Remember that movie “Lean on Me,” when Morgan Freeman plays a principal named Joe Clark, called in to turn around a troubled inner-city high school?
Early in the movie, Freeman’s character lays down his law for how the school will run from now own. As he strides from the room, a student who knew him from her elementary school days says, “Mr. Clark don’t play.”
Freeman is a bit old to play Will Wade in the “Will Wade Story” one day (maybe Chris Pine?). But swap the troubled high school for a troubled LSU men’s basketball program, and you can use the same line.
“Coach Wade,” sophomore guard Skylar Mays said with a grin, “don’t play.”
Play? No. Work? Yes. Lots of work. And, we suspect, little if any time to check out the latest Morgan Freeman movie when it comes down the pike.
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Wade literally hits the ground running each morning, pounding the roads before dawn. He admits he “only” ran 2½ miles Tuesday, sounding as though he was chastising his inner slacker for it.
He’s typically in his office in the LSU athletic administration building by 5 a.m., probably spending part of that time trying to figure out how soon he can get his offices somewhere back in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where Dale Brown had his base of operations. He’ll be there until 9-10 p.m. at night.
There’s a lot of heavy lifting required in changing the culture of an LSU program that has only advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament twice in the past 30 years.
A week out from a Halloween night exhibition game at Tulane, Wade’s job has largely centered around selling. Selling recruits on a program that hasn’t existed at LSU for a long time. Selling fans on supporting a program whose popularity at LSU currently ranks behind football, baseball, gymnastics and probably softball.
The recruits have bought in. After arriving in March from VCU, Wade held together and enhanced a five-man signing class rated a respectable 16th nationally in 247Sports’ composite rankings. Coupled with what LSU has coming back, Wade sounds like he has the start of something good.
“Our 1 through 5 may not wow you,” he said, “but our 1 through 12 is not bad.”
As for LSU’s three-man class for 2018? With commitments from five-star forward Naz Reid, four-star Scotlandville guard Ja’Vonte Smart and the latest, four-star forward Darius Days, the Tigers’ class ranks No. 3 nationally behind basketball bluebloods North Carolina and Kansas.
For now, Wade is pushing tempered optimism, saying he needs three years to get the LSU program to a championship-contending level.
By then, tickets at the PMAC could be in high demand once again. Wade is splitting his time on the recruiting trail by trying to drum up support among LSU basketball’s languishing fan base.
He has made dozens of appearances around the state, with two more scheduled for Wednesday. He visits people before LSU football games at their tailgate parties, and he recently invited fans to come watch a scrimmage in the PMAC hours before the Auburn game.
“It’s all basically recruiting,” Wade said. “Our kids have worked hard. It’s important that they see their work appreciated.”
LSU is offering $1 tickets for its season opener against Alcorn State on Nov. 10, the night before the next home football game against Arkansas.
“Kyle!” Wade calls out to Kyle Huber, LSU’s director of marketing, during Tuesday's media day news conference. “Are we going to have a sellout?”
Huber, like everyone in the Wade orbit, is being asked to elevate his game.
Wade is pragmatic enough to recognize that one thing will bring the fans back to the PMAC.
“We need to grow fan base, but we have to win,” said Wade, speaking the frank language of a new coach with a new contract. “Nobody likes to be associated with a loser.”
Wade bats away a question about goals for this season, a season in which LSU is picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference.
“We need to work on getting our house in order,” he said.
He does promise one return on fans’ investment for this 2017-18 campaign:
“You’re going to see a tough team,” he said, “a team diving on the floor, a bench that’s into it, and a coaching staff that’s enthusiastic.”
Wade may be selling the program like Brown did when he arrived in the early 1970s, but he also gives the Nick Saban-like impression that he knows where he wants to go and how to get there.
If you’re an LSU basketball fan, longing for your program to be relevant again, it’s easy to buy what Wade’s selling.