Players feel respect, regret, even guilt

by Todd Zolecki

Gophers football player Crawford Jordan prepared himself for an emotional day when Coach Jim Wacker called a Tuesday morning team meeting at the Gibson/Nagurski Football Complex. Jordan had a feeling all the uncertainty surrounding Wacker’s future would finally be answered.
Jordan’s intuition proved correct. Wacker told the team his plan to resign as head coach, which he made public later that morning at his weekly press conference. He would relinquish his coaching duties after the season and make way for a new coaching staff.
Players wept during Wacker’s announcement. All the hearsay they’ve dealt with this season was finally over and their emotions poured out.
Wacker had hinted to his players Sunday, the day after a 45-28 loss to Wisconsin, that he might resign.
“I told the kids on Sunday I’m going to do what’s best for this football program,” he said. “That’s all. I’m going to do what’s best and what’s right for the players, and what’s going to give you the best chance to win in the future.”
The players said they couldn’t help but feel somehow responsible for Wacker’s resignation. Gophers senior linebacker Ben Langford said they should be the ones to blame.
“It’s just not his fault,” Langford said. “The players play the game. Coach Wacker didn’t take one snap.”
Since Wacker arrived in 1991 his record is a disappointing 15-38. He said five straight years of losing took its toll on his players, and he wasn’t sure he could motivate them like he had been able to when he arrived.
Because of that, he felt his only option was to resign. If he couldn’t relate to his players he felt the program would never turn around and develop a winning tradition.
Wacker slowly noticed this change in attitude during the season.
“You’ll have a team meeting and you don’t see the sparkle in the eye and the response isn’t quite as good as you’d like to see sometimes,” he said. “I think it’s natural. It’s just like a preacher when he’s preaching to a congregation. He knows when he’s got them and he knows when he doesn’t.”
Wacker didn’t have it. He said players will believe anything coaches say when they’re winning. But when a coach is losing — and for five years — the message becomes more difficult to accept.
“When you’ve been losing you say exactly the same thing, give them exactly the same message and it doesn’t have the same impact,” he said. “When you start losing that, your chances of turning that program are not very good anymore, and I really felt I was at that point. I don’t believe I was having the credibility that I once had, simply because I didn’t have enough W’s behind my name. I think that’s human nature.”
But some players said they never stopped believing in Wacker and the coaching staff.
“I still have as much respect for him as I did the day he got here,” said senior offensive lineman Gann Brooks, who was part of Wacker’s first recruiting class.
Langford said Wacker made those comments because he is just trying to place more blame upon himself and direct it away from the players. Jordan also said players never lost faith in Wacker.
“Maybe they lost faith in themselves or maybe they lost faith in the program, but never the coaches,” Jordan said. “Ultimately it comes down to the players. It wasn’t the coaches and everybody knows that. The fact of the matter is we can’t get fired as players. Somebody has to, and that’s tough. I feel for them and I feel for their families. They’re a great group of guys.”
The future looked bright for the Gophers earlier this season. Minnesota was 3-0 and had just come off an upset against nationally ranked Syracuse. But Minnesota lost two close games to Purdue and Northwestern, games Wacker felt he should have won, and were blown out in following games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Optimism quickly faded, and it appeared Minnesota would once again finish the season below its expectations. That took a toll on the coach.
Jordan said Wacker is still a very energetic, very spirited man, but the past months have been a difficult and very stressful time for him. The team has seen that, he said, and they didn’t want that to rub off on them.
But Jordan admitted that it did.
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t,” he said. “It’s something we’re all a part of. We’re all blamed for it. Coach Wacker has taken the blame. That shows very strong character on his part.”
The Gophers have to prepare for Saturday’s game against Illinois at the Metrodome. Now that Wacker’s future is known, players can concentrate on the game, and not whether their coach will resign or not.
Wacker calls these final two games the biggest of his career. He hopes two wins can bring some momentum to the program and perhaps act as a springboard toward some winning seasons. More importantly, he hopes a 5-6 record will show the team has improved. That could bolster Minnesota’s chances to sign some top recruits for next season.
Wacker had his coaching staff call all the key instate recruits last night to let them know about his decision to resign and to tell them not to give up on Minnesota. He believes the program is on the verge of turning the corner and becoming a winner. He said that will happen and he hopes recruits believe that.
“There’s nothing I want to see more than this program succeed,” he said. “You don’t put your blood, sweat and tears, walk away and not want it to be successful. That’s nuts.”