Wiedmer: LSU basketball fans are angry at the wrong guy

Fans in the LSU student section wave banners and signs supporting suspended coach Will Wade during the school's men's basketball game against Vanderbilt on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, La.
photo Mark Wiedmer

The LSU men's basketball team that clinched its first Southeastern Conference regular-season championship since 2008-09 with an 80-59 shellacking of woeful Vanderbilt on Saturday night was the epitome of grace under pressure throughout its 16 victories in 18 league games.

First, the Tigers were forced to overcome the shocking loss of teammate Wayde Sims when he was senselessly murdered on Sept. 28 while coming to the aid of a friend in a late-night fight. There soon followed troubling stories last October of their head coach, Will Wade, attempting to purchase a player through would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins.

Then, once the season began they endured overtime six times in SEC play, somehow winning five of those games.

Finally, news arrived Friday that LSU athletic director Joe Alleva had decided to indefinitely suspend Wade - who began his head coaching career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga prior to the start of the 2013-14 season - a day after reports were published that Wade had been heard on FBI wiretaps discussing with Dawkins a package to secure point guard Javonte Smart, who later signed with the Tigers.

But even that wasn't the end of the bad news for LSU heading into the Vanderbilt game. On Saturday, Alleva also held Smart out of action over concerns about the wiretap transcripts, and starting center Naz Reid was also kept on the bench after taking a hard blow to the face in Wednesday's overtime win at Florida.

Yet if the LSU players have remained cool, calm and composed through all of this, their fans most definitely did not come Saturday night inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Wrongly aiming their anger and frustration at Alleva, they repeatedly booed him, and worse, on what should have been the happiest night for LSU hoops over the past 10 years.

They chanted "(Expletive) Alleva!" and "Joe Must Go!" as he walked to his seat prior to tipoff. They made up songs calling for his termination. According to ESPN, they turned a chant from "The Wizard of Oz" into a derogatory cheer against Alleva, who became LSU's athletic director in 2008.

As the game went on and the Tigers' lead grew, the crowd also held up signs proclaiming "Free Will Wade" and chanted "Free Javonte!"

What those fans failed to understand is that as pointless as this suspension may be, Alleva's actions might be the only way LSU can emerge from this with any degree of integrity in the eyes of the NCAA, which will almost assuredly severely penalize the basketball program if it's proven true that Wade paid money to sign Smart and offered money for other recruits.

This isn't to necessarily single out LSU fans as worse than the rest of their SEC counterparts when it comes to bad news regarding the misbehavior of their school's coaches and players. When Kentucky found itself overwhelmed by similar charges during the Eddie Sutton era in the late 1980s - an investigation that ultimately moved the NCAA to ban the Wildcats from television for a year and out of the NCAA tourney for two seasons - the Big Blue Nation turned its wrath on university president David Roselle and the Lexington Herald-Leader, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the scandal.

There were death threats called into the newspaper and Roselle was viewed as a traitor, even though his swift actions in removing athletic director Cliff Hagan and coach Eddie Sutton almost assuredly spared the basketball program the death penalty.

The actions of the entire LSU administration on Friday, and Alleva in particular, might similarly ensure damage control regarding the Tigers. If anything, Alleva and the LSU brass waited far too long to suspend Wade after the initial evidence against him that came to light in the October trials regarding widespread corruption. They held back at that time because Wade allegedly assured them he'd done nothing wrong.

To support that, when this newspaper questioned him about the court case during October's SEC media day, Wade said, "It's old news. It's overblown. It's nothing."

It's clearly nothing no longer.

In fact, it's almost certain to now otherwise overwhelm what should be the best SEC tournament in years when play begins Wednesday night inside Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. For not only do the Tigers - assuming the school doesn't voluntarily pull its program from the NCAA tournament before then - Tennessee and Kentucky each enter the week with a chance for a No. 1 seed when the tourney field is announced next Sunday, as many as eight SEC schools may get invitations.

But if everything becomes about what the Tigers' head coach did off the court instead of what a remarkable LSU team did on the court, that unfortunate situation will be because of Wade far more than Alleva.

Sadly, until fans of all schools understand their coaches can do as much damage by winning the wrong way as losing the right way, such stories of arrogance and stupidity will continue to soil college athletics.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.