called on Monday night,” Wade recalls. “I was in my office, still working. I don’t know what LSU’s going to do at that point. I click over to Joe and I say, ‘Joe, I’ll call you back as soon as I get off.’ I’m trying to rush the dad off the phone so I can get to Joe. I end up talking to him for another five minutes, and I call Joe back, and he asked, ‘Well, is the recruit good enough to play for LSU?’”
A couple days later, Alleva handed Wade a six-year, $15 million deal, a huge bet that Wade could be the next Donovan: a young, up-and-coming coach with the enthusiasm and work-ethic to build a basketball powerhouse in the shadows of a football giant. “I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t do here what Florida’s done with their program,” Wade says. “There’s no difference in what we have and what Florida has. It’s on us to get the job done.” Donovan was 28 when he got his first head coaching job; Wade, 30. Unlike Donovan, however, Wade didn’t play college basketball. He was a golfer in high school and a manager on the basketball team at Franklin Road Academy in Nashville who decided to go to Clemson because all of his classmates wanted to go to Auburn, and he just had to be different.
At Clemson, he landed in Oliver Purnell’s program as a manager, hoping to absorb enough basketball knowledge to parlay four-years of undergraduate work into a job as a high school teacher and basketball coach. He student taught World Geography, and he ran Purnell’s summer camps – so well, in fact, that Purnell asked him to stick around beyond graduation as a G.A. for two additional years. After the first year, Clemson’s director of operations left, and Purnell passed on a host of more experienced candidates to give the 24-year-old Wade a crack. “He could have hired 150 different people,” Wade says. “But he hired me as the director of operations. From there I went off. But I owe everything to that one move. I had zero business getting the job.”
If Alleva was gambling on Wade, Wade was also gambling on LSU. The program has had just six winning seasons in conference play in the last 24. Compared to VCU and its seven-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, Wade was taking a step backward in stability. But he knew LSU’s history: four Final Fours, a decade of regular NCAA tournament appearances under Brown. He knew it could be done. It just required the right tools, and the person to wield them. “At VCU, you were just trying to maintain something,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun to build something than maintain something.”
LSU is as much a top-down rebuild as it is bottom-up. Most of Wade’s office hours focus on both. He is not just re-laying the foundation by overhauling the program’s culture and infusing it with talent on the recruiting trail; he’s also pushing LSU’s fans, boosters, and administration to invest every resource they can into the effort. His office overlooks the 55-year old PMAC, its dingy roof, desperately in need of a good pressure washing, blurred by the shades drawn down in his windows.
“We certainly have some infrastructure things we’ve got to work on,” he said earlier this season at a press conference. “There’s some real strengths but there’s some stuff we’ve got to get up to par with other folks. Our administration knows how I feel about what I think we need to continue to move forward. There obviously needs to be some work done on our arena here. There needs to be some work done on our practice facility here. There needs to be some work done on some of the nuts and bolts of how the program functions. I’ve had candid discussions about what I feel needs to happen, and they’ve been very receptive and open. I think we’ll be able to move forward on some things, if we want to be a championship level program, which I think we all want to do.
“We didn’t come here to get participation trophies.”
Those are long-term concerns, though, and Wade has more pertinent matters to attend to at the moment. After he and Carvalhido hammer out his speaking schedule, he’s on the phone. He calls Heiar to finalize the day’s practice agenda, a 15-minute deliberation on the bones of the sessions to come. He dials Dr. Joel Fish, a Philadelphia-based sports psychologist Wade swears by. They speak twice daily during the season, and every decision Wade makes, from who to take to dinner to how to pull more effort out of a particular player, he runs by Fish.
When the current roster is cared for, Wade turns to the future. He and his staff head into an off-the-record, hour-long 11 a.m. meeting, where they will discuss, among other topics, three key recruits they’ll host on campus over the weekend. (Editor’s note: NCAA regulations prohibit coaches from speaking to the media about prospective student-athletes until they have signed their letters of intent.) Outside of the meeting room, the work goes on. Carvalhido processes expense reports from a West Coast recruiting trip assistant Bill Armstrong’s just returned from. Down the hall, student manager Dillon McGowan, encouraged by a photoshopped poster of Goldin posing in Uncle Sam’s famous “I Want You” poster, breaks down clips of Blake Griffin for a highlight tape Wade will show recruits. The message: this is how we will utilize you. Wade may not have played at a high level, but he recruits like a pro. “People care if you win and can develop,” he says. “That’s all they care about: how are you going to take me from here to there? Do you have a plan to get me from where I am now to where I want to go? And does that plan align?”
By the time Wade leaves the office to head back to the gym, nearly every step the weekend’s visitors will take is accounted for, an investment of time and energy that will pay off. One visitor , four-star forward Darius Days, will, three weeks later, commit to LSU, joining five-star big man Nazreon Reid and Louisiana’s top-ranked player, combo guard Javonte Smart, to give the Tigers the No. 3 ranked class in the country for 2018.
Wade’s recruiting is far from finished, though. Set aside his 2019 class: if he wants to keep landing five-stars, he’s going to have to convince fans to show up, too. He left VCU’s 99-game sellout streak in Richmond for Baton Rouge, where basketball attendance dropped 38 percent in 2016-17. As he drives back to the PMAC, sipping a smoothie and thinking about practice, he passes under the giant shadow of Tiger Stadium, its specter a reminder that he’s no longer in basketball country. “VCU is a big-time basketball place,” he says, “because they’ve won. I’ve learned this, and I haven’t been here long: if they’re wearing purple and gold and they’re keeping score, people care. Especially if you’re winning. I don’t care if they’re playing checkers. They care. People expect to win. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser. When you win, people come.”
“CAN YOU PLEASE start it over from a clean slate?”
Tremont Waters doesn’t like messes. LSU’s silky-smooth freshman point guard, a top-40 recruit Wade plucked from beneath the nose of a half-dozen basketball blue bloods this spring, stands before a dry erase board in the Tigers’ film room, wishing it possessed the same clarity he has on the court, where cutters arrive in space just as his crisp passes meet their hands, where defenders lean and open crevices he gladly springs into for uncontested jumpers that find net, and only net. Instead, this board is full of zigs and zags, intersecting lines and half-erased numbers, the scribble-scratch of a mad scientist at his maddest, and next to it is a coach with crossed arms and a creased forehead, holding a marker and asking him who sets the middle flat back and who goes to the corner and who clears out and whether he’s supposed to attack the one-man side or the two-man side and why.
Waters has answers. Not all of them are right. He has questions, too, and suggestions for the writer watching quietly in the corner. “Call this part of the story, ‘Point guard doesn’t know the plays,’” he jokes.
It’s hard not to sympathize with his plight. Waters, an 18-year-old in his first semester of college, a thousand miles away from his home in Connecticut, who could, like Wade, pass for younger, has spent all morning in the classroom, but the studying has only just started. Like most freshmen, he’s fighting just to tread water. Calculus is a breeze compared to Wade’s playbook.
So is, it seems, pre-med. Joining Waters for today’s pre-practice playbook cram session is Mays, dressed in practice gear and sweating. Mays, who Wade calls LSU’s hardest and most consistent worker, was in the gym getting up shots when he saw Waters on his way to the film room when, after glancing at the VersaClimbers lining the wall, he decided he, too, could benefit from additional study. Mays boasts an impossibly high 4.2 GPA and aspires to be a doctor when his basketball days are done, but even he has trouble keeping up when Wade starts doodling on the board.
“Yeah,” adds Mays. “I don’t know them from the 1.”
“You don’t know them from the 2 either right now,” Wade quips, grinning.
For 40 minutes, Wade and Waters will toss the marker back and forth, running through set after set and counter after counter, as Mays sits and observes and, occasionally, drops hints when Waters struggles. He may be a 2 now, but he’s happy to assist his protege at point guard.
Truth is, both players need plenty of assistance from their head coach, whose playbook is unusually complex – for a basketball team, that is. “We got more damn plays than the football team,” Waters jokes. His instincts good. There is a flavor of gridiron to Wade’s schemes, a carryover from his days as a G.A. “When I worked at Clemson,” he says, “our coach, Oliver Purnell, called it nomenclature. That’s what all the signals are. He was big into nomenclature. So he would go to the football staff – you know how they have all those guys signaling in a hundred miles an hour? – he’d go over there and get all their signs, get them to explain them, and then he’d bring the signs back.” Waters’ eyes go round as pancakes, the realization setting in that he’ll not only have to learn all the plays, but also their corresponding hand signals. The freshman learning curve just got even steeper.
It comes with the territory, Waters knows. A former Georgetown signee, he became college basketball’s most wanted free agent when the Hoyas fired John Thompson III in the spring and granted the four-star point guard his release. He was the highest-ranked unsigned player in the country, and LSU landed him, in no small part, because of the detail-oriented approach Wade brought to the table. “After I de-committed from Georgetown, I looked at Coach Wade’s coaching style, what he did at VCU, Chattanooga,” Waters says. “I liked how he studied the game. He doesn’t just look at plays and have you run things that everyone runs. He knows his P’s and Q’s.” Waters is still learning those P’s and Q’s, and the X’s and O’s too. Wade hands him a marker and tells him to draw “Detroit.”
“I pass here,” Waters says, doodling. “Something happens over here. We exchange.”
“What happens over there?” Wade asks.
“Something,” Waters laughs.
“You’re the point guard,” Wade snaps. “You gotta know what everyone’s doing on the court. What if I’m the coach, and I just said, ‘I’m just worried about where to stand on the sidelines?’”
Eventually, Waters’ memory returns. He draws the play perfectly, and the next dozen or so come to him with little prompting. Mays soaks it all in, then heads to the locker room to get dressed for practice.
“It’s going to be showtime at the Apollo in about 45 minutes here,” Wade says. If the players can’t run through the plays in practice, it’s back to the VersaClimber. Waters rubs a crick in his neck, courtesy of yesterday’s punishment, and checks the clock.
“Can you go through them again?” Waters asks.
“Which ones?” Wade responds.
“All of them. You can’t be too sure.”
PART 4: THE PRACTICE
The whistle cuts through Nelson Hernandez’s ear like a knife. “Aw, hell,” he mutters, and promptly falls to the floor.
LSU is 30 minutes into practice, and everyone in the gym is now in a full plank: toes and elbows and nothing else touching the floor, backs flat, abdominals engaged, curses muttered.
Everyone means everyone: Hernandez, LSU’s director of operations, who left a conversation mid-sentence to assume his current position; Carvalhido, who stopped by after YogaLates to catch a few minutes of practice and received an unforeseen extra core workout; former Tiger great turned director of player development Tasmin Mitchell; every manager, assistant coach, player, and otherwise affiliated member of the program; and, of course, Will Wade, whistle in mouth, looking angry as a cat in a corner.
Pretty much anything can trigger Wade’s rage in practice, but a surefire way to see steam pour out of his ears is to walk between stations during individuals. That draws a whistle and a corresponding core workout of indeterminate length. Wade only believes in doing things two ways: “The right way,” he says, “or again.” If a third descriptor could be added, it would be, based on the number of torsos parallel to the floor, “together.” After 15 seconds or so, the whistle blows again. The players, much to Hernandez’s relief, sprint to their stations.
Welcome to a Will Wade practice, complete with collective punishment, balloon-adorned walls, and, sometimes, language unsuitable for children.
Before the madness, though, comes meditation. The Tigers spend three minutes before every practice in a dark room, running through breathing exercises designed by the team’s mental performance consultant, Greg Graber, to pull them into a state of awareness. Many of the players, and Wade himself, wear purple bracelets with “BREATHE” written in gold text, tactile reminders that mindfulness is milliseconds away. Goldin greets them at midcourt for a warm-up, preceded by team shoe-tying, an extension of the meditation. The objective is to create single-mindedness, what performance experts would call “group flow” or “being in the zone.” Their focus, as they gaze at their feet, is on their next step, in both a figurative and literal sense.
The Zen doesn’t last for long, at least not externally. The silence stops when the laces are tied. After that, it’s a two-hour audial assault on the ears: whistles blowing, coaches screaming, shoes squeaking, and balloons popping. Before each practice, managers tape 10 balloons to the wall of the practice facility, one for each turnover Wade permits his team for the entire practice. Every turnover results in a popped balloon. When the balloons run out, players run sprints.
Players are talking, too. They’d better: After every practice, Wade compiles “talk rankings,” which rates players from best to worst on how much they communicated in practice that day. The top three are safe. The rest – you guessed it – run.
Everybody has a job. Goldin, on the sideline, switches between eyeing his iPad, which is connected to a strap on every player’s chest measuring heart rate, steps taken, and other detailed biometric information, and manning consequence corner, where players who catch a coach’s ire are sent to hold bricks over their heads for not having hands up on defense, or to climb 95 feet in 30 seconds on the VersaClimber when they don’t sprint to the right spot on the floor. Managers chart, towel up sweaty spots, serve as extra bodies when needed in drills, feed shooters, bash post players with pads, keep score, and wave long sticks in shooters’ faces to feign defenders’ arms.
During individual drills, Heiar and Armstrong work with the guards, while Benford instructs the bigs. Wade has always coached bigs, dating back to his days as an assistant, but trusts Benford – a veteran assistant and former head coach at North Texas – so much he’s finally relinquished it. Heiar is so precise and innovative with his guard work – players toss tennis balls in the air with one hand while dribbling with the other – that Wade, for really the first time in his career, can be less hands on and take a broader view during this portion of practice.
Most of the session focuses, however, on defense – and with good reason. LSU couldn’t guard its shadow in 2016-17, finishing, per Wade’s research, as the second-worst in-conference defense in all of college basketball since 2002. There were, of course, schematic issues Wade is still ironing out. Closeouts were imprecise. Passing lanes were un-denied. Rotations were non-existent. Bad habits were rampant. Most of Wade’s LSU practices are designed to fix those flaws, starting from the individual and building to the collective. Players guard each other one-on-one, full court, coaches demanding stops of the defenders every trip. Soon, they’re drilling outnumbered defenses, four attackers taking on three defenders who must get three consecutive stops to get off the floor.
There are also cultural flaws, though, that led to LSU’s inability to get stops. At their first team meeting after his hiring, Wade jumped the players for their attire – half were not wearing LSU team gear – saying it was no wonder his VCU squad had whipped the Tigers in the Bahamas in 2016. “The first drill we ran here, guys didn’t touch the lines,” Wade says. “We ran it over and over and over and over again. And over again.” Little things matter in a big way to Wade, who assigns each of his assistants a single task in practice. One watches sprinting. One watches offensive rebounding. One watches floor balance. Heiar, dissatisfied with the effort of freshman Galen Alexander, sends him to Goldin’s corner. “Make him repeat the word ‘compete’ 100 times in a row before he comes back,” he says. Alexander, just back from a knee injury, comes back into a five-on-five drill and promptly scores seven points and steals two lazy passes. Pop! Pop! go the turnover balloons.
Wade’s practices are both thoroughly planned and adjusted on the fly. It’s the consequence of accountability. If a drill isn’t done to his liking, he will do it again, veering from the schedule. Everything is charted and accounted for – from number of deflections to how many rips, pins, swims, or spins offensive rebounders execute in drills – crunched and calculated and converted into actionable plans. The drills themselves, minus Heiar’s ball-handling workouts, are mostly standard fare, in basketball terms. “We talk about blue collar, gold standard,” Wade says. “We’re going to work. If you come to our practice, you’re not going to see anything crazy. It’s nothing over the top or crazy. We just do all the little things well.”
The players notice the difference. They embrace it. Losing 15 games in a row will open one’s mind to change. Meditation. Shoe-tying. Versa-Climbing. Tennis ball-tossing. All are worth trying or enduring and are preferable to losing. “We know what we went through last year,” says Mays. “We all want to win. Coach is implementing a winning attitude. Everything we do is about winning. Everything is competitive.”
What little offense LSU works on is choppy. The sets Waters and Mays pored over earlier trip up everyone, including them. It takes a while for the team to run through them all, but when they click, it’s evident why Wade’s playbook is so thick. If the first option is taken away, says Mays, there’s a second option. If the second option isn’t there, there’s a third option. Every outcome is accounted for.
Practice ends with every player and coach touching knuckles. Bombastic as he can be when the clock is running, Wade can be downright tender with his players when the setting calls for it. They joke easily. He pulls them close when he talks to them one-on-one, whispers in their ears. He or a staff member checks in with their families, every week. He eats dinner with them, knows when they have quizzes and papers due, and puts his hand on their shoulders when they pass by. “We love them hard,” he says, “and we coach them hard.”
Wade’s thinking isn’t unique. He’s not the only coach who cares, and he’s certainly not the only coach who wants practices to be more difficult than games. But he demands as much of himself as he does his players, and they recognize the equilibrium and the payoff.
“If you practice tough, and you live your life tough, you’re going to be tough when the lights come on,” he says. “You can’t be something different when the lights come on than what your daily habits are.”
Practice closes, and Wade heads to the showers, but his day is long from finished. This one, like most, started early and will end late. Before it’s done, he’ll dine with a handful of players, dig into practice film, and outline the next day’s schedule. He’ll sleep little, rise early, and hit the ground running again tomorrow, one day closer to the lights coming on, for the first time, in the Will Wade era at LSU.
Wade is ready for those lights, no matter what they may reveal. His first year at LSU could very well be the most difficult of his young head coaching career. His teams at Chattanooga and VCU never finished worse than second in conference play, and while it’s difficult to pinpoint where the Tigers will place in his debut season, the media picked LSU 14th of 14 teams in an upstart SEC.
He’s equal parts realist and idealist, shuffling between the two as needed. He figures it will take three years to truly contend for an SEC title, and this year he has an overhauled roster without its leading scorer from a season ago. But he’s also impatient. He wants to win now, and he wants to win later, too.
“This is just how I am,” Wade says. “I’m a little bit of a dreamer. I’m in the Superdome for the first (football) game with BYU. There’s 50,000 LSU folks in there. I’m thinking to myself, ‘You know, the Final Four is here in 2021. It’d be nice to be back.’ How cool would that be? Just that one thing would change the perception. We have 50,000 or 60,000 LSU fans there for the Final Four. And everybody would go, ‘Man, those people really care about basketball.’”
Wade’s right. A Final Four berth would change the entire perception of LSU Basketball. Particularly one in New Orleans. It would restore the program to its former glory, and set the stage for an even brighter future.
He’s wrong, too, though. The Final Four comes to the Big Easy in 2022, not 2021. Wade’s a year ahead of himself, and yet of course, even his mistake suits him. He’s made lifetime habit of being early, second only to his habit of winning basketball games. Time will tell if he’s kicked that habit or not. If you ever catch him picking up trash after his morning run, though, he’d be more than happy to share his favorite maxim with you:
Never bet against consistent behavior.