University officials won't let suspended LSU basketball coach Will Wade return to the bench until he sits down with them to answer questions about the FBI wiretaps that captured him talking to a convicted hoops middleman about recruiting, throwing his status for the upcoming NCAA tournament in doubt.
Wade’s attorney wrote LSU on Tuesday that the coach would talk to university officials about the taped conversations once the pending federal criminal investigation into corruption in college basketball concludes, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Advocate through a public records request.
Unless the coach decides to reverse course, that appears to make Wade’s return anytime this season unlikely — no matter how deep a run the No. 9 Tigers make in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Defense attorneys are expected to subpoena Wade to testify at a federal criminal trial scheduled to start April 22 — well after the Final Four — and it's impossible to know how long the overall federal investigation could continue.
Athletic director Joe Alleva and other LSU officials made clear that Wade could return this season if he changes his mind, agrees to a meeting, provides an explanation for his reported comments on the FBI wiretaps and denies wrongdoing.
"If he decides to come in and talk and is persuasive, then Joe (Alleva) and the president ... are going to be faced with the decision as to whether to reinstate him," said Tom Skinner, LSU’s general counsel and vice president for legal affairs. "But ... we're not there yet."
Wade's attorney couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
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Standout freshman guard Javonte Smart, whose recruitment appears to be the subject of Wade's discussion in the wiretapped call with Christian Dawkins, could return for the Tigers as soon as Friday, depending on the results of an ongoing internal investigation expected to wrap up in the coming days. LSU held Smart out of its Saturday regular-season finale against Vanderbilt out of an "abundance of caution" after his name surfaced in the taped conversations.
Wade discusses a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit — apparently Smart, then a star at Scotlandville High School — in a June 2017 phone call with Dawkins, during which Wade vented frustration about delays in Smart's recruitment to LSU.
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Wade was heard complaining about an unnamed handler for the player who felt the “offer” was “tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid,” according to ESPN and Yahoo Sports, which reported the contents of the wiretaps last Thursday. Wade said the handler wanted a bigger “piece of the pie in the deal.”
The exact nature of the "strong-ass offer" wasn't made explicit in the wiretap, Yahoo Sports and ESPN reported, but the context of the conversation — including an apparent joke by Wade about compensating more than the "rookie minimum" — raises the possibility of paying a recruit or his family, which is prohibited by NCAA rules.
LSU officials already questioned Smart and his mother, Melinda, about the reported wiretaps and any potential violations of NCAA rules. Skinner, the LSU general counsel, said NCAA investigators participated in those interviews.
The university also located two other people who might be the unnamed handler referenced in the wiretapped calls, Skinner said. Skinner didn't identify either by name but said they agreed to speak with the university.
"We hope to be done today or tomorrow," Skinner told The Advocate on Wednesday.
Dawkins was convicted last year on federal corruption charges related to recruiting. He is also among the defendants in the second, similar trial scheduled in April. His attorneys have said they plan to subpoena Wade to have him testify at the April trial.
Wade, 36, didn't dispute the reported contents of the wiretaps but said last week that "they do not begin to tell the full story."
“I understand the university had to take action before all the facts are in,” Wade said in a prepared statement, “but I would ask everyone to withhold their judgment until the record is complete.”
Alleva and Skinner on Wednesday said they weren't expecting that statement from Wade and hadn't heard anything from the coach about what the "complete" record might reveal.
"That's what we're trying to get him to tell us," Alleva said. "That's what we want to know, the rest of the story. That would sure help solve this situation if he would tell us the story."
Wade initially agreed to attend a meeting with top LSU brass in a phone call with Alleva last Thursday night, in the immediate hours after the Yahoo Sports and ESPN reports, Alleva told The Advocate.
But Wade’s attorney later canceled the Friday meeting with Alleva, LSU President F. King Alexander, Skinner and NCAA investigators after conferring with the coach Friday morning. LSU officials said they warned Wade that refusing to meet could result in his indefinite suspension.
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The FBI has so far refused requests to share the wiretaps from the criminal case with LSU or NCAA investigators, Skinner said. Federal judges in New York City have placed the wiretaps and most other evidence under seal, shielding the documents from the public.
Federal prosecutors have reached plea deals with several former assistant college coaches for handing out payments to recruits or taking bribes to steer current college players toward particular professional agents.
The federal government contends the payoffs to amateur players amounted to a conspiracy to defraud universities because the payments made players ineligible for their scholarships and exposed the universities to potential NCAA sanctions.
Defense attorneys for Dawkins and his co-defendants contend coaches and other university officials knew about the payments and profited off the sport.
LSU declined to comment on whether the FBI or federal prosecutors have contacted the university as part of the investigation or requested documents.
Alleva said he hopes Wade will eventually be cleared of any NCAA violations and return to LSU, calling him "an outstanding coach" and saying he'd defended Wade "to the very moment he refused to talk to us."
But that refusal to discuss the latest reported wiretaps violated the coach’s contract and left LSU with no option but to suspend him.
“The bottom line is, coach Wade put us in this situation,” said Skinner.
Wade will continue to collect his base salary of $400,000 during his suspension but won’t receive lucrative bonuses outlined in his contract for achievements such as $50,000 for capturing the SEC title and another $50,000 for making the NCAA tournament.
Wade’s conversation with Dawkins discussing the player who appears to be Smart is the second such wiretapped recruiting discussion between them to surface publicly.
In another wiretapped call, Wade and Dawkins discussed a different recruit — a 7-foot center named Balsa Koprivica, who later signed with Florida State instead.
Dawkins references an earlier conversation the pair had in Atlanta about Koprivica, a 2019 four-star recruit that “you would have funded” before asking Wade if he’d “want Balsa?”
"I have got to shut the door,” Wade told Dawkins in the wiretapped call, according to court transcripts reviewed by The Advocate. Wade later added, “Here's my thing. I can get you what you need, but it’s got to work.”
Only a portion of that wiretap was read in court during an October trial of Dawkins and two others. The defense attorneys argued unsuccessfully that the call should be admitted as evidence head coaches were in on the scheme to pay players.
It’s unclear from the portion of the call what Wade meant by getting Dawkins “what you need” or who would’ve “funded” Koprivica. Defense attorneys and a federal prosecutor indicated during court arguments that they believed Wade and Dawkins were referring to some sort of payment.
But Wade strongly denied any wrongdoing at the time, both publicly and in conversations with Alleva, and told reporters he and his staff had “never, ever, done business of any kind with Christian Dawkins.”
Alleva said that in his October conversations with Wade, the coach was “very straightforward with us” and that Wade “never gave any indication” he might surface in additional FBI wiretaps as part of the investigation.
An outside law firm and LSU’s compliance officials both looked into the October revelation and “we felt comfortable with allowing him to continue to be our coach,” Alleva said.
“He said he knew Christian Dawkins and that they had conversations,” Alleva said. “Christian Dawkins has had conversations with lots and lots of basketball coaches — that’s kind of what he does. He’s kind of a middleman kind of guy that talks to coaches about players. That’s not uncommon, that’s not illegal. That’s pretty common in the world of college basketball.”
The NCAA “expressed interest” when the Wade wiretap surfaced in October and participated in portions of the university’s review, Skinner said. But LSU officials said they’re not sure when the NCAA launched a formal investigation of Wade.
At least 25 college basketball programs have been linked to the federal investigation, which became public in September 2017, with more expected to be implicated in the coming months.
The revelations led Louisville to fire Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, whose program was a major focus of the October federal criminal trial against Dawkins and others. But the NCAA, at the request of federal prosecutors, hasn't yet taken action against any of the universities tied to the case.
Several other prominent NCAA coaches — including Arizona's Sean Miller, whose program was extensively implicated in the federal case and whom the defense wants also to testify at the April trial — haven't been suspended despite the revelations.
"Well, to my knowledge, those other coaches in the other programs had conversations with their administrators and discussed the situation," Alleva said when asked about the status of others tied to the scandal. "I think that's what makes this different."
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