Florida's flailing in league where cheaters such as Will Wade, Bruce Pearl prosper
Florida basketball is off to its worst SEC start in 40 years, and people are saying Mike White is out of his league.
He is, though probably not in the way critics have in mind.
For all his real and perceived shortcomings as a coach, I’m pretty sure of one thing. White has always run a clean program at Florida.
LSU's Will Wade, Auburn's Bruce Pearl
I’m also pretty sure Will Wade has not at LSU. And Bruce Pearl has not at Auburn.
The NCAA is also pretty sure. And if the sport’s governing body weren’t such a sclerotic mess, Wade and Pearl would currently be breaking rocks at the coaches’ version of Alcatraz.
Instead, they currently have the two best teams in the conference and visions of Final Four glory are dancing in their heads.
Meanwhile, in Gainesville, “We’ve got to get this thing going,” White said after the latest stumble.
The Gators are 0-3 in the SEC after losing 64-58 to LSU on Wednesday night. After a 7-0 start, Florida’s looking more and more like a .500 team that will be lucky to make the NCAA Tournament.
The scrutiny on White will ratchet up, and deservedly so. I’m not here to defend his inability to be Billy Donovan II. I would like to add a little perspective to what White’s been up against so far this SEC season.
The losses have been to Alabama, Auburn and LSU, three programs snared in the FBI’s big sting operation. You might not be old enough to remember that, but it was all the rage when the feds announced they’d infiltrated and busted the seamy side of college basketball in 2017.
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Blue-blood programs like Kansas, Louisville and Arizona were implicated in buying players. The scandal spawned a commission headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The 18-member group was idealistic enough to believe the idiom, “Cheaters never prosper.” Among other things, it recommended that programs caught with serious violations should be banned five years from the NCAA Tournament, and coaches who cheat should get lifetime bans.
The poster boy would be Wade. He was caught on tape saying he’d made a “strong-ass offer” to a player. NCAA investigators also said Wade arranged payments for at least 11 prospective players or their representatives.
So why is Wade still coaching?
NCAA justice moves slow
The wheels of NCAA justice have always been greased with molasses. They’ve been even slower here due to a new investigative unit that handles complex cases, the pandemic and having to wait on the FBI to finish its clean-up work.
While all that’s been going on, Wade has been reeling in recruits and charming fans in Baton Rouge. Other places, not so much.
“It makes me sick to my stomach every time we play LSU,” one SEC administrator told Sports Illustrated in 2020. “It’s revolting when I see Will Wade walk into our gym.”
That person might really need a barf bag pretty soon. Five years after the FBI’s announcement, the NCAA started handing out sentences last month.
North Carolina State received 'wrist slap'
North Carolina State had to give up two scholarships, pay a $5,000 fine and forfeit wins from the 2016-17 season.
Auburn? The NCAA categorized violations as Level 1 and cited Pearl for “failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.” This is the same Bruce Pearl who was fired at Tennessee in 2011 for lying to the NCAA about violations he committed.
The latest penalty? Pearl had to serve a meaningless two-game suspension against non-conference foes. And the NCAA accepted Auburn’s self-imposed NCAA Tournament ban last year when it wasn’t going to make the tournament anyway.
No wonder Pearl looked like O.J. Simpson after the verdict was read. Life is good when you’re 15-1, ranked No. 4 and have diplomatic immunity.
As for Wade, LSU officials have been too busy burying their heads in the sand to do anything themselves. They’ve left justice to the NCAA, which is expected to issue its ruling sometime between next month and the 2032 presidential election.
It’s hard to fathom Wade getting a mere wrist slap, but the NCAA increasingly values forgiveness over accountability. It no longer wants to punish current players and coaches for sins committed by their predecessors.
That makes sense to an extent. But Wade isn’t a predecessor. He’s the guy who made the “strong-ass offer.”
The guy who’s stonewalled investigators. The guy who’s made about $7.5 million the past three years. The guy whose team held off Florida Wednesday night to improve to 14-1.
That does not exonerate the guy he beat, though it might explain some of the exasperation White is feeling these days.
Cheaters never prosper?
He’s in the wrong league for that.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley