LSU Shouldn’t Give Up On Basketball After Firing Will Wade

Everywhere you go in Baton Rouge, they’re still talking about what happened on Saturday – namely, that head basketball coach Will Wade was summarily canned by LSU president William Tate and athletic director Scott Woodward. Wade has been dogged by allegations of recruiting violations almost from the beginning of his tenure, having been caught up in the FBI’s probe of the sleazy underworld of the shoe company/summer league/hoops recruiting circuit with his voice on tape talking about a “strong-ass offer” to then-recruit Jevonte Smart.

In retrospect there was always going to be a reckoning for Wade – not that he was engaging in inducements for recruits beyond the norm; literally everyone in college basketball has always done that and now with the new NIL regime all of this is above the table. Wade’s problem is that he was made the poster boy for the FBI investigation, and the sanctimony of the national sports media had to be served. That’s why you had Dick Vitale preening about how embarrassing Wade was, while kissing the derrieres of premier cheaters like Mike Krzyzewski at Duke or Bill Self at Kansas. Even in the SEC the idea that Wade is beyond the pale when the top three finishers in this year’s standings are teams coached by Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes and John Calipari is a joke.

There is a school of thought that LSU’s amazing run of bad luck with officials’ calls all year long in the SEC might have had some purpose to it. During the season it was easy to dismiss that as a conspiracy theory, but the letter Tate and Woodward released upon Wade’s firing seems to give it some credence…

Today, we informed Will Wade that he has been terminated for cause, pursuant to the provisions of his amended employment agreement as the Men’s Basketball Head Coach at LSU. Bill Armstrong has also been terminated as Associate Head Coach.

For more than four years, the University has patiently allowed the NCAA investigative process to unfold, jointly working with the NCAA Enforcement Staff and, subsequently, with the Complex Case Unit (CCU), to ensure the evidence collected was as thorough and fair as possible. Throughout that time, the University and its men’s basketball program have operated under an exhausting shroud of negativity.

As requested, and as required by state law, the University is releasing a redacted copy of the Notice of Allegations received from the CCU of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP). The Notice contains serious allegations, including multiple charges alleging Coach Wade’s personal involvement in—or awareness of—Level I misconduct. After receiving the Notice earlier this week, we took several days to fully evaluate it and engage in deliberate and thoughtful discussions about our next steps. We can no longer subject our University, Department of Athletics, and—most importantly—our student-athletes, to this taxing and already-lengthy process without taking action. Our responsibility to protect and promote the integrity and well-being of our entire institution and our student-athletes will always be paramount.

Notably, our decision to terminate Coach Wade and Coach Armstrong is not an acknowledgement of agreement with any of the allegations. The University will determine its positions on the allegations after an exhaustive and objective examination of the relevant facts and applicable NCAA regulations.

We will immediately initiate a national search for a new head coach. Assistant Coach Kevin Nickelberry will lead our team for the remainder of the season. We know that the LSU community will rally around our program and our student-athletes, none of whom are alleged to have been involved in any misconduct.

Per NCAA rules and procedures, we are unable to provide further comment on the IARP process, the contents of the Notice of Allegations, or today’s decision.

Sincerely,

William F. Tate IV
President

Scott Woodward
Director of Athletics

That Wade and assistant coach Bill Armstrong were sacked after making the NCAA tournament as a No. 6 seed and it’s not an admission of guilt is a curious thing to have put in that letter. One imagines the lawyers asked for that, even though it sounds ridiculous – firing Wade for cause because you’re uncomfortable with bad publicity even though you don’t think he did anything wrong would make Tate and Woodward the biggest morons in higher education.

Clearly they agree with the allegations, and clearly what’s in the NOA not only checks out with LSU’s own investigation but it also points to the fairly clear conclusion that Wade lied to the LSU brass all along about what the NCAA would find on him.

So yeah, as painful as it is, he probably couldn’t have been saved. The fact that all of the other coaches in major sports who were on hand when Woodward took the job as the athletic director have been changed out and Wade is the last to go is an indication that Scott Woodward never really had any interest in saving Will Wade to begin with.

He just couldn’t fire him before that NOA came down because Wade was a fan favorite and when Woodward’s predecessor Joe Alleva, who hired him, suspended Wade in what was an expected prequel to firing him, the fans responded with utter rage. Alleva was shortly deposed from his job and Woodward was brought in.

So fine. What was going to ultimately have to happen did, and reasonable people could differ about whether firing a coach who had just earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament before he’d have a chance to coach his team in the playoffs is the right thing to do. Frankly, if Tate and Woodward think firing Wade on Saturday as opposed to a week or two weeks later, depending on how deep a tournament run the team was able to make, will allow LSU to escape the worst of the NCAA sanction to come they’re delusional.

LSU is going to get annihilated by the NCAA. That’s pretty clear. It’s ridiculous, because Kansas, Duke and Arizona all appear to have committed worse fouls than LSU, but those are blue-blood basketball programs and LSU isn’t, so LSU gets sacrificed to the Compliance Gods. Dumping Wade before the season is over won’t change that. At best it saves the program some bad publicity which would have come if Wade were coaching with that NOA hanging over his head, but it isn’t like the publicity to come as is will be any good.

Be all of that as it may, let’s be honest about where the program is now.

First, the sanctions to come will make it impossible for a mere mortal of a coach to recruit high-level players to LSU. This program is going to have to live in the transfer portal, the JUCO ranks and with local and “underrated” high school prospects who’ll have to be developed, and that’s what the next two recruiting classes will be limited to. The next coach likely won’t be able to sell NCAA Tournament appearances for the next couple of years, as a postseason ban is likely. He’ll also have to deal with scholarship restrictions and it’s fair to expect there will be some sort of off-campus recruiting ban, and maybe some severe limitations on official visits allowed to the program.

What that means is you’ve got two choices on what to look for in the next head coach.

You can either hire a “mere mortal” of a coach, as you’d do in a normal circumstance. Meaning that you’d find a coach who’s successful at a mid-major program and who’s moving up. That’s what Wade was, and one could argue that he’s had more consistent success than any men’s basketball coach LSU’s ever hired. The problem is that a mid-major head coach, or an assistant coach for a successful program, won’t change the brand. And right now LSU basketball has a severe brand problem; going forward this is going to be a program which got caught cheating and got crushed by the NCAA in the bargain, and the functional outcome of that brand is that LSU is going to be a cellar-dweller in basketball for the foreseeable future.

You need a gigantic fan – maybe a jet engine – to blow the stink off that brand.

Which is why the other approach is the one Woodward is going to need to take. He’s got to go out and sign a monster name to replace Wade.

That’s what Woodward is known for, of course. Kim Mulkey, Jay Johnson and Brian Kelly were all at the top of their profession before he hired them, and were paid accordingly. There is little reason to believe any of their programs will do less than compete for national championships. Mulkey and Johnson are already doing it in their first seasons.

In other words, there is a track record of finding strong hands to hold the tiller of these programs. Woodward pays top-dollar, but he hires the best.

What does that look like in basketball? Someone like Scott Drew from Baylor, for example. Or Brad Underwood from Illinois. Or even someone more improbable, like Jay Wright from Villanova, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, USC’s Andy Enfield or Providence’s Ed Cooley.

Your initial reaction is probably going to be that those guys wouldn’t take the LSU job. And you’re probably right – except Woodward only needs one of them to take it. If he offers up to five or six million per year, plus a commitment to facilities upgrades even including a new arena, such an offer plus his track record of previous hires would facilitate a big hire of some coach you’d think wouldn’t be interested.

What the situation calls for is bringing in someone whose name alone changes the brand of LSU basketball and makes the NCAA sanctions to come a secondary story. Those will go by the boards after two or three years anyway, after all; the real issue is the perception of the program in the eyes of prospective recruits. Are you the program who cheated and got caught and is now trying to recover, or are you the program which jettisoned its problem-child coach and upgraded to a Lexus?

You can’t sell somebody’s assistant or a mid-major guy nobody’s heard of, unless that mid-major guy makes a Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight run this year and improbably puts himself on the map, as the Lexus who changes the narrative.

And then there’s the question of the current roster and incoming recruiting class, who are almost certainly going to scatter to the four winds without having a giant magnet of a name coming in to reel them back in even with the impending sanctions.

The choice is to hire someone who’s set up to fail, after whom you’ll hire a big name, or to just hire the big name now.

There is no reason to wait. What’s done is done where Wade is concerned. The worst sin LSU’s top management can commit right now is to be seen to give up on basketball. Put the money out and hire the men’s hoops equivalent of Mulkey, Johnson or Kelly. The return on that investment will be both immediate and long-term.

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