LSU coach Will Wade evades questions about federal wiretaps, 'strong-ass' offers

LSU head coach Will Wade missed the SEC conference tournament and NCAA tournament after he refused to meet with school officials in early March. (AP)
LSU head coach Will Wade missed the SEC conference tournament and NCAA tournament after he was suspended on March 9 for refusing to meet with school officials. (AP)

DESTIN, Fla. — “That’s a good question,” Will Wade said, with an incongruous smile on his face.

Wade then proceeded to not answer said question. And LSU seems perfectly fine with enabling its men’s basketball coach as he performs a weak charade that evades public accountability.

If there were a good answer to that good question, the public certainly would have heard it by now.

Tuesday was the first time Wade has faced reporters since March 7, and this was the question I asked him here at Southeastern Conference spring meetings: “Can you explain the ‘strong-ass offer’ to Javonte Smart?” Yahoo Sports reported the contents of an FBI wiretap from a 2017 conversation between Wade and aspiring agent Christian Dawkins, who has since been convicted of felonies in two separate federal trials. On the wiretap, Wade expressed frustration that a “strong-ass offer” made to Smart’s family had not yet been accepted by a third party involved in the recruitment.

“The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit,” Wade said on the wiretap. “It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

Eighty-two days later, Will Wade still isn’t offering an explanation for those comments. A believable answer that doesn’t paint Wade as a brazen NCAA rule violator — should one exist — would help restore any credibility he could hope to have. But Wade isn’t offering it now, or anytime in the foreseeable future.

Wade says he addressed the wiretap allegations in an April meeting with LSU officials and NCAA investigators — a meeting he originally refused to have, leading to a lengthy suspension. After the meeting, the school reinstated Wade — albeit with a modified contract that leaves him with diminished job security.

So this bizarre kabuki dance continues. Wade has his job, and even managed to land a five-star recruit last week. Yet he’s still immersed in evasive maneuvers.

I asked whether the LSU fan base and general public were owed an explanation for the wiretapped call Yahoo Sports reported in March. Wade said he “can’t get into the specifics of everything.”

“Eventually, as we move forward from this, I want to get a point where we have full disclosure,” Wade said. “… We’re not at that point right now.”

This all sounds a bit like Reggie Bush 13 years ago, when Yahoo Sports reported that the running back received a rather handsome array of impermissible benefits while at USC. Bush said at the time, “I know what the truth is, like I said from day one. Once the smoke clears, everybody's going to see we did nothing wrong."

The smoke eventually cleared, and Bush was busted. His Heisman Trophy wound up vacated and USC was hit with major sanctions.

“Full disclosure” sounds good at a podium, but the follow through can be problematic.

The LSU student section waves signs and banners supporting embattled LSU head coach Will Wade in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
LSU students wave signs and banners supporting embattled head coach Will Wade. (AP File Photo/Bill Feig)

Wade did offer one concrete answer related to his multiple appearances on FBI wiretaps that were entered into evidence at the two federal trials of bribery schemes involving college basketball assistant coaches. In the second trial, former Arizona coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson was heard on one wiretap — entered into court on April 29 — saying that Wade had offered him a job in an effort to land New Jersey big man Naz Reid. (LSU did sign Reid and he was a key member of the 2018-19 team before turning pro after one season.)

Richardson said that Wade told him, “Look, there’s a deal in place, I got $300,000 for him.” According to the recording, Richardson said he told Wade in response: "Give me half and I'll make sure the kid goes there."

Tuesday, Wade characterized Richardson’s claim as “absolutely false. It did not happen.”

But when asked multiple times whether the “strong-ass offer” comments he made on March 7 were accurate, Wade ducked and dodged — but never denied.

All told, Wade’s 16 minutes at a podium here only served to make LSU look more foolish, not less. If that’s the best the guy can do in terms of reassuring everyone that he’s done his job cleanly, he isn’t giving the school much to stand behind.

But this stance is nothing new. It doesn’t appear that LSU has ever been very inquisitive about Wade’s extraordinary recruiting prowess after getting the job in the spring of 2017.

A Yahoo Sports Freedom of Information Act request for Wade’s phone records from his first seven months on the job showed that he made just 13 calls in that time on his LSU-issued cell phone — a laughably low number. Clearly, he was conducting business — quite likely including the calls that were wiretapped — on a personal phone.

LSU, despite being charged with compliance oversight of its coaches, said it had “no documents” pertaining to Wade’s use of non-LSU phones. If the school ever had any concern (or even mere curiosity) regarding his extremely sparse use of the phone it issued to him, there is no evidence of it.

While Wade managed to navigate through his press conference here by avoiding direct questions, there is significant curiosity about how he will be greeted when the SEC’s basketball coaches meet behind closed doors. This league is by no means angelic, but Wade’s recruiting tactics would be construed as outrageous even by SEC standards.

In his press conference, Wade may have offered a sneak preview of how he was going to handle that room, saying, “I’ve come off as a little bit brash, to be honest. … That’s my fault.”

As the NCAA continues to move forward with its investigations in the aftermath of the federal trials, Wade’s status could depend directly on how much the Indy enforcement staff can pin on him. There are additional FBI wiretaps with Wade on them that have not been released, but there is no guarantee they will never see the light of day. New LSU athletic director Scott Woodward, who was hired only last month, faces the prospect of having a Will Wade anchor strapped to his chest right away.

For now, at least, LSU is standing by its man — no matter how unconvincing he was in his first public comments in 82 days. Will Wade came to Destin with a lot of explaining to do, and did very little.

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