Wacker: We didn’t get it done’

by Jeff Sherry

At a packed press conference Tuesday morning, Gophers football coach Jim Wacker took a moment to discuss how emotional a person he can be.
“I cry and laugh a lot,” he said. “And I’m not going to apologize for either one.”
Wacker laughed and cried on Tuesday, but he apologized as well. In an emotional announcement at the Bierman Athletic Building, Wacker told Minnesota he was sorry for not winning, and he resigned as the Gophers’ football coach.
The resignation, which is effective at the end of the season, was rumored to be coming since the Gophers lost their sixth straight game Saturday at Wisconsin. It comes near the end of Wacker’s fifth year at the University.
“We didn’t get it done (in wins and losses) and that’s the bottom line,” Wacker said. “That’s what you have to do, irregardless. It’s the head coach’s responsibility to make sure that happens, and I was not able to do that. I failed at that, it’s that simple. I wasn’t good enough.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard enough. I’ll walk away from here, I’ll walk away tall and I’ll walk away proud. But I will walk away disappointed that I was not able to do it for the great people of the state of Minnesota, because they deserve it.”
Wacker led Minnesota to a 15-38 record in his five years at the University, including a 7-31 record in the Big Ten. The Gophers have lost their last 13 conference games.
University men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart acknowledged the need for the football team to start winning, but he also commended Wacker at length for the character and academic success he brought to the program. The Gophers have led the Big Ten in all-academic selections the last three years.
Dienhart said he planned to begin the search for a new coachimmediately, and he hopes to make the new hire as soon as possible. Like Wacker, he was optimistic about the next coach’s chances for success.
“Make no mistake about it, we are going to find a way to win,” Dienhart said. “I am confident we will attract the kind of individual who will be able to recruit and guide a team to a winning future.”
Until Tuesday, it appeared the Gophers’ future wouldn’t be decided until their final two games. A stipulation in Wacker’s contract said he’d have to resign unless Minnesota won at least five games this year, meaning the Gophers (3-6 this season) needed to win their final two games against Illinois and Iowa.
Wacker agreed to the clause last November as part of a two-year contract extension. This wasn’t known to the public until late in the summer, when it was accidentally revealed to the press. When the team opened the season with three non-conference wins, the five-win mark looked quite attainable. But the Gophers haven’t won since, and the pressure had started to build.
Wacker cited the pressure to win as one of the reasons he decided to step down. He didn’t want the burden of the coaches’ futures on his players’ shoulders, he said, and he also wanted a break for himself.
But those weren’t the only reasons. Wacker said the next coach would have a better shot at a solid recruiting class this year if the coaching transition was made soon. He also said he thought it was simply time for a change — Wacker wasn’t convinced his players still believed in him after all the losing seasons.
“There’s an intangible, a belief that’s gotta be there,” Wacker said. “When all of a sudden that slips away, you’re in trouble. And I felt that slipping away. I’m not the coach today I was two or three years ago; you get too beaten down.”
With that feeling in his gut, and the realization that Minnesota could no longer have a winning record this year, Wacker approached his assistant coaches Sunday afternoon to talk about the future. He scheduled a special meeting with his players for Tuesday at 7:15 a.m.
Defensive coordinator Tim Rose said it was obvious Sunday that Wacker planned to resign, even though the head coach didn’t come right out and say so.
“Trust me, there was no major dialogue to try to change his mind, and nobody tried to,” Rose said. “It wasn’t a shock to any of us.”
For many, Rose and the seven other assistant coaches are the forgotten people involved with Wacker’s resignation. Assistant coaches are seldom kept over from one coaching regime to the next, so Minnesota’s assistants will most likely need to find new places to work.
Rose said he’s already decided he won’t return to Minnesota, and he’s excited to start over again.
“My job now after these next two weeks is to try to find me a job where I can coach in the fall of 1997,” Rose said. “Hopefully, the coaches I brought along will get the same opportunity. But I ain’t down. I consider coaching a privilege, and I expect to do it again.”
As far as Minnesota’s next head coach goes, Dienhart said he’ll avoid the slow, formal search committee approach. Rather than going through multiple interviews and resumes, he wants to find one qualified candidate and make him an offer.
To talk with a coach from another school, however, Dienhart would probably have to wait until the end of the season. He needs permission from the other universities’ athletics directors before he can speak with their head or assistant coaches, and Dienhart said athletics directors usually grant permission only after the season is over.
Dienhart said he hasn’t considered yet who he’ll go after, but he’s open to both established head coaches and other teams’ top assistants.
“I think we have a good situation to offer, and we’re going to keep the door open to possibilities,” Dienhart said.
Wacker’s not exactly sure what he’ll be doing next year, but he knows this much: He won’t be a football coach. Wacker said he is retiring from coaching, and he wants to spend at least the next nine months relaxing with his wife, Lil, and his family. He has twin granddaughters in Denver he hasn’t had the chance to see yet.
After finishing up the season and helping his assistants find jobs, Wacker also plans to move back to his home state of Texas. There he might resume teaching, his other career. He’s considering teaching either geography or educational curriculum.
But regardless of what Wacker does, he plans to keep close ties with Gophers football. He said he’s convinced the football program can be successful here, and that there’s nothing he wants more than to see Minnesota succeed.
That was evident Tuesday. It wasn’t until Wacker spoke about the program’s future bowl hopes that he released his emotions and let out a few tears.
“I told Mark, the main thing he’s got to give me in this agreement when we come down to the end here is to guarantee me he’ll have two tickets for me for the next bowl game,” Wacker said, just before breaking down. “Because Lil and I are going to be there, baby. We’re going to be there … and we’ll be cheering big time.”