Feb 9, 2019; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Will Wade reacts to a play against the Auburn Tigers in the second half at Maravich Assembly Center.

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Dunlap: Stop explaining away Will Wade's alleged bad actions

Seth Dunlap
March 08, 2019 - 4:28 pm
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The inevitable finally happened.  It just happened much sooner than most expected.

LSU announced they have suspended basketball coach Will Wade following reports that FBI intercepted wiretapped phone conversations between Wade and Christian Dawkins, a wannabe agent who was convicted last year in the federal investigation into college basketball corruption.  Yahoo Sports published a report yesterday detailing one conversation between Wade and Dawkins, seemingly about an "offer" made to Javonte Smart and his family while he was being recruited to play basketball for the university.  This follows the bombshell last October where a transcript of Wade and Dawkins was read aloud in the federal trial.

If you're looking for the sordid details of those conversations, and why they matter, you can read more here, here, and here.  

Anybody with a reading comprehension skill above a fourth grade level can understand what those conversations were likely about.  Explaining them away by pointing out the fact Wade didn't use the word "money" in the conversation is a feeble attempt at deflection that looks more foolish than well formulated.  He spoke about an "offer" made to Smart and the family, and specifically spoke about how it was "tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid."  Have we really devolved into a society that refuses to acknowledge illicit activity unless we have it double sourced, with video evidence, and a signed affidavit by the parties involved?  Only then would some people admit the obvious.  Others, inconceivably, still wouldn't.  

Pointing out that this kind of money-running is a rampant plague on college basketball -- the "but, he did it too" excuse -- doesn't absolve Wade, Dawkins, or any other coach from alleged wrongdoing.   That also doesn't mean this is how every school runs its college basketball program.  No, "everybody" does not do this.  It's also factually incorrect to suggest that "most" or "a majority" of college basketball programs are engaged in these pay-for-play schemes.  There are 347 teams in D1 college basketball.  If you think there are 174 programs that funnel money to players illegally, then I have a bridge to sell you.

That doesn't mean this isn't a major problem in college basketball.  It is.  Many of the major programs, and prominent head coaches, have been tied to this case, or similar scandals.  Arizona's Sean Miller, Kansas' Bill Self, and Louisville's Rick Pitino are just some of the men and schools caught up in this.  Pitino was already fired and sanctioned for his program's involvement.  The proliferation of this kind of dirty, corrupt activity makes it even more imperative to begin to, somehow, drive this nonsense out of college hoops.  

Paying players, conversing with shady money men, and funneling shoe money to big time recruits certainly isn't the only way to win, and win big, in college basketball.  These programs and coaches are a shining example of how to "do it right" and are extremely unlikely to be linked to this scandal:

  • Jay Wright, Villanova - Won two of the last three national championships, and made 13 of the past 14 NCAA tournaments.  
  • Mark Few, Gonzaga - Made a stunning 19 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, currently the top ranked team in the country, and played in the national championship game two seasons ago.
  • John Beilein, Michigan - Played in two national title games in the past six seasons, and made seven of the past 8 NCAA tournaments.  
  • Tony Bennett, Virginia - Been a #1 seed in three of the past five NCAA tournaments, on pace to be a #1 seed again this year.  
  • Gregg Marshall, Wichita State - Made the past six NCAA tournaments, with four 30+ win seaons in that span, plus a Final Four appearance

That list certainly isn't an exhaustive one of the "clean" programs across the country, but those five coaches disprove this moronic assertion that the only way to win in college basketball is to cheat, and cheat BIG.  Those five men will likely wind up in various basketball hall of fames, and there's a good chance your national champion this season will come from that group of teams.  

Few and Beilein, specifically, have turned into vocal crusaders that want exterminate corruption from college basketball, with Beilein dramatically telling cheating coaches to "get out of the game."

I'm not naive about the depth of the current crisis in college hoops.  Coaches we thought were assuredly clean might be found dirty.  Those we assumed must be running corrupt programs will be vindicated.  That's the unfortunate mess that now lies in front of us.

That brings us back to Wade, the prodigious coach with a skyrocketing national profile who has, in two quick seasons, rescued LSU from the Southeastern Conference abyss and thrust the program into national contention.  It's understandable that Tiger fans are frustrated, some even downright irate, that Wade has become one of the first coaches swept up in this controversy.  That anger, however, should be directed at one person: Wade himself.  

He was the person caught in federal wiretaps talking about deals and offers he's making to multiple recruits.  Perhaps he will be somehow absolved of any wrongdoing in this, and the public certainly will deserve more details about this case as we go forward.  However, those defending Wade using catchy trigger-phrases like "smoking gun evidence" or "innocent until proven guilty" are forgetting that he isn't being tried in a court of law.  The evidential standard he's held to by the NCAA or LSU itself is far lower than federal prosecutors who argued cases against Dawkins and Adidas shoe executives.  

LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander and Athletic Director Joe Alleva cited "integrity of this institution" in their statement following Wade's suspension.  In a noteworthy line, Alexander and Alleva also said they are "closely coordinating with the NCAA with every step."  That could mean the NCAA and/or school has more information on the Wade/Dawkins relationship than does the public.  If that's true, it makes their decision to suspend Wade even more of a no-brainer.

Alexander and Alleva are already facing the scorn of LSU fans and boosters for their decision.  That backlash was as inevitable as Wade's suspension.  Fan bases almost always close ranks around a successful coach, even in the face of serious accusations of wrongdoing.  Coaches and programs accused of far worse were protected at all costs by fans, alumni, boosters, and media. 

Penn State covered up Jerry Sandusky's horrific acts for decades.  Baylor spend years covering for Art Briles.  Michigan State shielded Larry Nassar for years.  Ohio State went into full meltdown mode trying to convince the world horrific spousal abuse was no big deal.

Those heinous acts were far worse than, incomparable to, anything Wade or LSU is accused of, but the reaction from fans, boosters, alumni, and some media members have been strikingly similar -- to protect the programs and coaches at all costs because winning mattered most.  Is it really any surprise that Wade is going to be made a martyr and those investigating, and reporting, on his alleged bad deeds are the ones that get tarred and feathered?

The decision to suspend Wade today was surprising.  That doesn't mean it was wrong.  LSU showed some sense of moral backbone, albeit in the face of massive mounting national pressure.  Perhaps Wade will be vindicated, and stories and sports talk shows will be discussing the premature conclusion jumping that most of the country engaged in.  Currently, the evidence seems too overwhelming for LSU to have not done something.  

Are we really ready to set aside our own sense of morals, ethics, and sense of right vs. wrong because the basketball program we cheer for wins more games?  What lesson would that teach our children?  What would that show current and future LSU students that we value?

Winning isn't everything.  Hopefully, it never will be. 

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