Does Anyone Still Value Integrity in College Basketball?
The latest in a long line of reasons to ask that question arose Monday when Will Wade was unveiled as McNeese State’s new men’s team head coach. After going 11-23 that season, the small Louisiana school picked a man accused by the NCAA of improperly arranging payments for at least 11 recruits while coaching LSU. Wade was also overheard on FBI wiretaps discussing bidding on a player as if he were a pair of Jordan 11s on the internet.
Imagine a world where a bank has hired a CEO who is accused of embezzlement. Or where a high school hired a principal accused of falsifying test results. That’s basically what McNeese did when he hired Wade, who was fired from LSU a year ago and is still under investigation by the NCAA.
But in the shameless world of college basketball, Wade’s employment is pretty normal. McNeese President Daryl Burckel did not respond to my email asking how Wade’s hiring had affected the integrity of his university. But Bürckel is a chartered 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 all too often are users and imposters. It’s also a world where Sean Miller is training Xavier in the NCAA tournament despite violations on his watch in Arizona, where Rick Pitino is close to Iona despite his sex and money scandals in Louisville, and where Mississippi has just hired the fired Texas Trainer Chris Beard despite his fiancee say police (she later recanted) that Beard had bitten and strangled her.
Yes, I know the college game has been dodgy ever since players wore Chuck Taylor’s shaved tops. McNeese wasn’t the only school willing to hire Wade, and Wade is far from the only guy training under a cloud. Look no further than Auburn, who hired Bruce Pearl in 2014 despite being fired from Tennessee for lying to the NCAA about recruiting violations.
McNeese pondered this whole story. To acknowledge the NCAA investigation and give himself a lenient sentence, McNeese put a five-game suspension in Wade’s contract early next season. “We conducted an extreme level of due diligence, extensive research and numerous stakeholder interviews,” sporting director Heath Schroyer told me. “After completing the comprehensive review process, we felt that hiring Coach Will Wade was the best decision not only for McNeese State University but also for the Lake Charles community.”
Schroyer said Wade would help the area recover from two 2020 hurricanes that caused more than $200 million in damage to the campus. “Coach Wade is a proven winner. His name is well known in the state of Louisiana. So I think these 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 has been through, what this university has been 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 are,” Schroyer said. “We obviously understand the landscape and the possibilities.”
How is that different from a bank hiring a CEO accused of embezzlement? “I don’t think a bank CEO can impact a community that continues to build after natural disasters… it’s a very unique situation.”
Does Wade’s hiring reflect negatively on the integrity of your school? “I don’t think so at all… It’s not a decision we made 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 acting from below the deck. In this alternate moral dimension, Wade’s criminal record is irrelevant at worst and could even be considered a plus. Think about it: the most important asset teams need is talent. Now that new name, image and likeness rules allow some payments to college athletes, why not hire someone familiar with what until recently was the black market?
Speaking of the black market…
Wade’s activities were exposed during an FBI investigation into college basketball. Most head coaches in large schools are white; most of their players are black. All of these teams employ black assistants to recruit black children. In 2017, federal authorities talked a lot of trash about purging the sport: “We’ve got your playbook,” boasted one agent. But when the clock finally ran out, the only trainers to arrest them were four black assistants. Two of them went to prison; two received probation. That means black coaches got crime while white coaches like Wade, Miller, and Pitino got new jobs.
There was some outrage at this racial injustice, but it didn’t stop depraved white coaches from getting second and third chances. It seems that most people in and around collegiate sports accept that rules will be broken and colleges will sell their ideals for the value of an NCAA tournament appearance. Everyone understands that the NCAA – controlled by university presidents – has been waiting years for a full investigation. Then, when the headlines have died down, there are no significant penalties because that would be bad for business.
Over the past few months, I’ve had confidential conversations with athletic directors and coaches from Power 5, a conference commissioner, and members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which the NCAA had hired to answer the FBI investigation. None of them knew the details of the charges against Wade, Miller, or Pitino. They expressed general dissatisfaction with the allegations but appeared to have reconciled themselves to the status quo. It felt like they gave up their integrity. I don’t really blame them – nothing serious happened after the allegations against Arizona, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina. At all levels, including fans and much of the media, the conventional wisdom is that college presidents and ADs are making wise business decisions when hiring proven winners who have gotten out of trouble.
Miller is Exhibit A.
When Miller was head coach in Arizona, highly recruited freshman Rawle Alkins became eligible using three fake transcripts from a school he never attended. The first transcript credited Alkins with a course in Basic English, but that did not meet the admission requirement. The second transcript changed the name of the course to American Lit; that didn’t work either. Miller told NCAA investigators that he was aware of the problems with those first two transcripts. Then assistant coach Book Richardson paid $40,000 for a third transcript with an official high school seal. Alkins started the next two seasons in 57 games, averaging 12 points and five rebounds, and then drafted the NBA draft. Richardson went to jail for taking bribes to direct players to a financial advisor.
Somehow, the NCAA concluded that Miller was not responsible for what happened to that third transcript. I wish I could explain this logic that appears on pages 50-52 of this document. But it doesn’t make sense – like a contractor who tells his worker he’d better get my roof done by Friday, and then denies any responsibility if it leaks.
Miller, like Wade, lasted several more seasons (and multimillion-dollar salaries) before finally being ousted. Miller, like Wade, quickly got another job. His Xavier team won 25-9 this season and is the No. 3 midwestern NCAA tournament. Integrity or not, the decision paid off for Xavier.
Then there is Pitino.
Pitino is without question one of the most brilliant and successful basketball coaches of all time. While training in Louisville, where he won the national championship in 2013, Pitino also admitted having sex at a restaurant banquet with a woman who was not his wife, denying any responsibility for his assistant coach recruits and players prostitutes and claimed ignorance The father of a recruit named Brian Bowen Jr. was promised $100,000 to have the player sign with Louisville. As documented in Michael Sokolove’s book The Last Temptation by Rick Pitino A tale of corruption, scandal and college basketball’s big business, The deal was made possible by Adidas manager Jim Gatto a few days after he made a series of calls to a phone number used by Pitino.
Gatto was sentenced to prison. Pitino was fired from Louisville in 2017 and hired by Iona three years later. In 2022, the NCAA said he was not responsible for the Bowen payments scandal. Pitino has led 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 thank you. Just bring us to the tournament.
This is that time of the year when colleges most people have never heard of have dreams of becoming the next St. Peter’s or Butler or Gonzaga lifted from obscurity and tight budgets by winning some nationally televised basketball games. And if the price of that dream is hiring someone you might not want to raise your kids 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 good even though I know they have a terminal illness.