Let’s start with the basics: Will Wade cheated and he deserves to get fired. This is not an apologia for Wade. A college basketball coach’s job is to win as many games as possible with the minimum amount of negative publicity.
Good on the first part, not so good on the second. But let’s be honest with ourselves, Will Wade is not getting fired for paying players. In this post-NIL world, no one really gives a damn about players getting paid, if we ever did. He’s getting fired for being the face of Corrupt Coaches.
Will Wade is getting fired for not making more high profile friends in the media.
Somehow, LSU has become the symbol of the 2017 college recruiting scandal, centered around agent Christian Dawkins. On September 27, 2017, the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced the arrest of ten individuals, including several assistant coaches. Without peeking, which schools did they work for?
Auburn, USC, Arizona, and Oklahoma St.
In the complaint, what additional schools were mentioned by name?
Kansas, Miami, South Carolina, and Louisville.
The Wikipedia entry on the scandal names TWENTY-FIVE different schools as being involved, plus another half dozen coaches tied to different programs. That’s basically half of tournament field. Yet somehow, LSU is the symbol of the entire scandal despite not being involved in the case at the center of it all.
Back in 2020, Mark Schlabach wrote about the fallout on the scandal and pointed out only one head coach, Rick Pitino, had been fired (Sean Miller of Arizona has since be canned, for losing, not for the scandal). Only one school, Oklahoma State, had their case adjudicated, and the penalties were fairly minor considering they were named in a federal criminal case.
Now LSU is easily the school most penalized for the scandal when, again, they were not one of the schools named in the federal criminal case. But even in 2020, when Schlabach filed his story, whose photo was at the top? Will Wade. He was already the symbol.
The reason for this is three-fold. One is the most basic: the “strong ass offer” quote is genuinely amazing. While everyone else ran for the hills and gave the usual placid denials, Will Wade booted up and leaned into it. He went all in on being a bad guy, and sports needs villains.
You can’t cry about people out to get you when you’re running your mouth about it. No one else so openly dared the NCAA to do something. And as Dale Brown taught us, the “Gestapo bastards” will set up shop for years and won’t leave until they get something, anything on you. It was personal, but Wade helped make it personal.
Secondly, LSU isn’t “supposed” to be good. Before Wade arrived, LSU only had winning seasons roughly half of the time in the 25 years prior. Yeah, LSU had a long run under Dale Brown, but that fades into history more and more, and seems like a massive historical outlier. LSU hoops was terrible before Daddy Dale arrived, with the brief comets of Bob Petit and Pete Maravich making LSU competitive for a few short years. Oasis in the desert.
SMU didn’t cheat more than anyone else in the SWC, it’s just that SMU was never good before and never was good again. The NCAA hammered them because they forgot their place in the hierarchy. Look at that list of schools again: Louisville, Arizona, and Kansas are legit blue bloods of the sport. No way are they going to be the programs to take the fall.
Which leads us to the most important point, LSU is the victim of a concerted media campaign against it, while those same reporters lined up to defend the more established programs. Let’s compare Pat Forde tweets from when Wade got canned and when Pitino got the axe from Louisville:
Column: I've covered Rick Pitino for 27 years. It never should have ended this way for a coaching genius, but it did https://t.co/Y5YJ2nlDbb— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) September 28, 2017
Column: The greasy grifter Will Wade is finally gone -- and in humiliating fashion. But while LSU was enabling him for years, others were paying a price. Now it's LSU's turn. https://t.co/B5ul0uHBDc— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) March 12, 2022
Man, if only Pat Forde had ghost written Will Wade’s book and not Pitino’s.
But Forde isn’t alone. Dana O’Neil ripped into Wade on The Athletic.
She literally wrote the book on Jay Wright at Villanova. Villanova, by the way, was the school which ended up with Jahvon Quinerly, the player at the center of the FBI probe which kicked off the whole scandal. Is Nova guilty of anything? Who knows? Yahoo hasn’t dedicated a team of reporters to the national champions to dig up dirt like they did with LSU. Maybe? Probably? But they had friends who weren’t interested in that story.
Or maybe it’s as simple as Will Wade is a jerk and the media likes piling up on him because we’re more likely to write mean things about people we don’t like. The key takeaway is not that anyone is unethically protecting their guys, but that Wade didn’t invest in becoming a guy that the media wanted to defend in the first place.
Unrelated to the Dawkins scandal but college recruiting scandals in general, there is not a college basketball fan alive, save maybe Dick Vitale, who doubts that Duke paid Zion Williamson to attend to Duke. And we just spent the last month giving Coach K a well-deserved retirement tour.
And paying players goes back decades. Do a Google search on Sam Gilbert. Even the pristine John Wooden was knee deep in the muck of playing players. And good. This is a multi-billion dollar industry. Of course the players should be paid. We’re racing down the NIL highway right now to make it even easier to compensate players.
Again, Wade knew the rules. He broke them. He got caught. He gets fired. That’s how things work. But spare me the moralizing and pearl clutching. Wade’s mistake isn’t paying players, its failing to buy a damn burner phone and creating plausible deniability. It’s not building a network of friends in the media who will shill on your behalf or, failing that, will find a different shiny object for everyone to focus on rather than you.
Will Wade is that shiny object. As long as LSU is the center of the scandal, they can pretend that a court didn’t convict someone for directing bribes to Arizona and Kansas... instead, it was LSU.
LSU goes back to being irrelevant in hoops now. And the only part I’m sorry about is that we don’t get to be the bad guys anymore. The Will Wade years were fun. Being the villain was a blast. Playing by the rules, which no one remotely believes anyone is actually playing by, is a fool’s game in college hoops.
Next time, be better at cheating. Be better at the cover up. That’s the sin. Pay the players. But do it better.