Opinion: Even if you hate the NCAA and amateurism, do not feel bad for LSU's Will Wade
A mere decade ago, Will Wade was a 26-year-old assistant at Harvard, a good first full-time job for an aspiring basketball coach but hardly one that would guarantee long-term success in the business, much less an eventual multi-million dollar contract in the Southeastern Conference.
In that sense, Wade was no different than thousands of other young coaches on staffs across college basketball who aspire to be the next John Calipari or Bill Self but understand both the long odds to get there and how the incentive structure works as an assistant in their profession.
Get players, get promoted, make more money. Get players, get promoted, make more money. Get players, get promoted, make more money.
LSU's decision to suspend Wade on Friday after explosive comments from an FBI wiretap were leaked to Yahoo Sports has drawn a predictable chorus of backlash from some corners based on the notion that because the NCAA’s amateurism rules are bad, Wade was justified in breaking them (if that’s what he did).
If he cheated to get players, as the language Wade used in conversations with basketball hustler Christian Dawkins suggested, who’s actually getting hurt here? As that line of argument goes, at least the players are getting what they deserve, fans of the school are happy and, heck, isn’t everyone cheating anyway?
But for all the hypocrisy and inequity within the NCAA rulebook, it is intellectually dishonest to suggest that a coach would pay players for any reason other than to enrich himself. If you take Wade’s own words from the wiretap about his wheeling and dealing at face value, he is not an unlucky martyr of a corrupt system. Rather, he is a grifter whose biggest talent was a brazen willingness to violate the rules that potentially stood between him and the millions upon millions of dollars LSU would give him if he won.
In that sense, it’s hard to look at Wade much differently than many of his peers in the profession. And it’s why the NCAA, no matter what rules it puts in place or how many resources it devotes to enforcement, cannot fundamentally change the risk-reward calculation most coaches face.
COACH SUSPENDED:LSU'S Will Wade indefinitely suspended amid FBI wiretap report
The absolute worst thing that could happen to Will Wade right now is that his college coaching career will end in disgrace at age 36, having made $7.5 million over the last four years. If you could go back in time when Wade was a 23-year-old Clemson graduate assistant and offer him a choice between that career arc or taking a chance on doing it by the book, it’s hard to imagine he’d change a thing.
That isn’t a knock on Wade’s character in a broader sense. He’s not a criminal, NCAA rules aren’t laws, and it’s hard to work up moral indignation about players and their families getting paid when the system artificially restricts their ability to trade on name, image and likeness rights.
But Wade chose to make his living in this system, under these rules. And, in fact, it is the very nature of amateurism — i.e., athletic departments making millions of dollars from football and basketball without having to pay for the labor — that allows many coaches to make exorbitant salaries in the first place.
In other words, it is impossible to remove the incentive to cheat when the ultimate reward is so great. When one Power Five coaching contract can set someone up for life, there is simply nothing threatening about the remote possibility of being caught.
So if you’re Wade starting out in a brutal profession, how do you go from an anonymous assistant at an Ivy League school to winning an SEC regular-season title in the span of a decade? It’s not because you know more than your peers about how to draw up a good out-of-bounds play.
Now, you can certainly argue Wade is a good basketball coach. But that doesn’t make him much different from hundreds of others who never got a Power Five job and the big payday that comes with it. It took Michigan’s John Beilein, who many regard as the best pure basketball coach in the sport, a decade of grinding through Division 3 and Division 2 jobs before he got a bottom-rung Division 1 job at Canisius just before his 40th birthday.
That’s not to suggest the coaching profession comes with a moral imperative to work at small schools or pay dues in a way Wade never did. But it does illustrate that the way to rise quickly through the ranks is not to be regarded as a great tactician, but rather to recruit players above your program’s typical level, as Wade did every step along the way.
At Harvard — yes, Harvard — he helped land recruiting classes that ranked in the top 25. That led him to VCU under Shaka Smart, where Wade helped recruit classes that were routinely considered among the best in the country for schools outside the power conferences. When he returned to VCU as head coach in 2015 to take over for Smart, he further brandished his credentials as a recruiter by securing a pledge from De’Riante Jenkins, a top-60 ranked player from South Carolina who could have gone to the SEC or ACC.
Not everyone was impressed. Like many young coaches who make an early mark in recruiting, Wade’s rise drew whispered skepticism from his peers, a narrative that grew louder when he went to LSU and immediately landed guard Tremont Waters, the best player out of Connecticut. He has subsequently landed highly ranked players from New Jersey and Florida, an unusual feat for a program that made the NCAA tournament just twice since 2006. So unusual, in fact, that in February 2018 — long before Wade was ever connected to the FBI investigation — Yahoo Sports reported that the NCAA enforcement staff had spent six months trying to gather information on his recruiting tactics.
Now we have Wade on wiretaps talking about a “strong-ass offer” and, according to ESPN, talking on another call with Dawkins about deals he had made for players in the past.
Wade issued a statement Friday, saying the reported wiretap comments “do not begin to tell the full story” and asking people to withhold their judgment “until the record is complete.”
We’ll see if Wade can exonerate himself. But if he can’t, if those words on the wiretaps represent how he did business, save your indignation about the rot of amateurism for the people who deserve it — not someone who cheated the system that allowed him to get rich in the first place.