Before They Were Rock Stars: LSU may have another one

Glenn Guilbeau
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Then-VCU coach Will Wade talks to his team in the huddle against the Dayton Flyers.

BATON ROUGE — For years from afar, Will Wade wondered about the LSU basketball program as he recruited the state while coaching around the country from 2005 through 2017.

For years from afar, Nick Saban wondered about the LSU football program as he recruited the state while coaching around the country from the 1970s through 1999. When he got the LSU job, it wasn’t his “dream job” as he actually regretted his decision briefly to leave Michigan State. But in his introductory press conference on Nov. 30, 1999, Saban called LSU “a sleeping giant” and spent the next five years waking it up.

“I don’t know if I ever said, ‘dream job,’ but I identified LSU as somewhere that you can build a consistent winner,” Wade said Wednesday at a raucous press conference at the LSU Student Union at the heart of campus in which he was introduced him as the Tigers' new basketball coach.

Wade stood with cheerleaders behind him and in front of students in a building between the Parker Agricultural Coliseum, where Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich became basketball legends in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where coach Dale Brown built a consistent, nationally relevant program with two Final Fours in the 1980s, 10 straight NCAA Tournaments through 1993 and one season out of 25 with three wins or less — his last one in 1996-97. But LSU was not a consistent power before Brown and has not been after him. Four coaches before him had seven seasons of three wins or fewer in the Southeastern Conference. The three coaches after him had five seasons of three wins or fewer in the SEC.

Wade, age 34, is the fourth coach to follow Brown. He was born seven months after Brown’s greatest team in the 1980-81 season, including players from New York City to Louisville, Kentucky, to St. Martinville — and one of the best in SEC history — finished in the Final Four at 31-5 and 17-1. And that was years before Chris Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal became national stars.

“There are certain jobs across the country,” Wade said, “that you look around and go, ‘Why?’”

As in, why not?

“As you go through coaching, you’re always looking for spots,” he said. “Why haven’t they been able to do things consistently there? Why are things a certain way? Long ago, I identified LSU as somewhere that was just an absolute sleeping giant. LSU has everything it needs to be successful. If we could just get it all going in the right direction, we could make it work. We could make it work. I’m going to be the conduit to make that happen.”

Wade has told friends over the years he saw LSU as potentially another Florida, which under workaholic, preparation-crazed, detail demon Billy Donovan — much like Wade in personality — won national championships in 2006 and ’07 and went to two other Final Fours in 2000 and 2014 before Donovan left to become an NBA head coach at Oklahoma City.


-05/10/04 --- Nick Saban and David Toms talk in the lobby of the casino before going in to an LSU fundraising dinner at the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City, La. -

-Times Photo/Shane Bevel-

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"There are a lot of similarities between here and Florida," he said Wednesday. "You don't have as many players in state, but you also don't have eight major Division I schools like there are in Florida. You start looking at it, and you go, 'Hey, this thing can be done.' I started coming down here a lot more for recruiting since I first started at Chattanooga (and would sign four Louisiana players for that school). I knew that you could build a consistent winner here. I’ve thought that for a long time. I looked at LSU as a place where they have a ton of untapped potential.”

Pettit, Maravich and O’Neal are all college and professional basketball Hall of Famers. But before and after each, there were pockets of very bad basketball. Before coach John Brady’s impressive run from the 2003-04 season through the Final Four in 2005-06, there were four losing SEC seasons and two after the Final Four.

“They’ve had pockets of great success,” Wade said. “There’s no doubt about that with the ‘80s with Coach Brown, who had just phenomenal success. Now, it’s time to build a consistent winner on a solid foundation that is going to be sustainable. Not where we have pockets. It’s going to be sustainable.”

He has much work to do. LSU was 10-12 and 2-16 last season with a school record 15 straight losses under Coach Johnny Jones. And Wade was not a head coach at either of his previous stops long enough to sustain anything. In two seasons at Tennessee-Chattanooga, he was 18-15 and 12-4 and 22-10 and 15-3 in the Southern Conference, but left a roster that finished 29-6 win with an NCAA Tournament bid and won the Southern Conference at 15-3. Then he took Virginia Commonwealth, a coaching launching pad in Richmond, to the last two NCAA Tournaments, finishing 25-11 and 14-4 for first in the Atlantic 10 and 26-9 and 14-4 for second, respectively. And he left VCU with one of its best signing classes in history, which is why it has already replaced Wade with Rice coach Mike Rhoades, a former VCU assistant, so as to try to keep that class.

“Will is as hard working, driven and detail-oriented as anyone I’ve been around,” said Texas coach Shaka Smart, whom Wade coached under at VCU when the Rams reached the 2011 Final Four.

“Will is extremely bright, smart and driven,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said as he introduced Wade, whom Alleva identified two weeks ago as the No. 3 candidate behind Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Nevada’s Eric Musselman. But he had Wade on his future list, which is something all athletic directors keep, for much longer than that, particularly since Alleva was on the NCAA Tournament selection committee the last five years.

“I got to watch coaches first hand. Through that process, Will Wade was always on my mind,” Alleva said.

And LSU was on Wade’s mind — more so than his alma mater Clemson, where he was a graduate assistant from 2005-07. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, meanwhile, has had Wade on his list, too, but Radakovich announced on Monday that he was sticking with struggling coach Brad Brownell at least for another year. The day before, Wade interviewed with Alleva and deputy athletic director Eddie Nunez in Richmond. Wade may have chosen LSU over Clemson on Monday, or he may have chosen LSU this year over Clemson next year, but at any rate, he is here. And he is locked and loaded.

“I am honored to be your coach,” Wade said, again echoing nearly exactly what Saban said 19 years ago. “My wife Lauren and I can’t wait to be a part of the Baton Rouge community. We are expecting here soon, and we are excited to have our daughter here in Baton Rouge. We are going to move quickly so that we can put roots here and really get going. I couldn’t be more excited. I look forward to meeting everybody. We are ready to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a great day to be a Tiger.”

With those cheerleaders behind him, Wade sounded like a head cheerleader — often repeating his statements … or cheers.

“It’s a new day for LSU basketball,” he said. “It’s a new day for LSU basketball. I am so excited about the opportunity to lead this program back to the top of the SEC and back to regular, consistent NCAA Tournament appearances. We have been to four Final Fours. We have been to 20 NCAA Tournaments. We have 10 SEC championships. And we are going to add to all three of those categories over our tenure here.”

It was difficult for the basketball-starved students to contain themselves as cheers erupted while Wade paused and repeated his mantra. Soon, he transformed from cheerleader to Huey Long-like politician.

“Listen to me now,” he said. “There is no option to fail. We are going to get it done. We are going to get it done. But it’s going to take everybody. It’s going to take everybody. We are going to find a way. We are going to build a constant, sustainable winner here. We are going to build something that the whole state of Louisiana can be proud of. When you get out of bed in the morning, we are going to attack the day. We are going to attack the day. We are going to be an attacking basketball team on both ends of the court.”

Soon, he was channeling Abraham Lincoln, his life coach.

“Everything that we do is going to be aggressive,” he said. “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Good things come to those who wait?’ Not true. Only the scraps from he who hustles. You have to go after it. You have to go after it. That’s Abraham Lincoln, not me.”

Lincoln is believed by some to have said, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” That worked for Dale Brown, who called one of his early teams, “The Hustlers.” And it works for Wade, who started to sound like Brown.

“We are going to absolutely empty our tanks every night,” Wade said. “When we get done playing, that thing is going to be on ‘E.’ Offensively, we are going to fly up and down the court. Defensively, we are going to be even more aggressive. You may beat us, but it’s going to be a fight.”

He was ready for a game, and so were many in the crowd. Seated at Wade's left, Alleva just sat back and smiled.

“We should be one of the top teams in the SEC and go to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis,” Alleva said.

Glenn Guilbeau covers LSU sports for the USA Today Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter at @LSUBeatTweet. Coverage of LSU and commentary by Guilbeau supported by Hebert’s Town & Country Automobile Dealer in Shreveport located at 1155 East Bert Kouns Loop. Research your next Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep or Ram at

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