Wade fulfills promise in one year

Published 6:26 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

On the very same court he was introduced to the Cowboy faithful a year earlier Will Wade fulfilled his promise by cutting down the nets inside the Legacy Center.

A mere 12 months prior to Wednesday evening, Wade stood before some 350 McNeese State fans who were still in disbelief of his arrival and proclaimed the Cowboys would win and win fast.

Even in their wildest hopes and dreams, few could have ever imagined it would be this fast or this big.

Email newsletter signup

And with more still to come, perhaps.

By beating Nicholls in the Southland Conference title game, the Cowboys won 30 and lost three under Wade. It’s the program’s first title since 2002.

That is a cause to celebrate with the fans as his team was showered in confetti. 

Never before had basketball been on center stage in Lake Charles but Wade was telling all who would listen he had arrived to turn the program around.

Wade had actually come to McNeese, not as a basketball savoir but as a coach and man in search of rehabilitation.

His coaching career was in limbo and his reputation was tarnished. 

This was after an ugly exit from LSU under the cloud of an FBI and NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. He would eventually serve a 10-game suspension to begin his time at McNeese.

That is some heavy baggage to carry into a new home.

To his credit, Wade never ducked the issues or questions and instead embraced the chance at a fresh start with a program in desperate need of saving.

Few believed his bravado when he guaranteed his new team would win 23 games plus one, but it got the folks fired up when he said it.

Wade took that number by reversing the total lost by McNeese the season before, a program record. In fact, the Cowboys had come off losing 45 games over the previous two seasons while winning just 22.

It is safe to say winning was not in the McNeese basketball DNA.

But in the space of a calendar year, Wade has changed all that. And here he was, celebrating with his new hometown the championship he always believed was within reach.

“I knew we had a pretty good team but I wasn’t sure how good,” said Wade. “I knew we could win but how fast did surprise me.”

So last night there he was, standing on top of a ladder while cutting down the nets while a bunch of his fans, or as he calls them friends, huddled around wanting to soak in all the excitement.

“That was awesome,” said Wade. “I am so indebted to people here, the administration, the school, they have welcomed me from the start with open arms.

“It makes me happy to see other people happy. To see other people get joy, to see other people get excited, to see what it means to them is very gratifying to me.”

For the fans, it has been the opposite. Wade came to them while they were still down, recovering from the double hurricanes of 2020 and a long way from feeling good about themselves. 

He gave them hope, something to cheer for, and something to rally around. And just as importantly, something that is their own.

Will Wade chose them at a time when it was easy for people to choose anywhere but Lake Charles.

And not all the fans were local. They came from Baton Rouge as well, wearing LSU hats that read Will Wade Brigade.

“They needed me and I needed them,” said Wade. “These people took a chance on me when they didn’t have to. I won’t ever forget that.”

Now Wade has them in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time ever and first since 2002, just as he said he would do 366 days ago.

There is no telling how long this Cinderella story will last. The glass slipper could break next week in the first round and Wade could be off to greener pastures and greater riches. 

If so, it has been a great year.

If McNeese fans get an encore next season, where can the program go? But that is for another day and another tale.

For this night, Will Wade is a man who lives up to his words and has a team that’s leading an entire community to the Big Dance. And he is doing it with a smile on his face.

“I’m having a blast,” Wade said. “This is so much fun no matter how it ends.”

It has been some kind of year.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance sports writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. He can be reached at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com