Powers: Sunny Jim Wacker would declare everyone ready for TCU Fiddle
By Tom Powers St. Paul Pioneer Press That was a favorite saying of the late, great Jim Wacker, whose heart pumped and corpuscles jumped for the last time Aug. 26, 2003. He was a goofy, animated, enthusiastic, wonderful fellow. On Saturday, the Mi...
By Tom Powers
St. Paul Pioneer Press
That was a favorite saying of the late, great Jim Wacker, whose heart pumped and corpuscles jumped for the last time Aug. 26, 2003. He was a goofy, animated, enthusiastic, wonderful fellow.
On Saturday, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Texas Christian University Horned Frogs will tee it up and play in the first annual (maybe) Wacker Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Reverend Sunny Jim, so nicknamed because of his relentlessly positive attitude - often smiling on the sideline even while his team was getting hammered - was head football coach at both TCU and Minnesota, among other schools. He remains something of a folk hero at TCU, where he turned the program around in his second year there and went to the Bluebonnet Bowl.
After nine seasons at TCU, he trekked north to replace John Gutekunst as head coach of the Gophers. On the surface, that didn’t seem like it was going to be a hard thing to do. But Wacker struggled mightily in Minnesota, going 16-39 in five years and never finishing higher than eighth in the Big Ten.
The highlight of his tenure was an upset victory over Syracuse in 1996. Like Babe Ruth calling his shot, it was an outcome Wacker publicly predicted earlier in the week. Asked about the bold prediction after the victory, he replied: “Just a couple of screws loose. I’m not very smart.”
When the end came for him in Minnesota, he declared: “I will walk away tall. I will walk away proud.”
And, honestly, a lot of people didn’t care how he walked away as long as he did. But he was a great guy and the wackiest coach ever to grace our humble tundra. Although “Wacker Bowl” is an unofficial moniker for Saturday’s matchup, it should be fully endorsed whenever the two schools meet up, which they will again next season. Then, somewhere up there, The Rev. Sunny Jim will exclaim: “Golly!”
The only problem for the Gophers as they head into the Wacker Bowl is that their quarterback is on the mend and may not be ready in time.
Mitch Leidner had one mandate coming into the season: Don’t get hurt. The Gophers built an offensive strategy around keeping him healthy. They needed to be careful because all that’s standing behind Leidner at the position is a gaggle of freshmen.
Two games in, Leidner is nursing a sprained medial collateral ligament. Thus, the Doomsday Scenario has unfolded against a very tough opponent. TCU is good. Yet even as Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover prep apple-cheeked youngsters in practice, they maintain hope that Leidner will somehow be able to play Saturday.
“He’s a tough son of a gun and that’s straight up,” Kill said.
Limegrover took it one step further, saying his gut was telling him Leidner would play.
“Yeah, my gut, the medical report, everything,” he said. “I mean, I’m a business-as-usual guy until told otherwise, and so we’re business as usual.”
It’s big deal because TCU is an important measuring stick for the Gophers. The Frogs defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in 2011 and traditionally have fielded good teams under Gary Patterson, who is 121-44 at the school. There is a lot of buzz surrounding this contest. In Minnesota, anyway.
It would be a shame if Leidner couldn’t go. If that’s the case, the Gophers will turn to Chris Streveler, who has seen a few minutes of action in each of the first two games.
“You always have to have two quarterbacks ready,” Limegrover said. “At this level, you’ve always got to be prepared for whatever is going to come your way in any given game.”
“Biggest thing in this game, you’ve got to stay healthy - got to be lucky and stay healthy,” Kill said. “Hopefully he can play, but we’ll have Chris ready if he needs to be.”
Kill will probably have to tweak his offensive game plan if Leidner can’t go - which reminds me of the time Wacker devised a special game plan against Purdue in 1995.
On that day, the Gophers handed the ball to running back Chris Darkins 38 times - thirty-eight - and won 39-38. Darkins gained 294 yards.
“Is he a great player or what?” an amped-up Wacker gushed afterward.
Assessing his coach’s mood, Darkins noted: “I think ‘hysterical’ is the word.’ ”
Well, there’s a lot of nostalgia attached to the Wacker Bowl. There’s a lot at stake, too.
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