Will Wade’s return to coaching has meant heady times for resurgent McNeese State

McNeese State coach Will Wade watches the team's NCAA college basketball game against New Orleans in New Orleans, Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Wade was suspended for the first 10 games of the 2023–24 season by the NCAA but the team went to a 28-3 record and finished first in the Southland Conference. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

McNeese State coach Will Wade watches the team’s NCAA college basketball game against New Orleans in New Orleans, Wednesday, March 6, 2024. Wade was suspended for the first 10 games of the 2023–24 season by the NCAA but the team went to a 28-3 record and finished first in the Southland Conference. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Hiring former LSU basketball coach Will Wade came with no small measure of risk for McNeese State athletic director Heath Shroyer.

“I had a lot of people email me and tell me I was crazy, that I hired someone that’s a criminal,” recalled Shroyer, who wasn’t even sure when he hired Wade a year ago how many games the NCAA would allow him to coach this season.

Now McNeese is 28-3, the No. 1 seed in the Southland Conference Tournament and just two victories away from its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 22 years. It’s a stark turnaround for the Cowboys, who went 11-23 a season ago, and Shroyer will take it.

“Coach is a polarizing figure to some, you know, and I think no matter what, some aren’t going to like him,” Shroyer said. “For sure, some of them have come around and some of them haven’t, and that’s OK.”

The Cowboys received a double-bye in the Southland tournament, which is being held in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at McNeese’s 4,200-seat arena. They open postseason play in the semifinals Tuesday night.

Wade is not a convicted criminal. But he was cited for recruiting violations by the NCAA while at LSU, which hired him in 2017 and fired him in 2022.

He spent a year out of college basketball, consulting for scouting departments of some NBA teams, before returning to coaching at McNeese — albeit with school- and NCAA-mandated restrictions, including a 10-game “show cause” suspension to open the season.

The Cowboys went 8-2 in the games Wade missed, 20-1 since he returned. Along the way have been upset victories at VCU, Alabama-Birmingham and Michigan.

Wade gushes with gratitude toward McNeese, not only for hiring him but providing the support he needed to turn the program around.

“McNeese needed to reboot the program. I needed to reboot may career,” Wade said. “They needed me and I needed them and that’s why it’s worked. And a lot of our players needed this situation as well.

“To see everybody rally around us and see everybody be excited is really, really fun and rewarding,” Wade added.

The Cowboys, who are getting votes in the AP Top 25, have become a celebrated and galvanizing source of pride in a community still working to bounce back from consecutive major hurricanes in 2020. McNeese’s arena was damaged heavily and reopened only two years ago. This season, the Cowboys have sold out six home games and drawn near-capacity crowds to others. Shroyer said basketball revenue has spiked more than fivefold.

Junior forward Christian Shumate, an explosive scorer whose dunks have become known as “Shu slams” by Cowboys fans, said that after spending two seasons in virtual anonymity, he can’t go anywhere in Lake Charles now without being recognized.

“I kind of embrace it,” Shumate said. “It feels good to give these people something to look forward to.”

After persuading Shumate to stay, Wade rebuilt the lineup around him with transfers — some from major conference programs, including TCU, Florida and Utah.

TCU transfer Shahada Wells, an adept perimeter shooter and the Cowboys’ leading scorer (17.2 points per game), said he’d never heard of Lake Charles before Wade’s staff began recruiting him and figured there might not be much fan support for a team with a recent history of losing.

“I didn’t expect us to have the crowds we have now, the community coming out and supporting us,” Wells said. “It’s electric, man.”

Wade got in trouble when the NCAA found that he’d funneled then-improper financial benefits to LSU players or their families.

Such payments now are largely permissible since the NCAA began allowing athletes in July 2021 to earn money from their name, image and likeness. But Wade shows no bitterness over his punishment — he’ll remain under recruiting restrictions for one more year — or the hit his reputation took.

“I’m not here to judge all that,” Wade said. “We went through the process, they adjudicated it and we’ve just got to move forward.”

Wade even suggested he’ll be better off in the long run.

“Sometimes you need to get knocked off the ladder a little bit to get a little bit better perspective,” Wade said. “I look at it as a positive.”

Wade, 41, was 34 when LSU hired him. He was so obsessed with building the Tigers into a national power, he said, that he was always focused on immediately addressing whatever went wrong during games — even when they won.

Now, Wade said, he’s happier, more relaxed, makes sure to enjoy victories and looks for opportunities for players to have fun between games. Before playing at Michigan, the Cowboys went to a Pistons game. On their way to a game at Southeastern Louisiana, they stopped for dinner at a Baton Rouge oyster bar that Wade frequented when he was LSU’s coach.

Wade starred as “Willy the Kid” in a promotional video in which he’s dressed like an outlaw from the Old West and rides a horse to a rendezvous with McNeese players wearing cowboy hats.

Wade’s rapid success at McNeese could make him a hot commodity on the coaching market after this season. But he’s expressed gratitude to McNeese by agreeing last month to a new five-year contract with a buyout as large as $1.25 million if he leaves after this season.

“Eventually, you want to get back to the big time,” Wade said. “But I’m not in some rush to get back like I was before. … We’ve got time. I’m just enjoying the hell out of what we’re doing here.”

Shroyer expects Wade to move to a power conference program eventually. But he also senses that Wade will be choosy about such opportunities.

“I believe in second-chances,” Shroyer said. “I believe Will Wade, at some point in time down the road, will have an opportunity to win a national championship. But I don’t think that he will have an impact on a community more than he’s had on this one.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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