TCU coach Jim Wacker kicked seven players off his team six weeks ago for taking under-the-table money from alumni, an illicit practice about as rare in college football as the singing of school songs. Moola, moola. Moola, moola! But that isn't what started Wacker talking to himself. Wacker has always talked to himself. "Wacker," Wacker will say, referring to himself in the third person as he often does, "why did you do it?" He replies, "Because Wacker's an idiot."
Fact is, until he did it, life as a TCU Horned Frog was as fine as anybody could remember, and most of that was thanks to the slightly whacked-out Wacker, 6'5" and 210 pounds of cross-wired Volkswagen batteries firing this way and that. For TCU fans, who had endured six thirsty years under FA. (Extra) Dry, Wacker was as welcome as an ice-cold Bud on a hot Texas day. His bizarre weekly coach's show became such an event on campus that students organized parties to watch it. One opened with a film clip of Wacker falling flat on his face in the Astrodome. "Unbeleeevable, let's watch that again," said Wacker, and we do, this time in slow motion.
Too, strange un-coachlike utterances were emanating from his direction. "My players need love," he would say. "Heck, Wacker needs love. We all need love." Finally, this Wacker business of The Buck(s) Stop Here was very new. "We want players who can't be bought," he says, "because Wacker ain't buyin' any." Trouble was, Wacker would come to find out, others at TCU still were.
Just how different is Wacker? People who know him best will tell you, only half kiddingly, that it's not just his offensive line that is unbalanced. After all, this is a man who, at Southwest Texas State, once fired his entire kickoff coverage team and the special-teams coach during a game. "I want 11 new guys out there or Wacker is going to be all over somebody's butt!" Wacker said.
November 4, 1985
"But Coach," said the flabbergasted assistant, "we don't have 11 more guys!"
Wacker comes by some of his zaniness honestly. His father, a Detroit minister, used to sneak out to Tigers games on afternoons when the moral-fiber business was a little slow, often without remembering to tell his wife. No problem. The Rev. Wacker would rave and rant and carry on so famously at games that Mrs. Wacker had only to turn on the broadcasts to hear him and know he was safe. "That's how my dad is, too," says Mike Wacker, 23, Jim's son. "He's got the worst memory. In a meeting he'll tell one of the coaches, 'Hey, when we're done, remind me to go to the bathroom.' "
An average defensive lineman at Lutheran High, Wacker nonetheless chose coaching as his profession. His first big job came at a Portland, Ore. high school, where he had the idea of using two quarterbacks at once. Each quarterback would put his hands under center, and it was up to the defense to guess which one came away with the ball. This worked quite well until Wacker discovered it was illegal. Even with one quarterback, Wacker proved to be skilled as a coach, winning two NAIA championships at Texas Lutheran and two NCAA Division II titles at Southwest Texas State before TCU called in 1983.
Wacker went from a 1-8-2 Frog in his first season to an 8-4 prince and a bowl appearance in '84. He was named national Coach of the Year by UPI, ESPN and The Sporting News, and TCU put together two boffo recruiting seasons. But Wacker was also commanding attention in other ways. As much as he was adored in Fort Worth, he was becoming equally disdained around the rest of the SWC because of a Xeroxed plea he sent his fellow SWC coaches to "clean up" the cheating in the conference. "Let's at least sit down and talk about it," wrote Wacker.
Let's not, was the message from most of the other coaches. Two returned scalding replies. " 'Mind your own business,' is basically what they said," Wacker says. Others ignored him. Two leaked the letter to newspapers. Columnists called Wacker "naive," but he says, "Wacker wasn't naive about the cheating. Wacker was naive to think anybody wanted to do anything about it."
Then, on Sept. 19, 1985, everything Wacker had accomplished at TCU came apart like a $9 suit. That day Horned Frog running-back coach Tom Perry wandered down to the weight room, where Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Davis was acting funny. The air was rife with rumors that SMU players were fingering players from TCU and other SWC schools in talks with the NCAA. Because, as the world now knows, Davis had received a contract promising him $38,000 in cash and goods to play under Dry and was getting $400 per month from TCU booster Dick Lowe, Davis's conscience was starting to get pricked. But not much.
"Hey, Coach," said Davis, casually. "Do you think Coach Wacker would know if somebody was getting paid?"
"You know he doesn't know that kind of thing," Perry said. "What's going on?"
In a team meeting that night, Wacker told his players he was "excited if they're coming to investigate us.... Let 'em come! It'll make us look great!"
After the meeting, Perry found Davis. "Look, K.D., I've got to know what's going on," Perry said. "If you've got something to say, you better say it."
Davis looked hard at Perry. Davis said, "What I'm about to tell you is in confidence, all right?" Davis told Perry that he was getting paid by Lowe.
That secret hung like hot lead in Perry's pocket for the next 45 minutes. Then he confronted Wacker. "I knew I had to tell Coach Wacker," Perry says. "It's what he'd talked about since Day One. If any of us ever knew of something, we had to come forward."
Previous news reports indicated that Davis had voluntarily come clean to Wacker about the payments, but that obviously wasn't the case. Wacker called Lowe, who admitted paying off not only Davis but also several other players. Wacker then met with athletic director Frank Windegger, chancellor William Tucker and Lowe. At approximately 8:30 p.m. calls were placed to the SWC office and the NCAA. By 10 p.m. Wacker had suspended six players. The seventh turned himself in five days later.
Wacker has received more than 600 letters and telegrams and countless phone calls in praise of his action. Not everyone, however, thinks he ought to be bronzed. Davis, for one, feels burned: "I told him [Perry] that in confidence. I feel like I've been used, like I've been thrown to the wolves. He and I had a great relationship. We've cried on each other's shoulders many, many times."
"If I had to do it again, I wouldn't," Perry now says. "I'd wait until somebody found out and then I'd take the blame. I'd get fired and that would be fine. It just hurt Jim too much and hurt too many kids and too many families."
Wacker, in fact, didn't feel too heroic. "I think he said, 'If this is what major college football is all about, is it worth the fight?' " recalls Lil, his wife of 24 years.
"I second-guessed myself," Wacker says. "I kept asking why? Why? Why did Kenneth have to tell Tom Perry? In six months, we'd have had a great season, and nobody would have known and all those guys on payments would have been outta here. No way that money would have ever been traced. Ahhhhh, but I had to live with Wacker."
In the wake of his startling action, Wacker's Frogs have croaked. With five freshmen starting on offense, and seven on defense, they have lost four of their last five games and are now 3-4. The defeats include 40-point-plus shutouts by Arkansas and Baylor and, of all things, a loss to Rice. "But what are you gonna do?" Wacker says. "You're not gonna slash your wrists over freshmen."
Trickier is keeping team morale high. The seven ousted players eat three meals a day with his team. Three are still living in the athletic dorm, and all of them have their scholarships. Worse, not everybody on the squad is a Wacker Backer. Running back Tony Jeffery, Davis's roommate, was asked if the team supported Wacker's actions. "No comment," he said. Greg Moore, a freshman running back, says he often hears transfer talk in the locker room: "You'll hear guys say, 'Well, if the NCAA comes down hard on us, I can still go here or go there.' But me, I'm stayin'.' "
Wacker has also had to live with accusations that he a) knew about the payments or b) didn't exactly break down doors to find out about them. He admits that when he took over at TCU, he was told improper payments had been made. But he didn't go to the NCAA. If he was determined to run the cleanest program this side of M.I.T., why didn't he?
"This place had waited 25 years to win," he says. "There was no way I was going to start us out on probation before we'd been on the job one day. Yeah, TCU got a new coach. Now let's see how good he reeeeally is."
Besides, Wacker says he was satisfied that the wrongdoing had ceased. "Players were coming in to my office saying, 'Coach, my payments have been cut off. I'm turning you in and I'm leaving.' I'd say, 'Good, Jack, hit the road.' We thought we had the faucet shut off."
And, Wacker asks, hadn't Lowe assured him "time after time" that the payoffs had stopped? Why should he doubt Lowe? Wasn't Lowe one of Wacker's best friends? Hadn't Lowe had the Wackers out to his ranch three times? "Nicest people you could want to meet," says Lil. "Ail they could say to us was how thrilled they were that we were running everything on the up-and-up."
"And all the time," says Wacker, "he was lying."
"Not lying," says Lowe. "Just keeping something from him."
Lowe may not have been the only one. In November 1984, Wacker says, a manager of a Mama's Pizza parlor, a chain of pizza houses run by TCU booster Chris Farkas, came to Wacker with names and amounts of dough coming in and out that had nothing to do with pizza. Wacker says he asked Farkas several times about the situation and was satisfied nothing was amiss. Later, Windegger came to him with more rumors about Farkas. "I asked Farkas and he said, 'Look, Coach, since you've come in, we've cleaned it up,' " says Wacker. "I'd ask these guys every time, and they lied. And they admitted they lied!" Farkas could not be reached for comment, but Davis has told SI that Farkas gave him money both when he was being recruited by TCU and after he enrolled there (SI, Oct. 14).
Based on the evidence so far, the worst one can say about Wacker is that he didn't exactly search for clues with the zeal of a Hercule Poirot. "But I'm not an investigator," he says. "I'm a coach, for geez-o-Pete." At least when Wacker tripped over a dead body he didn't call it a bump in the linoleum, which has been SOP in college football for decades.
What Wacker did was unheard of, but was he a fool for doing it, as he implies? Says Perry, "All the Texas high school coaches I meet shake your hand and say, 'Boy, Coach, I really admire what you guys did.' And under their breath, they're going, 'You dummies. This stuff has been going on for 70 years.' "
And what of the next 70? Will what Wacker did make them any different? Can the Wackers of the world survive? "I hope so," says TCU assistant Tom Mueller, Wacker's closest friend. "Because if Wacker can't, who can?"
As for Wacker, even after two straight years of deceit and mendacity stuffed in his face, he remains bullish. "There're lots of Wackers out there," he says. "Wacker won't lose faith in people. For his own sanity, Wacker's got to keep believing people can be trusted. If they can't, Wacker doesn't want to know."