Win takes load off Wacker’s mind

Todd Zolecki

For the past week, Gophers football coach Jim Wacker said he felt like a wet washcloth. He didn’t get into specifics, but the cloth he referred to probably looked like one found stuck to the bottom of most kitchen sinks: Beat up and abused.
Wacker’s week would have tested the fortitude of most people. He announced his resignation last Tuesday, stepping down from a program he spent five years trying to rebuild, and he prepared his team to play Illinois on Saturday. During that time, he returned numerous phone calls and notes from well-wishers.
“It’s been a chaotic week,” he said.
Wacker’s sunny disposition returned to full form when Minnesota defeated the Illini 23-21 at the Metrodome. Players dumped a bucket full of Gatorade over him in celebration, soaking his clothes.
“I felt a little cold and sticky,” he said. “But it is my favorite bath, I will say that. It even beats a bubble bath.”
An ecstatic Wacker walked with an arm around senior Ogun Akbar back to the Gophers locker room. He told the defensive lineman he did a good job.
Akbar didn’t even play, he was injured, but Wacker didn’t seem to mind. His team had just snapped a 13-game Big Ten losing streak.
“You had as much to do with this win as anyone,” Wacker told Akbar.
Players chanted Wacker’s name in the locker room and discussed how important it was to win this game for their coach.
“We just thank God for Wacker,” defensive lineman Raymond Baylor said. “We wanted so badly for him to leave on a winning note. Just to see Wacker happy, with all the bad news going around about how he couldn’t get it done, it was just a blessing to be able to celebrate with him again.”
Wacker hugged and celebrated with them after the game. He appreciated his players’ support and the fact that they never quit. He said he’ll never forget any of them.
But Wacker did feel somewhat bad. His colleague, Illinois coach Lou Tepper, couldn’t celebrate. Tepper, fired last Monday, is a good friend of Wacker.
The two spoke before the game, reminiscing about the past. Wacker said he can relate to Big Ten coaches like Tepper because they are the only people who understand everything he goes through.
“Jim was smarter than me,” Tepper said. “He resigned. I had to buck the system and get fired.”
Wacker isn’t bitter about resigning. He said it was the right thing to do.
“The coaches in the Big Ten are a wonderful group. This one, he deserves to go,” Wacker said, referring to himself. “They need a change here. But the other three I really feel for because I think they’re outstanding coaches and they should still be coaching.”
Now he hopes he can help the incoming coaching staff build for the future by winning next week’s game against Iowa.
Wacker thinks a 5-6 record could bolster the Gophers’ recruiting opportunities and help Minnesota re-establish itself as a winning program.
“There’s nothing I want more than for these next guys to be successful,” he said. “I want this for the players, for the fans and for everyone who has waited so long. Hopefully the next guys will be able to get it over the hump. I’m just sad we weren’t able to.”
But for now he’ll just concentrate on Iowa. Wacker earned his 160th career victory against the Illini, placing him No. 12 among winningest active Division I coaches.
Actually, Wacker didn’t even know he won his 160th game. A reporter had to point it out to him. Wacker couldn’t believe he mixed up his win total.
“I’ve had so many of them it’s hard to keep track,” Wacker said laughing. “Son of a gun. If anybody should be able to keep track of their wins it’s Wacker!”
One more victory to his name would make the coach feel a lot better.
“I’d love to have 161, boy,” Wacker said. “Last week will definitely be my last week coaching. I’m definitely getting out, so it would be fun to go out with a win.”