Wiedmer: Maybe Will Wade isn't who we thought he was

LSU men's basketball coach Will Wade expresses his displeasure with an official's call during the first half of the Tigers' win against Tennessee last month in Baton Rouge, La.
photo Mark Wiedmer

Will Wade, did we hardly know you?

These words are written as the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball coach begins serving an indefinite suspension at LSU for what would appear to be illegally recruiting current Tigers freshman point guard Javonte Smart.

The school suspended its second-year coach on Friday after Yahoo Sports released transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between Wade and would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins, who recently was sentenced to six months in jail for wire fraud and conspiracy charges stemming from wrongful recruiting practices.

On Saturday, LSU appeared to practice further damage control prior to its regular-season finale against visiting Vanderbilt by withholding Smart from that game, which the 10th-ranked Tigers won 80-59 to wrap up the Southeastern Conference's regular-season title as all their own.

In its release regarding Smart, the school stated: "This is done only in an abundance of caution and as a result of the lack of clarity provided regarding media reports and reported wiretaps involving head coach Will Wade."

If any three words never again will be linked to Wade, they are "an abundance of caution."

Far too many head basketball coaches at the Division I level break at least a few NCAA rules when it comes to recruiting, but few get caught because (a) they have their assistants do almost all of the dirty work, and (b) the ones who do take a less clandestine role at least have the good sense never to leave a trail.

Wade, the son of a retired private, Christian-based prep school headmaster in Nashville, surely knew better than to do any of this. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and during his brief two-year stay at UTC, Wade always seemed honorable enough to know the difference.

But even if he had no problems ignoring the NCAA's vast rules book, he should have been wiser than to have conversations with Dawkins over a cellphone that included this quote: "Dude, I went to (Smart's handler) with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong."

He even joked on another occasion about Smart being compensated more than "the (NBA) rookie minimum."

To be fair to Wade, the word "money" is apparently never overheard. So he could presumably have been talking about getting the player an elite tutor, or his current jersey number, which is No. 1. Maybe a special mattress for his dorm room. And highlight video of Javonte streamed to his parents' phones and laptops within 10 minutes of each game ending.

All of that is possible, and without any hard evidence to show that money changed hands, Wade might get off. Might, because if prosecutors and the NCAA ever needed to show a money trail, it's in this investigation of not just Wade and LSU, but most of college hoops, especially at the elite level.

Who's to say that all those head coaches supposedly in the NCAA's crosshairs over this - guys like Wade and Arizona's Sean Miller and Kansas' Bill Self - weren't merely on fishing expeditions to see what the going rate was for these talents or which schools they would need to outbid.

You can even see some really bright lawyer arguing they were just collecting evidence to turn in a rival school.

But it doesn't sound that way. Especially when the original FBI probe linked Wade and Dawkins together regarding a different prep player than Smart and this quote from Wade: "I have got to shut my door (brief delay) I can get you what you need, but it's got to work."

The player in question - 7-foot-1 Balsa Koprivica - eventually signed with Florida State.

Before UTC hired him in the spring of 2013, Wade was known in most coaching circles as the next big thing among assistant coaches. He came across as exceptionally focused and bright, almost nerdy. He hadn't played basketball so much growing up as he had feverishly watched it, attending almost every Vanderbilt game in his hometown of Nashville.

Now the SEC tournament returns there this week, and if Wade visits the Music City he'll need a ticket rather than a coaching pass to enter Bridgestone Arena. With LSU in first place entering Saturday, he was the probable SEC coach of the year, and deservedly so.

Now Wade may soon be unemployed with only himself to blame.

You hope he broke no such rules at UTC. He certainly didn't have money approaching any rookie minimum to lure talent to the Scenic City.

And he did bring in talent, enough of it to help his successor, Matt McCall, go to the NCAA tourney the year after Wade took the Virginia Commonwealth University job. But in McCall's second year, the season not going so smoothly, that group splintered, missed the tournament and generally behaved down the stretch of a difficult season the way kids of lesser character, kids who came to your school for less than noble reasons, sometimes do.

Maybe that's just a coincidence. Maybe none of this isn't quite what it seems.

Maybe, as Wade said in a statement released after his suspension: "I cannot comment at this time to media reports except to say that they do not begin to tell the full story."

But a Sports Illustrated tweet from Friday read: "Will Wade, presumably under advice of counsel, refused to discuss the issue or disclose information with LSU officials this morning, prompting his suspension."

If that's true, how can Wade not be guilty of anything?

Early Friday afternoon, a friend of mine in Nashville who knows Wade's parents well emailed me the following: "I can tell you his parents are two of the finest humans you'll ever know. Heart breaks for them."

For a lot of us who thought we knew Wade well during his time at UTC, who long have believed Wade was one of the sport's good guys, our hearts are broken, too, if these accusations become irrefutable facts.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.