Jim Gazzolo column: I cast my vote for Wade

Published 4:33 pm Thursday, March 7, 2024

Will Wade was in New Orleans last night finishing up one of the most remarkable turnaround regular seasons in college basketball history.

In his first season at McNeese State, Wade has taken a struggling program and given it national recognition in a span of 12 months.

He has also revived his coaching career at the same time.

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It has been remarkable to watch.

As the Cowboys move from one championship to what they hope is another next week when they host the Southland Conference Tournament, Wade is getting a lot of attention.

Each victory puts his troubles at LSU farther in the rear view mirror.

Wade and his players deserve all the accolades they are getting. So does his staff, who held things strong while he served a 10-game NCAA-imposed suspension at the start of the season.

A win or loss in New Orleans will change little to how fans are viewing this season. Next week is a different story, as McNeese is two home wins from its third NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2002.

That, of course, is the prize everybody wants.

But there is more to this season that had the Cowboys with a 27-3 record heading into the Big Easy, and Wade gets it.

He and his players understand they are playing for a town desperate for something to cheer for. The Cowboys have delivered and even embraced their role, led by their head coach.

It’s just one of the many reasons that Wade deserves to be given serious consideration as college basketball’s national coach of the year.

It is even hard to believe we could consider that at a place like McNeese, which, until last weekend, hadn’t won a regular-season title in 13 years. Still, that is the case.

Wade will clearly be the Southland and state coach of the year when the votes are counted. Any other outcome would be as shocking as the Cowboys winning 30 games.

With the biggest turnaround ever at McNeese, Wade has earned more than those honors.

As he celebrated the championship on Monday night by cutting down the nets on the Cowboys’ home floor, Wade said he was happy to have that moment with fans, who a year before he had yet to even meet.

“To see the joy it brought them, that is special,” Wade said. “I enjoy seeing other people happy.”

While that is a great touch, it’s not why he deserves consideration for the top coaching honor, but it does say something about maybe why he should get it too.

The reason Wade should be in the running is his coaching. He took a group of guys who were all looking for second or third chances at finding a hoops home and molded them into a winning band of teammates who play for one another.

And he did it in record time.

He also accomplished the feat at a place where basketball has never had a steady following. Now the Cowboys play to a packed house that has helped them post a 16-0 record on a court named after the school’s greatest player, Joe Dumars. They set the record for most regular-season wins by beating Houston Christian last Monday.

All this one year after McNeese set another single-season program record, that of 23 losses. Over the last two seasons, the Cowboys were a dismal 22-45 and have 32 victories over the last three.

It would take a real run in the NCAA Tournament for McNeese to set the all-time single-season record for victories back to their NAIA championship season in 1956 at 33, but this is still pretty good.

You can also factor in two of McNeese’s three losses that have come on the road by a single point. Only once were they definitively beaten, that was at Louisiana Tech the day before Thanksgiving.

On that day there was no Wade, and Mike Saunders and C.J. Felder were not yet eligible. If they played the Bulldogs again, you get the feeling the outcome might be different.

So no one person has done more from a college bench this season for a team, school and community than Wade.

Is he going to win the award?

Not likely.

It will go to a coach from a larger school with a brighter spotlight shining on him. Small programs are often overlooked, and in many ways it is understandable.

But if you consider how down the Cowboys were, how much they have had to overcome, and yes, how much they have done to lift the spirits of their community, Wade is the clear winner.

If nothing else, he’s the author of the best feel-good story in college basketball no matter how the final chapter reads.


Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com