The story behind the TCU coach who turned in his own team to the NCAA

NCAAF

Kenneth Davis shed more tears than he cares to admit 37 years ago when he was told he was being suspended from TCU‘s football team.

He may shed a few more tears Saturday, tears of joy, when he sees his alma mater playing the kind of high-stakes game he and his teammates dreamed about before the unthinkable happened.

Just prior to the second game of the 1985 season, a season filled with promise for the Horned Frogs, TCU coach Jim Wacker turned in his own team to the NCAA after learning that several players, including Davis, had been accepting illegal payments from boosters. Davis was coming off a season in which he had finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting after rushing for 1,611 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns.

“Yep, the same thing that’s legal now,” Davis told ESPN, referencing NIL. “It was devastating. I just cried and couldn’t quit crying. I think today that I’m still not over it because there was so much we could have done and would have done. They just brushed us out of there for what everybody else was doing in the Southwest Conference back then. And I mean everybody, a lot of it much worse at other schools.

“We didn’t set up any of it. The boosters set it up. They came to us. What kid isn’t going to accept that money if they’re offering it to you, especially the kids coming from tougher backgrounds?

“It was a hard time, not just for us, but for a lot of people who loved TCU.”

As dark as those days were for Davis and the Frog Nation, he said it would all be worth it to see TCU beat Michigan on Saturday in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl, then finish off this dream season with a victory in the national championship game Jan. 9.

“They get a chance to do what I always wanted to do, to win a national championship, and maybe this is finally our time,” Davis said. “I’ll always wonder what we could have done because we had the right players, the right coaches, the right team, the right everything.”

They also had a head coach who was anything but conventional. He was deeply committed to doing what he felt was the right thing — even if that meant dropping a dime on his own team.

“Not many coaches would have done that, then or now,” said former TCU athletic director Frank Windegger, who will turn 89 next month. “What a hard decision, but the right decision despite everything we had to dig out of after that. It was a different time in college football. But Jim was determined to stand by what he had been preaching, that we weren’t going to try to win games by breaking the rules.”

Wacker, the son of a Lutheran preacher, died in 2003 at the age of 66 from cancer. Those closest to him said he was tormented by the aftermath of the scandal, but not by his actions.

“Dad never regretted his decision to do what he did because that decision had already been made,” said oldest son Mike Wacker, who played basketball at Texas and coached basketball for 37 years, recently retiring from Texas Lutheran University. “The last thing he was going to be was a hypocrite. He had said very publicly that he wasn’t going to buy players. He didn’t say it once. He said it a million times. He genuinely believed they could win at TCU without cheating.

“What Dad did regret was how much that decision adversely impacted so many people’s lives. He never wanted that to happen.”

Seven players were suspended, some of whom may have had potential pro careers stunted, and there was shame and embarrassment across the board at TCU. All after Wacker, who had come to the school from the NAIA and Division II ranks, had revived a moribund program that had 16 losing seasons in the previous 17 years before his arrival.

Tom Mueller was Wacker’s defensive coordinator and worked with him for 21 years. To this day, Mueller believes some people in the upper administration at TCU failed Wacker because they weren’t completely truthful with him when he took the job about whether players were getting paid.

“There was a meeting, and he looked the people in that room right in the eyes and said, ‘I need to know if we’re cheating because that’s not the way we’re going to do it. We’re going to do it the right way,'” Mueller recounted. “Maybe Jim was naive, but he believed you could win without cheating and was assured that wouldn’t be the case while he was the coach.”

Those close to Wacker, who was the eternal optimist with his catch phrases like “Unbeleev-able,” said he was surprised and disappointed by how harshly the NCAA penalized TCU even with Wacker being so cooperative. Wacker was insistent on turning over all the information the school uncovered from a payment plan that had been launched by boosters, including trustee Dick Lowe, before Wacker was hired. Lowe, a Texas oil man, died in 2020. He told the Orange County Register in 2010 that the payments were “stupid” and were born out of frustration because “everybody else was doing it and we were getting our asses kicked.”

Much to Wacker’s chagrin, the NCAA hardly took it easy on TCU, which was hit with a one-year bowl ban, the loss of 35 scholarships over two years and the forfeiture of its 1983 and 1984 television revenue. Those sanctions were a precursor to SMU receiving the so-called death penalty because of recruiting violations. The Mustangs had to shut down their program in 1987 and 1988. The sanctions against the two schools were part of a series of events that in many ways were the beginning of the end of the Southwest Conference.

“Jim went as far as to find out when NCAA investigators were coming to town and would send a car to pick them up at the airport,” said Bob DeBesse, TCU’s quarterbacks coach at the time. “Jim just felt by doing the right thing, calling the NCAA and handing over everything, that the NCAA would also do the right thing. But, no, it was just the opposite.

“We always said that SMU got the death penalty, but that we got life because we had to keep playing through impossible sanctions.”

In a flash, all the momentum of the TCU football program was gone. The Horned Frogs went 8-4 in 1984 and played in their first bowl game in 19 years. But over the next eight years, they would have just one winning season. It was 15 more years before they would make it back into the AP Top 25. And with the Southwest Conference’s demise on the horizon, TCU ended up bouncing around from one conference to another (WAC, Conference USA and Mountain West) until finally latching on with the Big 12 in 2012.

Davis, who played nine seasons in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills, has talked very little publicly over the years about the way it ended for him at TCU. The same goes for the other six players suspended for taking cash from boosters: Marvin Foster, Gary Spann, Gerald Taylor, Egypt Allen, Darron Turner and Ron Zell Brewer, who died in 2010.

“What happened happened, and there was a lot of anger over it at the time, but we’re all still Frogs,” said Davis. “A lot of the guys from that team keep in touch.”

Kevin Dean was a defensive end on the 1985 team and has remained close with Davis and some of the others who were suspended.

“Some people say they were suspended. I’d say they were more sacrificial lambs,” said Dean, who organizes get-togethers to watch some of the TCU games on television in the Dallas area. “Those guys paid a heavy price, but they’re not bitter. What happened in the past doesn’t define you, and TCU as a university didn’t turn its back on them. Most of them got degrees, and they’ve all been very successful.”

As the SMU investigation heated up in 1985 — and with Texas A&M and Houston also in the NCAA’s crosshairs — the NCAA got word that something might be going on at TCU after talking to other coaches and recruits, and informed TCU officials that it was coming to campus to take a look.

Wacker had already angered some fellow Southwest Conference coaches by sending out a letter soon after he took the job imploring them to clean up their acts in recruiting. Part of that letter, dated March 3, 1983, read: “The major violations — the blatant buying of athletes — is what must come to an end, or we will self-destruct before it is all over. At TCU, we did control our alumni this past recruiting season. We did not buy one athlete. It can be done if we let the alumni know that we will personally turn them in to the NCAA if they are involved in any illegal recruiting practices.”

Mike Wacker said one thing his father regretted was sending that letter because it immediately turned off other coaches in the conference and painted him as holier-than-thou even though that was not his intention.

“I think it became: ‘Who is this guy from Southwest Texas State, a Division II school, coming in here and telling us what we should be doing?'” Mike Wacker said. “That’s one he wished he could have back.”

The letter sparked a well-documented feud between Wacker and then-Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill, who called for an onside kick in the fourth quarter in a 53-6 rout of TCU at Fort Worth in the final game of the 1985 season. The following year, Sherrill had the Aggies go for a 2-point conversion late in a 74-10 rout of the depleted Horned Frogs.

Two years after writing that letter, Wacker’s worst fears came true. It was the Thursday before the trip to Kansas State in Week 2 of the 1985 season, and Wacker had given his team an impassioned speech about how proud he was that TCU was having success without cheating. He knew the NCAA was about to pay a visit to campus and wanted to make sure he had nothing to hide.

“Coach was convinced that any payments that had been going on before he got there had stopped, and in his mind, we were an open book for the NCAA and anybody else,” said David Rascoe, the quarterback on that 1985 team. “He was exactly who he said he was, nothing fraudulent about him.”

Tom Perry was the TCU running backs coach. He suspected that some players on the team might be getting money from boosters simply by looking at their cars, expensive boots and jewelry.

When Wacker quizzed his assistant coaches that Thursday about whether players were receiving extra benefits, Perry found himself in an impossible situation. He said he was one of two assistants in the room to raise his hand when asked by Wacker if there was reason to believe that boosters were still paying players.

Later that day, Davis met with Perry and asked if there was any way Wacker would know if players were indeed getting paid. That’s when Perry went to Wacker with the bad news.

“He just kept saying, ‘Why did you have to tell me? Why did you have to tell me?'” Perry recalled. “I know he was hurting because of how outspoken he had been that we weren’t cheating, and I don’t think Jim was complicit in any way. But I was doing what he’d asked us to do. So, yes, I was pissed at the way he reacted. I just think he was one of those guys who always thought the best of everybody. He was that naive, like he’d just fallen off the turnip truck.”

One by one, the players involved admitted they had been taking money from boosters. Six players were suspended late that Thursday night. Wacker went to meet with the chancellor, called the NCAA and conference officials and also alerted some in the media.

Longtime Dallas television personality Dale Hansen broke the story and remembers interviewing Wacker sometime around midnight on campus after doing his newscast that evening.

“There were some in the media who thought Jim was a fraud, but my argument, and I still stand by this, is that Jim knew they were getting paid when he took the job because everybody in the Southwest Conference was getting paid,” Hansen said. “But Jim also made it very clear to everybody at TCU, ‘From this day forward, it stops.'”

Hansen was doing a regular TV show back then with former Dallas Cowboys receiver Butch Johnson, and they showed a clip from Wacker’s introductory news conference where he said, “Wacker don’t cheat and Wacker don’t pay.”

Johnson looked at Hansen on the air and quipped, “Well, Wacker ain’t winning no football games.”

Gil LeBreton was a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during that time and was on the team’s charter flight to Kansas State. He said TCU and Wacker wanted to be as transparent as possible and offered the seat.

“It was awful, like being on a flying funeral procession,” LeBreton said. “You could hear players just openly bawling and crying with their heads down in their laps. Their faces were red, like they’d been up all night. It was a surreal scene.”

Somehow, TCU won the game, and the Star-Telegram’s headline the next day read: TCU wins anyway.

The number of suspended players grew to seven after the Kansas State game when Brewer admitted that he, too, had been taking money.

“He felt badly for his teammates and didn’t want them to fall on the sword for something he knew he was also doing,” Dean said. “That tells you a lot about him and a lot about the brotherhood on that team.”

Wacker had his supporters on campus after disclosing the violations, particularly among students. A group of them held up “Wacker Backer” signs in the stands of home games. But not everyone was onboard with Wacker’s decision, particularly some of the more prominent power brokers. That was never more apparent than in 1991, the final year of Wacker’s contract, when he guided the Frogs to a 7-4 finish after they struggled through six straight losing seasons.

“We had [officials from] several bowls in attendance at our last game and knew we were going to one of them after we beat David Klingler and Houston in a great game,” Mueller said. “We’re all standing around in the locker room waiting to see where we were going, and Jim gets the call telling him the administration had declined a bowl bid. It was obvious Jim no longer had the support he needed. He didn’t want to leave TCU, but Minnesota came after him and he knew the time was right to leave.”

Wacker coached at Minnesota from 1992 to 1996, resigning after five losing seasons.

Davis said he rarely talked with Wacker after leaving TCU, although Davis said he doesn’t begrudge his former coach for going to the NCAA.

“It was his job to do what he did and to protect the team, and that’s what he did,” Davis said. “I understand and respect him for that. I don’t have nothing against him.”

Perry never coached college football again after leaving TCU, but went on to earn a doctorate degree. He hopes what people remember most from that time is the way Wacker came in and turned around the program and “did it his way by getting kids to believe.”

Mike Wacker said his dad will undoubtedly be smiling down from above when the ball is kicked off Saturday afternoon.

“He’d love this team,” Mike Wacker said. “And you know how he loved crazy things, all the rhyming and joking around and coming up with nicknames.

“The thing he’d really love is the Hypnotoad thing.”

“We know it hasn’t always been easy for TCU, and that’s going back a long way,” current TCU quarterback and Heisman finalist Max Duggan said. “There’s been a lot of tough times, so we’re playing for those guys and those teams as much as we are for anybody.”

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