It wasn’t funny then, but Kevin Nickelberry still enjoys a hearty laugh when he tells the story of how he gave Will Wade his nickname nearly 15 years ago.
Nickelberry, now the head coach at Howard University, was recognized as one of the nation’s top college basketball recruiters in 2003 when he joined the Clemson staff assembled by new coach Oliver Purnell.
Upon taking the job, Nickelberry met Wade, then a 20-year-old student manager who organized and ran Purnell’s summer camps.
“He comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, I’m glad you’re here. … I heard so many things about you,’ ” Nickelberry recalled. “He said, ‘I want to be a recruiter like you.’ ”
Nickelberry snickered, but Wade soon proved he wasn’t kidding.
As it turned out, that introduction was the start of Wade’s apprenticeship as a master recruiter — one of the many qualities that helped him become a Division I head coach just a decade later at the tender age of 30.
“We joke about it now, but I wasn’t joking then,” Nickelberry said. “Will was so persistent as a young guy. He started following me around asking me all kinds of questions.
“Will knew about every top player in the country and he would say, ‘Have you seen this kid or that kid play?’ ” he said. “I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re way too excited about this, young man … way too excited.’ ”
It wasn’t long after that Nickelberry nicknamed his new protégé “Shadow.”
“I started calling him that because he literally was my shadow,” he said. “He shadowed me everywhere. He’d listen to how I talked to recruits, how I talked to their parents, how I built relationships with them.”
All the while, Wade was taking copious notes — jotting just about everything he learned on scraps of paper and keeping them in a briefcase he carried with him.
“I was always around,” Wade said. “I was just trying to learn.”
Of course, Wade eventually learned about recruiting and other aspects of the game in a short period of time, which helped get him head coaching jobs at Chattanooga and VCU before moving on to LSU in late March.
Before that, he was a graduate assistant at Clemson, then was on the coaching staffs at Harvard and VCU. At those stops, Wade learned from Purnell, Tommy Amaker, Shaka Smart and Nickelberry, who by then had become close friends with his shadow.
“I started taking him on recruiting trips,” Nickelberry said. “If I had to go, he came. He became my driver. I would say, ‘I have to go on a trip tonight, do you want to come?’ He’d pack his briefcase, and he would drive like eight hours.”
Wade was more than a driver to Nickelberry, who, as a recruiting specialist, played a crucial role in the eager youngster’s meteoric rise through the ranks.
At times, Nickelberry could only stand by and watch in amazement.
“When he became an assistant coach, he was so polished on the phone,” he said. “The first time I actually heard him talk to a recruit, I was afraid and nervous he was going to mess it up.”
That didn’t last long, especially on one recruiting trip.
While Nickelberry was talking with a potential recruit, Wade was in another corner of the room visiting with the parents of two other recruits.
Even though he never played high school or college basketball, it didn’t take Will Wade long to get on the fast track to coaching stardom. Aft…
“I’m looking over there every two seconds and the parents are all laughing,” Nickelberry said. “I’m wondering, ‘What is Will doing over there?’ So I walk over and act like I’m mad even though in the back of my mind I knew he was doing a good job.
“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m making them laugh, coach.’ At that point, I told coach Purnell that this kid was going to be good.”
Nickelberry noted Wade has a gift for making people comfortable, which is a key to recruiting considering you have to deal with not only players, but high school coaches, family members and friends.
“Will is not afraid of who he is,” Nickelberry said admiringly. “He’s not trying to be somebody different. He’s just himself, and he makes you like him.”
Like that morning when Wade boldly announced his intention to be an ace recruiter, just like Nickelberry.
“I wasn’t always right, but I was sure of myself,” Wade said. “I knew he was really good. I read a bunch of really good stuff on him, and he was somebody you wanted to learn from and pick his brain and get all his knowledge.”
When Wade completed a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Clemson, Nickelberry immediately called Amaker, whom he grew up with, to recommend Wade for an opening on Harvard’s staff.
“I told Tommy if he wanted to win, this was the guy he needed to hire,” he said. “I told him this kid was going to be the next big recruiter.”
One day, after Wade landed the job with Amaker, Wade and Nickelberry were together again in a gym where the top 50 high school prospects had gathered.
“Will told me, ‘Coach, we’re going to start recruiting these kids,’ ” Nickelberry said. “I’m like, ‘What?’ You know what, Harvard started recruiting top 50, top 100 players, I didn’t think there was any way they were going to get any of those kids in there, but Will finds a way to go out and make a plan.”
In his first two years as a fulltime assistant, Wade, who served as Amaker’s recruiting coordinator, helped reel in strong recruiting classes in 2008 and ’09 before joining Smart at VCU.
There, Wade helped Smart recruit the players for their teams that went to the Final Four in 2011 and had a 111-37 record during his four-year stay there.
The recruiting trail
Like his initial foray into the recruiting world with Nickelberry, Wade continued his education and learned a lot from Amaker.
"Coach Amaker is the best recruiting head coach I have ever been around,” Wade said. “That’s not a knock on other guys I have worked for because they were phenomenal as well.
“But coach Amaker has this philosophy, and he has an ability to find a way in (the door),” he said. “Then, he connects with those people and gets everybody comfortable. What he does better than anybody I have seen is he sells a vision for each player and how the player fits into the overall vision for the program.”
It was a lesson well-learned.
When Wade accepted an offer from LSU athletic director Joe Alleva on March 20 to take over the program and sat behind his new desk just 24 hours later, the first call he made was to Scotlandville coach Carlos Sample.
Just 11 miles away from the Pete Maravich Assembly Center sat Ja’Vonte Smart, a two-time Louisiana Mr. Basketball pick and four-star prospect who was one of the top point guards in the Class of 2018.
The main goals for the LSU basketball team going into Wednesday night’s matchup against UT Martin were cut and dried for its first outing sinc…
“He called, and I congratulated him and we talked,” Sample said. “He said as soon as he was able to hit the ground running his first stop would be here at Scotlandville Magnet High to visit with Ja’Vonte.
“He didn’t waste any time when the recruiting period started, he talked with myself and Jay and his mom,” he added. “Jay liked the things he was hearing as far as his philosophy and coaching style went, and Jay kind of fell in love with him right from the start.”
So did Melinda Smart, Ja’Vonte’s mom.
“I liked the fact coach Wade was straight up with us. … He didn’t cut any corners,” Melinda Smart said. “He said what he had to say, and I liked that because that’s the type of person I am. So that really drew me to him.”
Remember when Wade had those recruits’ parents laughing when he engaged them years ago while working alongside Nickelberry?
“That first meeting was fun, he had me laughing,” Melinda Smart said. “We were talking, and he really had me laughing. I was a kind of shocked because most of the coaches you meet are just too serious. Coach Wade was serious, but he was fun to talk to at the same time.”
Wade admitted that’s one of the best things he learned from Nickelberry.
“He was able to engage and make people feel very comfortable around him,” Wade said. “That’s a serious thing because you have parents handing off their kids who they have developed for 18 years. They’re handing them to you to continue what they started, and I take that very, very seriously.”
Ja’Vonte Smart said he liked Wade’s work ethic and the way he pushes his players to help them get to where they want to go, which was a huge factor in his decision to commit to LSU on June 30 over bluebloods Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA — among others.
Sample said Smart, a longtime Kentucky fan who played summer ball on the national AAU circuit for years, talked with some players who have known Wade and heard about his reputation before making the decision.
Smart joined the LSU program during the early signing period on Nov. 8, putting his signature on the national letter of intent papers in the school gym.
“I want to win, and he’s a young guy who’s going to push me,” Smart said of his initial meeting with Wade. “He said he didn’t know if he was going to get me, but I was one of the in-state players he had faith in. He said if he got me we were going to make something happen.”
But Wade and his staff still had to get him on board.
“They did it the right way, the professional way,” Sample said of the staff’s pursuit of his star. “They handled it with class and respect, and they did their homework. When Ja'Vonte was on the (Nike) EYBL circuit, they were at almost every game to let him know he was their biggest target.”
Closing the deal
Tony Benford, the first assistant coach Wade hired last spring, remembers the first directive he received from his new boss.
“The first thing coach said was, ‘We have to take care of home,’ ” Benford said, echoing what Wade said during his introductory news conference. “He said we had a guy across town we had to go look at right away. We want to make sure we keep the local kids here.
“So getting Ja’Vonte got everything kicked off for us.”
Did it ever.
On the same day Smart announced his commitment, five-star power forward Nazreon Reid, a New Jersey native and Smart's friend from the EYBL circuit, was visiting his girlfriend, Lady Tigers freshman forward Raven Farley.
Reid, a 6-foot-11 forward who is ranked 21st on the latest 247Sports composite list, had recently included LSU on his list of finalists at the time of his visit.
He enjoyed his time in Baton Rouge so much that he soon narrowed his choice to LSU and Arizona before picking the Tigers in September.
Even though they may have had an advantage with Farley sitting there, Wade and his staff still had to work to get Reid to commit and eventually make it official during the early signing period.
“Our approach to Naz was we have to give him a reason to come here,” said LSU assistant Greg Heiar, who was the lead recruiter on Reid. “He wasn't coming here just because his girlfriend was here. Our job was to build great relationships with him and his people, and we had to have a plan for him and lay it out.
“It had to be very organized and detailed from the day he gets here to whenever he leaves: On the court and off the court, academically, spiritually, every reason there is. We gave him a reason to want to come to LSU.”
An inconsistent defense was a major concern for the LSU basketball team in three of the Tigers’ first five games to start the season.
Dave Boff, Reid’s high school coach, said anybody who thinks his star player fell into LSU’s lap just because of Farley would be wrong.
He said the Tigers, with Wade setting the stage early, did an "unbelievable job" in their recruitment of Reid.
“Coach Wade is a down-to-earth good guy,” Boff said. “I mean, you can tell the first five minutes talking to him that he’s personable.
"He’s easy to speak to, and I’m sure a player right away can get a feel that he’s the type of guy you can have a relationship with. To today’s athlete, that’s very important.”
LSU later got power forward Darius Days, a Florida native who’s playing his senior season at IMG Academy, to join Smart and Reid. Smart is currently ranked 34th and Days 58th by 247Sports.
Together, they give the Tigers a consensus top 10 recruiting class — sixth on the 247Sports composite list — with the possibility of signing one or two more players in the spring.
Leading the way
Naturally, Wade is at the forefront of the push to bring in players that will help LSU become relevant in the college basketball world.
While he wanted to make sure Benford and Heiar and assistant Bill Armstrong, who is working on the Class of 2019, get credit for the recruiting results they have seen so far, they pointed to him for setting the tone.
“Coach Wade works like an assistant,” Benford said. “Some head coaches don’t want to make (recruiting) calls, but he will jump in and take the lead. He’ll call kids, he’ll call parents. … He’ll do whatever it takes.
“That’s a big start when you have the head coach involved,” he said. “You would be hard-pressed to find anyone that works harder at recruiting than coach Wade. He sets the tone, and we follow suit.”
Wade admits his relentless pursuit of talent is one of the fun parts of his job.
“I'm one of those guys who enjoys the thrill of the chase,” he said. “I’m excited when we get them, but I enjoy the chase and putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I enjoy that part of it as much as anything.”
Heiar, who had a successful stint as an assistant coach and recruiter at Wichita State before coming to LSU, agreed that it’s been a team effort — starting with Wade.
“From the beginning, we identified what we were looking for and who we wanted,” Heiar said. “We came up with a plan and did it as a team. We all worked together on building relationships with each individual.
“We did our best job selling coach Wade’s plan for LSU basketball and our needs for LSU basketball.”
Yet, Wade said, it doesn’t mean you have to chase your tail to get it done.
He said the No. 1 thing Nickelberry taught him was not to waste time and energy on prospects you can’t sign.
“A lot of people just try to get on a player’s list and say, ‘I was in on that guy,’ ” Wade said. “If you don’t have a natural tie or a natural relationship with a player, quit wasting your time and move on and find the ones you can get.
“We just have to play in our own sandbox: Play with people we know, play with guys who have a natural tie to Louisiana and LSU. Then, you recruit the heck out of those guys.”
2018 national recruiting rankings
(top 15 as of Nov. 30)
5. North Carolina
6. Notre Dame
8. Michigan State
14. Mississippi St.
15. Wake Forest
5. Michigan State
6. North Carolina
10. Notre Dame
15. Wake Forest
4. Notre Dame
6. N.C. State
10. North Carolina
t12. Wake Forest
and Mississippi St.
5. North Carolina
7. Notre Dame
13. Wake Forest
14. Mississippi St.