We’ve seen 11 days so far of posturing, excuse-making and “public relations” in the wake of a Yahoo! Sports post containing some foul-smelling FBI wiretap transcripts in which Wade, LSU’s miracle-working basketball coach, is heard to be discussing a “strong-ass offer” to star guard Javonte Smart back in 2017 when the latter was a top recruit out of Scotlandville High School. Upon that report making its way to the internet Wade was suspended by the university and is still under suspension.
And in those 11 days there hasn’t been so much as a hint of resolution of Wade’s status at LSU. Will he return to work? Will he be fired? Will a lawsuit against LSU, which could be exceptionally messy for everyone involved, ensue?
There is a clear path forward here. What LSU is afraid of where Wade is concerned is that he could be exposed and proven as a rampant violator of NCAA rules, and LSU’s basketball program – and potentially its entire athletic department, owing to a dreaded NCAA finding of “lack of institutional control” – would be hit with debilitating sanctions. That’s the reason for the demand, upon the publication of those wiretap transcripts a week ago last Thursday, that the coach come to a meeting with LSU officials with an NCAA representative present to discuss the crisis that Yahoo! Sports piece created. Wade’s refusal to do so, which he says came on advice from his attorney, is what triggered the suspension.
But the linchpin to LSU’s position on making that demand of Wade is Smart’s status. Because after Wade was suspended, Smart and his mother were on campus for a four-hour meeting with LSU’s compliance department and an NCAA representative to discuss whether they actually received something untoward amid the “strong-ass offer” discussed by Wade on the wiretapped phone call with criminal defendant middleman Christian Dawkins, at whose April trial in New York Wade has been subpoenaed to testify. And clearly Smart and his mother were at least somewhat convincing in their denial of having received anything in violation of NCAA rules, because if they weren’t then it’s highly doubtful he would have been reinstated to play in LSU’s SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Florida this past Friday.
Smart’s reinstatement should have led to Wade’s reinstatement – or at least began setting wheels in motion to make that happen by now. A week ago Wade more or less demanded his job back, which probably wasn’t helpful under the circumstances but looks more and more reasonable by the day.
Because if LSU believes there was nothing offered or given to Smart that would make him ineligible to play, and if LSU officials are to be believed that the NCAA was in the loop with the decision to reinstate him (which is why it took so long to make that happen; Smart was reinstated Friday morning before the Florida game, a full week after his conversation with LSU), then why is it necessary to have a meeting with Wade to reinstate him? It seems inconceivable that neither Smart nor his mother would have been asked the obvious question – namely, “Did Will Wade or any other LSU representative offer you anything prohibited by NCAA rules as an inducement to sign with LSU?” If their answer was no, and that answer was convincing enough for Smart to be reinstated, then why not reinstate the coach who supposedly would have made the offer?
After all, had the Smarts taken the position that they were offered illegal inducements but turned those down and signed with LSU anyway, then LSU’s position would have had to be to reinstate Smart and fire Wade.
The answer to this seems to be in the politics of LSU and its athletic department.
We’re told that an attempt was made today to have that meeting LSU has asked of Wade. We’re also told that LSU’s compliance department pressed a demand that an NCAA representative be on hand for that meeting. This became a sticking point, and scuttled the plans for the coach and the top brass to meet – what Wade wants is an informal meeting with Athletic Director Joe Alleva and President F. King Alexander, and his perspective, we’re told, is that he’s not actually going to have to testify in this case, that the seemingly-damning remarks on the transcript released by Yahoo! Sports are selective and paint the exchange between him and Christian Dawkins (who was not a middleman for Smart, and with whom Wade maintains he’s never actually done any business other than occasionally talking shop) in a light which doesn’t reflect reality, and that this will all eventually blow over.
That’s Wade’s perspective, but he might not feel comfortable saying it with an NCAA representative in the room – because if the meeting devolves into a cross-examination involving material he might have to testify about at that trial in April, it could well put him in a dreaded perjury trap. Let’s remember that Wade was called as a witness by the defense in Dawkins’ trial, not the federal government. Criminal defense attorneys will tell you that being called as a defense witness in a federal trial puts one in the uncomfortable position of drawing scrutiny from the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office, and perjury traps are a delightfully fun means the Feds have of assailing the credibility of those defense witnesses.
Things Wade would say at this meeting about what he’s been subpoenaed to testify on therefore become sticky – he’ll get asked about the LSU meeting at the trial in New York by the federal prosecutor, and if there is any deviation between his testimony and what he says at that meeting you might see a subpoena go out to someone else who’s at the meeting to rebut his testimony. And it could well devolve from there even if the deviation is over something not central to what’s on those wiretaps. If you’re Will Wade, how comfortable are you that F. King Alexander gets called as a witness to examine whether you told the truth at a meeting with the LSU brass over how you recruited your players? That’s a real, albeit remote, possibility if he agrees to this meeting.
Which means Wade might well feel comfortable assuring LSU’s top brass informally that he hasn’t done anything to put the NCAA monster on the university’s back, but the more official that meeting is and the more comprehensive the questions and answers become, the more dangerous, legally, it could be for him to participate.
LSU hasn’t done its best possible job in facilitating the coach’s cooperation here, and we’ve been told multiple times that Wade has been at loggerheads with LSU compliance officials and others within the athletic department in the past – particularly over objections to his signing Kavell Bigby-Williams and Emmitt Williams after accusations of sexual misconduct, never proven, were made about both before their commitments to LSU. There is the distinct smell of an intradepartmental political battle wafting through some of the demand for this meeting.
But Wade isn’t blameless, either. We’re told that he refused an initial meeting with Alleva and Alexander two Fridays ago, after the Yahoo! Sports piece came out, and then changed his mind and agreed – but by the time he rethought his position the NCAA had called and requested to take part. It was, in retrospect, a missed opportunity by the coach to get the informal discussion he wanted, and he would have likely coached his team to at least one win in the SEC Tournament and potentially could have inched LSU forward into a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament this week.
Not to mention if Will Wade is reinstated as LSU’s coach, he’s recruiting players in advance of the spring signing period which begins in about four weeks, and LSU is in on two of the nation’s top 60 high school recruits who Wade would do well to get considering he’s going to lose Bigby-Williams to graduation and probably Naz Reid and Tremont Waters to the NBA Draft when the season is over. LSU has a good team set to come back as of right now (though if Wade were to go there is no guarantee that will remain true given the proclivity of transfers among college basketball players), but they’re going to need to sign some people, at least for depth if not to shore up what might be a bit of a thin front line, next season. Wade’s suspension is melting the chances of recruiting a good class, and nobody seems to be considering that.
And further, there is what’s on tap for Thursday. LSU is taking on a 14th-seeded 22-7 Yale team which looks at least somewhat dangerous in the tournament’s first round, and let’s be honest – interim head coach Tony Benford, who lasted five years as the head coach at North Texas before being let go following an 8-22 season (losing 17 of their last 19 games) in 2016-17, didn’t show much in the way of lending confidence to anyone that he can manage a successful NCAA Tournament run in that poorly-coached loss to Florida Friday. There are now lots of LSU fans quite worried that the team’s best seeding heading into the NCAA Tournament since 1981 is going to be wasted with either a first or second round loss because Wade isn’t around to coach his team.
Tuesday is therefore a moment of truth for both the coach and the administration. Wade may not like having to be called on the carpet with an NCAA representative on hand in order to be able to do his job in the NCAA Tournament, but he’s going to have to take a deep breath and put up with it. And LSU is going to have to work with him some – there are questions LSU’s compliance people and others may have that Wade is going to have to demur from answering because of that trial, and they’re going to have to agree to table those questions until after his subpoena becomes moot in the offseason.
At the end of the day, Wade is probably right about his role in that trial. After the mess the leak of those transcripts has made of his job and his program, and at this point it’s positively not resolved if any of it can be fixed to either the coach or LSU’s satisfaction, it’s difficult to see how Will Wade is going to be much of a friendly witness for Christian Dawkins’ attorneys if and when he shows up to the federal court in New York. What lawyer is going to call a witness with a grudge against his client if he doesn’t have to?
And if Will Wade doesn’t testify in that trial, nothing else on those wiretaps is likely to leak out. Things look pretty ugly for him right now, but once the trial is over Wade can tell his side of the story about what’s on them to LSU and the NCAA, and from there he’s in a similar situation to lots of others who have fallen under NCAA scrutiny – they may not believe him, but if they don’t have proof he did anything wrong they can’t hammer him or his program too harshly.
What’s more, a Will Wade who coaches this team into the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight at this year’s NCAA Tournament is a Will Wade who will have overwhelming support from the fans and boosters for sticking around as long as he wants, come what may from any investigation that might ensue. A Will Wade who sat out the tournament with a suspension because no meeting could be had is a Will Wade who quietly gets removed from his job thanks largely to office politics within the athletic department while fan dissension simmers but doesn’t explode.
And if Tony Benford coaches LSU to a loss to Yale on Thursday, regardless of what anybody thinks about Will Wade the anger at Joe Alleva and F. King Alexander is going to erupt like a volcano. This isn’t the first rodeo LSU fans have had with those two, after all – over the weekend, for example, we covered the diatribe former Board of Regents chair Richard Lipsey, who years ago helped found the Tiger Athletic Foundation, laid out demanding their firings. Lipsey isn’t alone – we understand that the TAF plane coming back from Nashville Friday night was a near riot with furious boosters seething over the Wade thing and numerous other public-relations and administrative lowlights in recent history; a repeat of that experience this Thursday night en route home from Jacksonville won’t be any better. Reports that Alexander was painting the town in Nashville after the LSU loss haven’t helped.
We’ve finally arrived at the moment in which all of the key players here are arriving at the same motivation – namely, that for everyone’s sake Will Wade needs to be coaching LSU in Jacksonville on Thursday, and what happens after that gets figured out later.
To make that happen, that meeting has to take place, and it has to take place tomorrow. It’s time to get this done. If the two sides aren’t capable of working this thing out and getting Wade back on the sidelines then maybe none of them should be in their jobs by the time LSU takes on Yale.