Before his LSU Tigers take the court for the first time Friday night against Alcorn State, Will Wade will spend a few minutes in his office texting people who have meant a lot to him and his career.
One of them is former Chattanooga athletic director David Blackburn, who took a chance on an unproven but clearly driven 30-year-old VCU assistant to be his school’s basketball coach four years ago. "Thanking him every day for giving me the opportunity," Wade said.
Two successful years at Chattanooga led Wade back to VCU for two years as head coach there. But from where he’s starting at LSU with the state of this program, Wade is, in a way, coming back full circle to his first job.
The VCU program Wade inherited from Shaka Smart five years after reaching the 2011 Final Four was “like a Ferrari,” he said. “You just mashed the gas and tried to keep it out of the ditch.” Under Wade, the Rams went 25-11 and 26-9.
At Chattanooga, Wade said, “you had to drop the transmission, rotate the tires and had some body damage.”
LSU is like that: a program in need of an extreme overhaul after going 10-21 with 11 games allowing 90 points or more.
Just how fast Wade can drive LSU toward a brighter, more respectable future? A future in which the Tigers are a perennial winner, postseason participant and — dare we say it? — a championship contender? Is it even possible to get LSU back where it was for 15 straight years under Dale Brown, making 13 NCAA appearances (with two Final Fours) and two trips to the NIT from 1979-93?
Wade isn’t promising specifics but does say he needs three years to make his program fully operational. Not that he’s discounting what his team can possibly do in 2017-18, as long as his players buy into what the new coach is selling. Still, for a new regime there’s nothing better than starting with zero expectations — the Tigers were picked to finish dead last at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
“Like I always tell our players, never bet against consistent behavior,” Wade said recently on the SEC Network. “The more consistent you are, the better you are every day. Then you’ll position yourself to win and be successful.
“I think we’ve already made some major dents in our guys understanding this is the new normal. It’s going to be done this way, or we’re going to do it again until it’s done the proper way we want.”
LSU women’s coach Nikki Fargas, who knows playing and working under a demanding coach from her days with the late Pat Summitt, hears a familiar tune coming through the doors of the men’s practice gym across the hall.
“When we finish up, I’m listening outside his door,” Fargas said Tuesday. “I’m hearing toughness, hard work, fight, his team getting after it. The culture is turning around.”
Still, it’s a huge task Wade has carved out for himself. LSU has made just six NCAA tournament appearances since 1993 and only two in the past 11 seasons. He’s trying to win games, win recruits — Wade signed two of the three big names in his No. 3-ranked class Wednesday with Scotlandville’s Ja’Vonte Smart and Darius Days — and win over fans. LSU is practically giving away some tickets to the Alcorn game at $1 each to try to put the Deaf back in Deaf Dome again.
“I think we have at least piqued their interest a little bit with basketball,” Wade said. “They are going to give us shot, and it is on us to deliver a product that is worth people continuing to care about.”
LSU fans have been down that road with basketball in recent years and been hurt before. Does the name Ben Simmons ring any bells?
But at the very least, Wade exudes a sense of confidence that he knows what he's doing. By the way, his first Chattanooga team in 2013-14, picked in the second division of the Southern Conference after four straight non-winning seasons, finished second.
“I’m not promising that,” Wade said. “There’s a big difference between the Southern Conference and the SEC. But we got it moving in the right direction, and the second year we were really good and won 20-plus games.”
How many wins in a right direction for LSU this season? More than 10, of course, but really, how many?
Wade has challenged his team not to be last in the SEC again. After that the three-year clock will tick awfully fast, but Wade isn’t deterred.
“If you're going to go climb Mt. Everest, your first step needs to be the biggest and the boldest,” he said. “You can't be tiptoeing up the mountain.”
Friday night, Wade’s Tigers begin their ascent.