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They’re circling around LSU basketball coach Will Wade now.
It may not be much longer before the NCAA finally wraps up its investigation of Wade’s recruiting practices that began in the fall of 2017 along with a federal investigation of college basketball corruption in September of 2017.
Wade’s involvement went viral in March 2019 when a Yahoo story detailed an FBI wiretap of Wade discussing a “strong-ass offer” for Javonte Smart, a nationally recruited guard from Scotlandville High near Baton Rouge who played at LSU from 2018-21. He helped the Tigers win the SEC in 2019 and advance in the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and ’21.
NCAA enforcement staff visited LSU and investigated Wade’s recruiting periodically for months throughout the the fall of 2017 and have continued to do so at times ever since. Wade was interviewed over two days just last week by NCAA officials with the Complex Case Unit, according to a Sports Illustrated report on Wednesday by Pat Forde, who helped break the “strong-ass offer” story for Yahoo. An LSU basketball assistant coach is expected to be interviewed this week if he has not already been, according to Forde’s story.
The dreaded Notice of Allegations (NOA) is usually the next step after the Complex Case Unit comes in. LSU was already supposed to have received the NOA, but that has been delayed. It is coming though sooner or later, you can bet on it.
And it could lead to Wade being fired. This would mean LSU athletic director Scott Woodward could be making his second major hire next spring or sooner, on the heels of hiring a football coach to replace lame duck coach Ed Orgeron, who was fired last month but who will finish the regular season.
Orgeron’s program is also the subject of the same NCAA investigation, though not nearly as serious as that of the basketball program. He was fired for not continuing to win. LSU already self-imposed sanctions with regard to football last year when it took a bowl ban and scholarship reductions after admitting that the father of former offensive guard Vadal Alexander accepted $180,000 from a booster. Alexander signed with former LSU coach Les Miles in 2012 and played through the 2015 season.
LSU also disassociated from former wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who handed out cash to LSU players on the field after the Tigers beat Clemson for the national championship on Jan. 13, 2020 in the Superdome.
The NCAA case against Wade involves far more than one player. It involves possibly a dozen or more prospects he recruited since coming to LSU from Virginia Commonwealth in March of 2017. The case grew so large by August of 2020 that it was transferred to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), which is basically a special forces arm or SWAT team of the NCAA. And Complex Case Unit is the IARP’s muscle.
According to the NCAA Enforcement staff, “Wade arranged for, offered and/or provided impermissible payments, including cash, to at least 11 men’s basketball prospective student-athletes, their family members, individuals associated with the prospects and/or non-scholastic coaches in exchange for the prospects’ enrollment at LSU,” ESPN reported in August of 2020 just before the IARP took over the investigation.
Chicago attorney Steven Thompson, an NCAA specialist, is representing Wade. He previously represented Bruce Pearl amid an NCAA probe of his recruiting while Tennessee’s basketball coach. Pearl was fired in March of 2011 before becoming Auburn’s coach three years later.
If LSU fires Wade, it will be with cause because the NCAA will be continuing to investigate him for the most serious of infractions – Level 1 and Level 2 violations. Even if Wade is found not guilty of those violations, LSU can still fire him with cause just because he was investigated for such. A firing with cause will mean LSU will owe Wade none of the remaining $5 million on his contract, which pays him $2.5 million a year through June of 2023. And no buyout.
Wade agreed to this one-sided deal after LSU suspended him indefinitely in March of 2019 when Wade stupidly refused to cooperate with NCAA or LSU officials, who wanted to talk to him about the Yahoo story and other matters. A month later, Wade came back with his tail between his legs to get reinstated and made the significant contract concession.
If Woodward and company feel that Wade has cleaned up his recruiting act since his reinstatement, and the NCAA’s final findings are minimal, Wade could survive.
But don’t bet on it. The NCAA has a “strong-ass” case. And Woodward did not hire Wade. He inherited him from former LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who regretted that decision.
“I got some bad recommendations on that guy,” Alleva said in 2019 after he was replaced by Woodward.
Woodward has been careful to show only cursory support for Wade amid the NCAA’s probe. Woodward loves hiring coaches, particularly in football and basketball, and he’s good at it. And he knows LSU needs a fresh start in basketball, even though what Wade has put on the court has been consistently excellent. But how he gets the players remains the issue.
Other schools remain on the NCAA’s docket, such as North Carolina State, Auburn, Kansas, Louisville, Arizona and Memphis.
LSU and Wade, though, remain NCAA Enemy No. 1. This is because, amid the most corrupt college sport ever and hundreds of cheating coaches over the decades, Wade may be one of the sloppiest basketball recruiters of all time. His brash, braggadocious and candid commentary – all on tape – on his own reckless recruiting will end up burying him.
The HBO documentary, “The Scheme,” released in March of 2020 showed Wade as sinister and just plain dirty.
Finally, LSU’s clean start in basketball may be just around the corner.