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. After getting a shot at Clemson, his alma mater, Wade’s tireless work on the court and recruiting trail led to his first head coaching job at age 30 before getting the opportunity to revive an LSU program that hit bottom last season. In the 7½ months since he was hired, it’s easy to see how Wade, who turns 35 this month, was driven to succeed at every aspect of the job at such a young age — making him a sort of Doogie Howser, M.D., in basketball sneakers.
In the spring of 2013, David Blackburn found himself in a bit of a jam.
Almost before he could settle into his office, the newly appointed athletic director at Tennessee-Chattanooga was tasked with finding not one, but two head basketball coaches.
“Having to go out and get two basketball coaches is not one of the things you want to do when you first get hired,” said Blackburn, who was named A.D. on April 24, 2013 — about 2½ weeks after national signing day.
The first one, he recalled four years later, was a no-brainer. Blackburn hired an experienced Hall of Fame coach in Jim Foster to take over the Mocs’ women’s program, which had enjoyed considerable success before its coach left for North Carolina State.
Blackburn’s second hire was a little trickier.
The Chattanooga men’s team was coming off a fourth consecutive non-winning season, and the program needed a swift kick in the backside to become relevant again in the Southern Conference.
Since moving to Division I in 1977, when UTC was coming off a Division II national championship, the Mocs had won 15 league titles and earned nine NCAA tournament berths before going 55-74 between 2010 and 2013.
Blackburn, a deputy A.D. at Tennessee before accepting the Chattanooga job, knew what had to be done.
“At the time, we needed discipline, we needed new hope, we needed somebody who would be aggressive in recruiting and bring in some players,” he said. “We had to jumpstart it like a dead car battery.”
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 te…
With that in mind, Blackburn, who had been on the job a little more than two weeks, started doing his homework.
He quickly compiled a list of potential candidates that included “eight to 10” men who eventually were interviewed for the job — some of them twice.
Of that group, one emerged as the clearcut frontrunner in Blackburn’s eyes: A 30-year-old named Will Wade, a former student manager at Clemson and a relative unknown to much of the college basketball world.
“I just knew enough to know this guy had it,” Blackburn said.
Wade had never been a head coach, but the Nashville, Tennessee, native learned from successful coaches like Oliver Purnell, Tommy Amaker and Shaka Smart — another whiz kid who, with Wade at his side, guided VCU to the Final Four in 2011.
“There was some grumbling from the fan base, but I knew about Will,” Blackburn said. “I knew Oliver and I was very close with Shaka, so I knew enough about Will to know he was what we needed.
“He was young, aggressive, organized, a great recruiter. Will knew the game; he had been around it, and he had studied it. He was just a dynamic guy.”
He runs, he's a ball of energy and he's also a fan of the other "Death Valley."
Upon accepting an offer from Blackburn, Wade immediately energized the program on campus and in the community. On the court, he went 18-15 in his first season with a 12-4 mark in conference play and was named the SoCon coach of the year.
“Will was the right medicine at the right time for us,” Blackburn said. “I wasn’t one bit apprehensive about hiring him, and it turned out really, really good.”
An unhappy camper
Wade’s coaching story began almost a decade earlier when, midway through Wade's undergraduate days at Clemson, Purnell gave him an opportunity to run the team's summer camps.
To Wade, it wasn’t just a way to make some spending money. It was a chance to get his foot in the coaching door and learn as much as he could from Purnell and his staff — especially when it came to recruiting.
Kevin Nickelberry, now the head coach at Howard, was an ace recruiter who had just joined Purnell’s staff. He remembered his first encounter with the energetic Wade.
“Camp is going on, and this guy starts talking to me,” Nickelberry said. “Of course, I found out later it was Will Wade. But he’s got on pants with a duck on the back of them, a button-down shirt and no socks, and he says, ‘I heard so many things about you. I want to be a recruiter like you.’
“I was like, ‘Hold up, hold up,’ and I just looked at him like he was crazy.”
Unfazed, Wade told Nickelberry what camp station he wanted him to man, which brought another quizzical look from the full-time assistant, who was there solely to eye potential prospects.
“I said, ‘Let me tell you something, young man,’” Nickelberry said with a laugh. “‘I don’t do camp.’ About 20 minutes later, he comes back and tells me that I have the dribbling station. He was so persistent.”
Nickelberry continued to find out during that camp how driven Wade was.
He said Wade, who eventually became his recruiting protégé, carried around a notepad and briefcase, which he had used to plan every minute of the day’s activities — right down to how much time it should take to eat lunch.
“That was my first experience with Will, at that camp,” Nickelberry said. “It was just amazing. I’ve been to a lot of basketball camps, but I had never seen a camp that was that organized in all my life.”
In time, the two became close friends.
“Will has a gift of making people comfortable,” Nickelberry said. “He’s not afraid of who he is, and he’s not trying to be somebody different. He’s himself, and he makes you like him. We quickly became really, really close.”
It didn’t take Will Wade long to reshape his roster — in more ways than one, it turns out — after accepting an offer to take over the LSU bask…
On the right path
The hard work paid off for Wade, whom Purnell retained as a graduate assistant for two years. Then Wade went to Harvard to become a full-time assistant to Amaker.
After that, it was four years with Smart at VCU before Blackburn beckoned, making Wade the third-youngest head coach in the nation at 30 years, 168 days.
“I just felt like he had more energy, passion and knowledge, and the ability to recruit, than most 30-year-olds,” Blackburn said. “With what Shaka had told me about him, it just felt like it was the right fit.”
After getting the Chattanooga program on track in his first season, Wade went 22-10 the next year before returning to VCU to replace Smart, who had left for Texas.
He wasn’t long for that job, either.
After going 25-11 and 26-9 with a pair of NCAA tournament bids, Wade was one of the hottest coaching names this past winter.
He jumped at the chance to coach in a Power Five conference when LSU athletic director Joe Alleva offered him a six-year, $15 million contract on March 20 — less than two weeks after Johnny Jones was fired after a 10-21 season.
To say Wade attacked his new job with zeal would be the understatement of the year.
Displaying the unbridled energy and passion Blackburn and Alleva saw, Wade hit the ground running and started making recruiting inroads to remodel a roster that has just five returning scholarship players.
Stumbling into it
Interestingly enough, Wade never really dreamed of being a big-time college basketball coach and certainly had other ideas when he graduated from Clemson in 2005.
“Reality is, I don’t come from some great basketball family or great basketball tree,” Wade said. “We’re kind of self-made people.”
His father, Frank, is an independent insurance broker, and mother, Sissy, was an educator for 40 years in the Nashville area.
She was a principal for 20 years — seven at Franklin Road Academy, where Will, while in high school, coached the sixth-grade basketball team while serving as student-manager for the varsity.
Even then, Wade, who student-taught history and world geography as part of his education curriculum at Clemson, didn’t see himself doing what he’s going now.
“I kind of stumbled into it,” he said with a smile. “I was really going to be a high school teacher and coach, so I got into (college coaching) a little bit by mistake.”
Still, Sissy Wade isn’t surprised the oldest of her two boys — younger son Jay has a doctorate degree and teaches at Loyola University of Chicago — gravitated to coaching.
“Will always had a lot of drive. … He was always analytical, too,” she said. “When he was younger, he didn’t just watch a basketball game. He watched the Xs and Os and where people were moving and analyzing them.”
Purnell was so impressed with Wade’s work ethic in their two years together that he offered to pay for him to obtain an advanced degree so Wade could make a little more money when he went into teaching.
The rest — working his way up the coaching ladder and compiling a 91-45 record in four seasons as a head coach, all before his 35th birthday — is history.
With two closed-door scrimmages and an exhibition game behind it, the LSU basketball team heads into its final week of preseason practice befo…
Fear of failure
Despite his early professional success, Wade isn’t afraid to admit that failing is his biggest fear.
“If I fail, I've got nowhere to fall,” he said. “I don't have unbelievable connections with a bunch of different coaches or people or things like that. Part of it is not a healthy drive factor, but I just don’t want to fail.”
However, as far as Wade is concerned, the players are most important to him.
“The other part is, I get motivated by our guys, because you don't want to let the players down,” Wade said. “You feel like you have to work harder.”
At every turn, Wade is concerned about what other coaches and other teams are doing and whether he’s doing everything he possibly can to give his team the best chance at winning.
“I worry that somebody else is outworking us, outmaneuvering us, out-thinking us,” he said. “I worry about that constantly, because I feel like we need to have the best of the best to position ourselves to win at a really, really high level.
“I don't know if 'paranoid' is the right word,” he said before pausing. “But I worry about everything that’s going on and just try to make sure we have the best systems in place to have success.”
Focused on the job
Wade didn't blink when asked if he’s obsessed.
“I would say that’s probably a fair word,” he said.
Wade’s wife of three years, the former Lauren Deason, has seen it from the time they met in December 2011.
“He likes to relax and have fun, too, but even on our first date we ended up watching game film,” said Lauren, a University of North Carolina graduate. “It was great, because I was a huge basketball fan before we ever met.”
In their time together, she has watched him become even more of a student of the game.
“He’ll do anything he can to find a way to win a game,” she said. “They won two games at VCU with four-tenths of a second on the clock because he knew exactly what to do in those situations. He studies and reads, and he isn't afraid to try something unconventional.
“If there’s a coach trying something new — it doesn’t even have to be about basketball — he’ll contact him and go talk to him. Or he’ll spend an hour on the phone trying to figure out what they’re doing that makes them successful.”
Will Wade can’t promise the LSU men's basketball team will have the best defense in the nation this season.
Because he hasn’t been a coach all that long and isn’t much older than the young men he’s coaching, Wade tries hard to relate to players on their level.
Some advantages he has are his enthusiasm and love of the game, and the energy he brings each day to practices and games.
“Those are important pieces as a young coach, because there are some things I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t been coaching for 30 years. If you can do that and get your guys to believe in you and play hard for you, that will make up for some of your deficiencies or lack of knowledge.”
For Wade, that includes a little pop culture, especially music and video games.
Valuable lessons they can use in life are also heavy on his teaching menu.
At the start of the fall semester, he has each team member send a handwritten note, complete with cell phone number, to someone who’s touched his life and perhaps even helped him get to where he is now.
On Sunday evenings in the fall, Wade has sessions for players to learn about money management, how to treat women properly and dinner etiquette — among other things.
The Tigers recently had one of those "life lessons" at a fancy Baton Rouge steakhouse.
“They loved the steak,” Wade joked during a session with reporters at Southeastern Conference media days last month. “The point is, you have to teach them skills for when they leave us.
“You have to be able to compete in the real world. When you go for a job interview, you either get it or you leave unemployed. So you have to give them the skills to compete, and that’s one of the things we do.”
Being a dad
Despite getting only five or six hours of sleep a night and spending most of his waking hours with his mind on basketball, Wade isn’t so obsessed that he doesn’t have time for his newest jobs: being a husband and father.
He and Lauren were married in August 2014 and in late April, just 40 days after accepting the LSU job, they welcomed their first child, Caroline Elizabeth.
As completely driven as Wade is at his job, especially since taking on the task of rebuilding the LSU program, Lauren Wade said her husband absolutely loves his role as a parent.
“He’s wrapped around her finger,” she said of Caroline, now six months old. “Dads are the fun ones with kids. You know, you follow nap schedules and do what the baby books say, and Will comes home and does the dad thing where you lift them up in the air and make them fly like an airplane. He likes that, and she loves it, too.
“Yeah, he can relax at times. But I think she’s been good at helping him have a little bit of a distraction at home.”
With the arrival of Will Wade as its new coach in late March, the LSU basketball team wiped the slate clean and started anew.