Despite his name being echoed throughout the entirety of college basketball’s latest round of scandal, Will Wade survived suspension and allegation to remain the head coach of the LSU Tigers. If he wants to continue doing so, it won’t so much revolve around relationship building with new athletic director Scott Woodard as it will by giving the school no other option but to keep him.
As college basketball often shows us, a coach can only survive scandal as long as his negatives outweigh the outcries of whatever injustice he allegedly did.
For Wade, it’s a bit trickier now that a new boss is in town. He’s not Woodard’s guy. At any level of major sports, when a new boss comes into the fold, the employer usually wants to pick their own employees. With the LSU Tigers, it’s slightly more complex. There’s the scandal, thought there’s also a winning culture spread across the school’s money sports.
Still, while Woodard will push the narrative Wade needs to build “trust through action” or whatever tired trope athletic directors use when not yet ready to back or fire a head coach, there’s danger looming for Wade. The SEC is growing stronger season after season, and in a world post public accusations, he might find it increasingly difficult to hang with the likes of John Calipari, up-and-coming star Nate Oats, etc., on the recruiting trail.
Wade’s 2019 recruiting class is fine by all standards, but it’s earnestly difficult to project how it will do in a brutal league. According to 247Sports, LSU has a solid nationally ranked class (32). However, when strictly applied to their in-conference brethren, the Tigers have the seventh ranked grouping.
Furthermore, while still more than a full year away from being sincere in outlook, Wade has yet to land a single hard commitment for the 2020 recruitment cycle. Again, in the name of fairness, few programs, even the bluest of blue-bloods, have landed high school players in that cycle.
Glancing at, then speculating over the number of stars attached to recruits’ names only goes so far, though. It’s fair to wonder how the LSU Tigers will operate given the projected — but not yet cemented in stone — talent coming to the program, although Wade has proven he can win without having every McDonald’s All-American in the country on his roster.
Prior to his LSU stint, Wade won nearly 62% of his games when overseeing Chattanooga, 72% with the VCU Rams, and at his current stomping grounds is operating with a winning percentage of 68.
It’s why whatever speculative misfortunes he might face warrants coupling with the forward thinking Woodard, as the athletic director is renowned for pushing the envelope in all the right ways — a sentiment echoed by one of his former employees, Jimbo Fisher, at last week’s SEC Spring meetings.
“When your academic development, the infrastructure in which you build there, the money in which you invest in all different aspects of how a kid’s life is affected is different,” Fisher said. “Scott understood those things from the beginning when we were at LSU years ago. I think that’s one of the things he allowed us to do at A&M and one of things that attracted me there.”
For his part, Woodward already stated his goal with LSU is similar.
“Just like at A&M, my focus is going to be raising money for human capital,” Woodward explained. “I think it’s important that you get the right coaches and the right staff and the right people to support these student-athletes. The elite programs are starting to endow that stuff, the Michigans and Stanfords of the world. That’s what we need to pivot to.”
Nevertheless, none of it will matter if Wade can continue to win. As cliche as it is to say winning is a cure-all, it’s become a talking point around scandal for a reason. Rick Pitino was able to survive scandal after scandal due to his ability to bring Louisville money via massive success… until he eventually got fired for a lifetime achievement of scandal. North Carolina, and Roy Williams by extension, traversed beyond numerous public debacles, including the once headline grabbing academic fraud situation.
Examples can be listed to the point of nausea, as college basketball has forever been marred by iffy characters in supposedly precarious positions, but has moved past each without much of a scar around its figurative face. Coaches have the same luxury provided the value they bring outweighs the baggage they carry.
The 2019-20 college basketball season will be an important one for the embattled LSU coach. He’ll be forced to prove the negative conversation around him is worth it for the Tigers. The only way he can do that is by landing elite recruits and winning games.
Will Wade will need to show just how much value he brings to the table.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared on Forbes, but has been republished under the original author’s name at CBBToday thanks to the publisher-contributor agreement.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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