The LSU Tigers are the champions of SEC basketball for 2018-19. For their accomplishments, they’re the No. 1 seed in this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and one of the top 16 overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Then they will go to NCAA jail. Figuratively, at least.
You see, 36-year-old Will Wade knows how to coach championship basketball, but he hasn’t exactly mastered the art of cheating. So, last week, on the eve of the Tigers claiming their first conference title in a decade, LSU Athletics Director Joe Alleva decided to suspend Wade indefinitely.
It would seem it’s only a matter of time before the suspension turns into a full-fledged firing. It’s hard to argue with that eventual outcome when the evidence seems so plain.
Wade’s voice was captured on a federal wiretap talking about paying a player to sign with the Tigers. The player, freshman and Baton Rouge native Javonte Smart, was also held out of Saturday night’s 80-59 win over Vanderbilt that clinched the regular-season championship. LSU officials made it clear that he was not suspended, but simply being withheld from playing because of “an abundance of caution.” It also didn’t hurt that the Tigers knew they didn’t need Smart to beat Vanderbilt, which just became the first team in 65 years to go winless in SEC play.
While Smart’s guilt or innocence is unclear, Wade could hardly be facing more damning evidence. On the wiretap, he’s not simply listening to someone else quote him the price it will take to sign this blue-chip prospect — he’s the one driving the conversation by complaining that the middleman involved is not carrying out the transaction with Smart and his family because the middleman wants a bigger piece of the pie for himself.
You would think LSU fans might be outraged at Wade for jeopardizing what has been a magical season for the Tigers. But you would be wrong.
Nobody plays the aggrieved victim better than LSU fans, whether they’re hating on their own athletics director for the midseason firing of national champion football coach Les Miles and the subsequent mishandling of the hiring process that led to Ed Orgeron signing a massive contract as his replacement, or James Carville, LSU’s political pundit turned crazy uncle you hoped was lost in the bayou, leading a ridiculous crusade against the Alabama-controlled SEC and NCAA for suspending star linebacker Devin White for an illegal hit last season.
In this latest case, LSU fans decided to go all-out in support of Wade despite the plain evidence against him. Numerous signs were displayed at Saturday’s game to show disgust at Alleva’s handling of the situation. There was “Joe Must Go,” “Spineless Coward Weak Alleva” and the straight-to-the-point “Fire Joe Alleva.”
Clear support for Wade also was displayed, including my favorite: “I Will Wade For You.” I’m not sure if the signmakers were referencing the Mumford and Sons song or trying for a more old-school Frank Sinatra vibe. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have the 59th Psalm in mind.
Regardless of their motivation, the wordplay was clever.
The best defense LSU fans have for Wade — and, apparently, the best defense Wade will be able to muster for himself — is that he was simply doing what all the big-time college basketball coaches are doing.
There may be some truth in that, but it doesn’t matter. Just because everyone else is speeding, that’s not a defense when you get a ticket for driving too fast. And to take the analogy a step further, do you really think Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Kansas’ Bill Self don’t have “chauffeurs” for situations just like this? I’m not saying any of those coaches are cheating, but I am saying there’s no danger of them ever actually receiving the citation from the police officer if someone in their program was going over the speed limit.
Wade, apparently, hasn’t quite figured that out yet. It’s almost certainly going to cost him his job and a future in college basketball.
As for LSU, the postseason prospects are still bright. Unless there are new revelations of cheating in the next three weeks, the Tigers are going to make a legitimate run at the Final Four. On the court, they are fun to watch and epitomize great team play.
Wade should be proud of how his team has matured on the court. But he’ll just have to be proud while watching on TV like the rest of us and coming to grips with going from being a budding star coach to the latest LSU sports martyr.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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