Wacker makes quiet exit after Gophers’ loss to Iowa

Todd Zolecki

Coach Jim Wacker walked toward the Metrodome tunnel leading back to his team’s locker room one last time Saturday after the Gophers football game.
His coaching career had ended minutes earlier in a 43-24 loss to Iowa. Most of the 53,349 fans had already left the stadium as Wacker headed toward the runway, but a small group waited to say farewell to the Gophers coach. Wacker waved to the fans and thanked them.
“I love you,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
His sentiments were inaudible. Iowa’s marching band was playing on the field and drowned out his words. It didn’t seem to matter, though, the fans could tell Wacker was grateful for their support.
The past few weeks have been hectic for Wacker, 59, who announced his resignation Nov. 12. After five years as Minnesota’s head coach and a 16-39 record, he said it was time to give somebody else a chance.
One reason he decided to resign was to spend more time with his family, whom he rarely gets to see.
Just before the game and moments before he stepped onto the field, Wacker saw two of his three sons, their wives and his seven-month-old twin granddaughters in the stands.
Wacker had no idea they would be at the game. A Gophers booster paid for his family members to fly to the coach’s final game.
“That started the emotions flowing and they never stopped,” Wacker said. He had never seen the twin girls before.
“I could not believe it,” he said. “That was really special.”
That compounded an already emotional day for Wacker. He was already worked up because it was the last game at Minnesota for 15 seniors and the nine assistant coaches.
“You can’t help but love a guy like Coach Wacker,” Gophers junior Ryan Thelwell said. “He’s been great, not just as a football coach, but as a person. He cares about every single player on the team. We just care for him. We’re all worried about him, but we all know he’s going to be all right and he’s happy with his decision.”
Those feelings clouded Wacker’s thoughts when the game’s outcome had been decided with just over ten minutes remaining. Iowa led 43-17 and as each second ticked off the clock, Wacker’s time at Minnesota grew closer to the end. He couldn’t help but think about it.
“You know something that you’ve loved doing for 37 years all of a sudden isn’t going to be a part of your life anymore,” he said. “That’s tough. There’s no doubt about that.
“Will I miss it? You bet I will. I haven’t gone to work a day in my life. I just go play. How could you not miss that? That’s the best deal in the whole world and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Wacker will trade his playbook for a fishing pole. He plans to move to Texas with his wife Lil and spend time with his grandchildren, whom he plans to take fishing.
“Boy, we catch the biggest sunfish you’ve ever seen,” he said, extending his thumb and index finger a few inches apart. “It doesn’t matter how big they are. If it wiggles, they’re excited. They love them.”
Wacker has kept a positive attitude throughout the past few weeks despite all that has happened. He said he has been blessed to coach at Minnesota. He never even expected to work at a Big Ten school when in 1960 he was a high school coach in Portland, Ore..
He thought he’d coach high school the rest of his life. Then, one of his friends received a head coaching job in college and he brought Wacker in as an assistant.
He moved from school to school, winning two national championships at Texas Lutheran in 1974 and 1975 and two in 1981 and 1982 at Southwest Texas State.
“I never would have guessed I would have coached Division I,” he said. “I have been blessed so far beyond any of my expectations. I think I’m the luckiest guy that ever lived, and I thank the good Lord for that.”
But Wacker said he looks forward to life after football. The past five years weren’t what he had anticipated.
“The losing takes its toll,” he said. “It really does. That’s what’s hard. They need a new coach, they need a new guy with credibility … a guy who can turn this thing.
“We gave it our best shot and we didn’t get it done. I wish I was a better football coach at the end,” Wacker said.