Does anybody still value integrity in college basketball?
The latest in a long line of reasons to ask that question arose Monday, when Will Wade was introduced as the new head coach of the McNeese State men’s team. After going 11-23 this season, the small Louisiana school chose a man who is accused by the NCAA of improperly arranging payments for at least 11 recruits while coaching LSU. Wade also was heard on FBI wiretaps discussing bidding on a player as if he was a pair of Jordan 11s on the internet.
Imagine a world where a bank hired a CEO facing charges of embezzlement. Or where a high school hired a principal accused of faking test scores. That’s basically what McNeese did in hiring Wade, who was fired by LSU a year ago and is still under investigation by the NCAA.
But in the shameless world of college basketball, Wade’s hiring is business as usual. McNeese’s president, Daryl Burckel, did not respond to my email asking how Wade’s hiring reflected on the integrity of his university. But Burckel is a certified public accountant who touts his expertise in financial analysis and business valuation, which pretty much explains the decision.
It’s sad that the world of college basketball places teenagers under the control of coaches who are supposed to be mentors and leaders, but too often are users and cheaters. It’s also a world where Sean Miller is coaching Xavier in the NCAA tournament despite violations on his watch at Arizona, where Rick Pitino may be about to level up from Iona despite his sex and money scandals at Louisville, and where Mississippi just hired the fired Texas coach Chris Beard despite his fiancée telling police (she later recanted) that Beard bit and strangled her.
Yes, I know the college game has been shady since players wearing Chuck Taylors shaved points. McNeese wasn’t the only school willing to hire Wade, and Wade is far from the only guy coaching under a cloud. Look no further than Auburn, which hired Bruce Pearl in 2014 despite his dismissal from Tennessee for lying to the NCAA about recruiting violations.
McNeese considered all this history. To acknowledge the NCAA investigation and impose a mild punishment on itself, McNeese put a five-game suspension at the beginning of next season into Wade’s contract. “We did an extreme amount of due diligence, extensive research, and had multiple conversations with stakeholders,” athletic director Heath Schroyer told me. “After completing the exhaustive vetting process, we believed that the hiring of coach Will Wade was the best decision for not only McNeese State University but for the community of Lake Charles.”
Schroyer said Wade would help the area recover from two 2020 hurricanes that caused more than $200 million in damages to the campus. “Coach Wade is a proven winner. His name is very familiar in the state of Louisiana. So I think those things make it different. And this is a unique time in Lake Charles and Southwest Louisiana. I can’t even put into words what this community went through, what this university’s went through.”
I asked Schroyer if he thought Wade paid for players at LSU. “I have no idea,” he said.
What if Wade is found guilty by the NCAA? “We’re comfortable where we’re at,” Schroyer said. “We obviously understand the landscape and the possibilities.”
How is this different from a bank hiring a CEO accused of embezzlement? “I don’t think a bank CEO can impact a community that is continuing to rebuild from natural disasters … this is a very unique situation.”
Does hiring Wade cast the integrity of your school in a negative light? “I don’t think so at all … This is a decision we didn’t take lightly, and we stand behind it 100%.”
So there it is. McNeese knows exactly what it’s doing and how other schools have navigated with coaches accused of dealing from the bottom of the deck. In this alternate moral dimension, Wade’s rap sheet is at worst irrelevant and might even be considered a plus. Think about it: The No. 1 commodity that teams need is talent. Now that new name, image and likeness rules permit some payments to college athletes, why wouldn’t McNeese hire someone who knows his way around what was until recently the black market?
Speaking of the Black market …
Wade’s activities were exposed during an FBI investigation into college basketball. Most head coaches at big-time schools are white; most of their players are Black. All of these teams employ Black assistants to recruit Black kids. Back in 2017, the feds talked much trash about cleaning up the sport: “We have your playbook,” one agent bragged. But when the clock finally ran out, the only coaches they arrested were four Black assistants. Two of them went to prison; two got probation. Which means the Black coaches got felonies, while white coaches such as Wade, Miller and Pitino got new jobs.
There has been some outrage over this racial injustice, but it hasn’t stopped tainted white coaches from getting second and third chances. It seems that most people in and around college sports accept that rules will be broken and universities will sell their ideals for the value of an NCAA tournament appearance. Everybody understands that the NCAA – which is controlled by university presidents – waits years to fully investigate. Then, after the headlines fade away, there are no significant penalties because that would be bad for business.
Over the past few months, I’ve had off-the-record conversations with Power 5 athletic directors and coaches, a conference commissioner, and members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which the NCAA tasked with responding to the FBI investigation. None of them knew the details of the charges against Wade, Miller or Pitino. They expressed a general dissatisfaction about the allegations, but seemed resigned to the status quo. It felt like they had given up on integrity. I don’t really blame them – nothing serious happened after accusations against Arizona, Kansas, Duke, and North Carolina. At all levels, including fans and much of the media, the conventional wisdom is that university presidents and ADs are making smart business decisions when they hire proven winners who squirmed their way out of trouble.
Miller is Exhibit A.
When Miller was head coach at Arizona, highly recruited freshman Rawle Alkins became eligible by using three fake transcripts from a school he never attended. The first transcript credited Alkins with a course in Basic English, but that didn’t fulfill the eligibility requirement. The second transcript changed the name of the course to American Lit; that didn’t make the grade, either. Miller told NCAA investigators that he knew about the problems with those first two transcripts. Then, assistant coach Book Richardson paid $40,000 for a third transcript bearing an official high school seal. Alkins started 57 games over the next two seasons, averaging 12 points and five rebounds, then declared for the NBA draft. Richardson went to prison for taking a bribe to steer players to a financial adviser.
Somehow, the NCAA concluded that Miller bore no responsibility for what happened with that third transcript. I wish I could explain this logic, which appears on pages 50-52 of this document. But it makes no sense – like a contractor telling his worker that he’d better finish my roof by Friday, then denying any responsibility when it leaks.
Miller, like Wade, hung on for several more seasons (and several more million dollars in salary) before eventually being ousted. Miller, like Wade, quickly landed another job. His Xavier team went 25-9 this season and is a No. 3 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament. Integrity or nah, the decision paid off for Xavier.
Then there’s Pitino.
Without question, Pitino is one of the most brilliant and accomplished basketball coaches of all time. While coaching at Louisville, where he won the 2013 national championship, Pitino also acknowledged having sex on a restaurant banquette with a woman who was not his wife, denied any responsibility for his assistant coach providing prostitutes to recruits and players and claimed not to know that the father of a recruit named Brian Bowen Jr. was promised $100,000 for the player to sign with Louisville. As documented in Michael Sokolove’s book The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino A Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball, the deal was facilitated by Adidas executive Jim Gatto, several days after he had a series of conversations with a phone number used by Pitino.
Gatto was sentenced to prison. Pitino was fired by Louisville in 2017, then hired three years later by Iona. In 2022, the NCAA said he was not responsible for the Bowen payment scandal. Pitino has taken the Gaels to two NCAA tournaments in three seasons, including this year, and is expected to leave for a bigger job next season.
Integrity? No thanks. Just get us to the tournament.
This is the time of year when colleges most people never heard of dream of becoming the next St. Peter’s or Butler or Gonzaga, lifted from obscurity and stingy budgets by winning some nationally televised basketball games. And if the price to pay for that dream is hiring someone you might not want to educate your children or marry into the family, well, they don’t call it March Madness for nothing.
Madness is another word for insanity. Like a doctor telling me that someone I love looks fine, when I know they have an incurable disease.