Most everybody thinks Jim Wacker, the football coach at Texas Christian University, looks like Abe Lincoln, except for the blond hair and fast talk. He's as tall as a Blue Ribbon long neck, with a dinosaur jaw, and so terrifying to the mind of a TV camera that he pours out of the screen, knobby arms and legs and a neck that bends every which way. Even in a coat and tie, in the peace and quiet of his big office, he looks like a stalk of human thistle caught in the north wind.
On top of that, Wacker owns a mighty pair of lungs and a Ph.D. (education, Nebraska). He can only scream and draw pictures with his funny hands. He grew up in Detroit, a preacher's son, and learned how to rant and rave and turn a modest footstool into a gilded pulpit by giving an ear to his good daddy every Sunday, and Wednesdays, too. And he's always firing people.
"You're fired!" he hollered at his senior center, Mike (Pops) Flynn, during the Arkansas game, which the Horned Frogs won, 32-31. "Either play the damn game or you're gone! Forgotten! Now get out of my sight! Get on . . . But listen here, we love you! We'll always love you!"
Wacker ball, they call it. They're playing smash-mouth in Frogland and the Horned Army is 4-1, losers only to SMU, and leading the NCAA in total offense. Bob Lilly, an alumnus, said, "There are 100 little Wackers running around thinking they're world-beaters."
TCU has traveled many peaks and valleys since its opening game 88 years ago against Toby's Business College of Waco. Davey O'Brien, a former Horned Frog great, won the Heisman, Walter Camp, Maxwell and Washington Touchdown Club trophies in 1938, the only player in the history of the game so honored. In the mid-1930s, Sammy Baugh led TCU to 29 victories, and wins in the Sugar and Cotton bowls. But 1959 was the last time the Horned Army won the Southwest Conference. In the last 12 years, TCU's best finish in conference play was seventh (1975 and '71). Last year -- Wacker's first -- the team went 1-8-2.
This is the kind of story you tell over brew (say, "Bud in a fishbowl") and barbecue (say, "the rib platter, please, with slaw and pinto beans") at Angello's, due east on the warehouse road. Crack the French bread and turn on the porch light, somebody. And somebody put on Conway Twitty singing tumbleweed. Make it sad and scratchy. Then start with the part about the famous writer and TCU graduate sending Wacker a copy of his new book, "Life Its Ownself," with these good words scribbled across the first page: "Jim, Thanks for promising us a national championship . . . Laughs and Fun, Dan Jenkins."
Wacker read the first 20 or so pages and put the book down, thinking gladly over the fate of Tonsillitis Johnson, a "once-in-a-lifetime running back from Boakum, Texas," who had a "34-inch waist, a 52-inch chest and could bench-press the King Ranch." Jenkins created a nasty-mouthed coach named T.J. Lambert, a bootlick with rich and powerful friends determined to transform the miserable TCU Horned Frogs into a powerhouse.
This is how Wacker, ruminating with that jaw going like a motorized wolf trap, figures Jenkins: "The man has a deep and abiding love for TCU. He looks at the crass, crude side of life in a very humorous way, no doubt about it. But what we represent here is the antithesis. You talk to any kid who plays for us, and he'll tell you academics is a helluva lot more important than chunking a football."
There is another player for whom the fictional T.J. Lambert and alumni open their big bank vaults, Artis Toothis, a speedster from Willow Neck who drives around in a new white Jaguar but grew up "in a little shack which harbored the athlete's mother, father, aunt, and eight younger brothers and sisters, three of whom were squealing infants, not to mention six cats and four cur dogs."
Wacker pledges: "We buy nobody. This is football. I'm not at all associated with the money business." And recalls the curious case of Roscoe Tatum, one of the best high school running backs ever to play in Texas and, as one of the assistant coaches boasted, is "in possession of 200-and-something pounds of raw, pure talent waiting to shiver."
Tatum grew up in the piney woods about two miles from the Louisiana border and every university with visions of a national championship wanted him. Wacker even heard that friends of LSU had arranged for Carthage High games to be televised in Louisiana to show off the prodigious talents of Tatum, whom they hoped to sign. But after the seventh game of the season, Tatum announced to the same TV people that LSU was out. "I'm going to TCU," he said, "to be a Horned Frog."
Tatum doesn't say much, Wacker will tell you. About all you hear Tatum offer is "What's happening?" when you see him off the field. Wacker likes to shout back, "What's happening, Roscoe!" and hear Tatum come again, "Nothing. What's happening!"
Last year, nobody in the Southwest Conference could figure out why Tatum canceled recruiting visits to Oklahoma and Georgia and told Southwest Conference schools to quit bothering him. Wacker declares, "Nobody was more shocked than me," but makes an exception of the NCAA, which sent a representative to ask Tatum a few questions. The investigator said, "Roscoe, you got a car?" And Tatum said, "Yes, sir. I got a car."
So they went down to the parking lot at Carthage High. "Well, where's the car?" the man wanted to know. "It's at home," Tatum said and the man gave the prize recruit a distressed pair of eyebrows. "At home, huh? How 'bout we go for a little ride," the man said and Tatum complied, giving directions to a place Wacker knew as being "way out in the serious boondocks," in DeBerry, about 25 miles from Carthage.
"They drove into this little burg," Wacker says, "where Roscoe's daddy fixes lumber saws. And they go out to this little old shack and the man says, 'So where is it?' And Roscoe points out under this old tree, at this clunker set up on cinder blocks with the engine all pulled out, and he says real serious, 'There's my car, mister. It hadn't run in two weeks.' "
Now, groomed to help along the Frogs' rebirth, Roscoe Tatum is the pride of Wacker's smash-mouth football, which has "everybody hitting somebody in the chops," Wacker says. "It's whipping your opponent. Pop him good and he won't pop you. We've got to be bigger and stronger. Knock people around."
At the Fall Convocation this year, TCU Chancellor William Tucker delivered a speech entitled, "TCU In The Next Five Years, A Personal Statement." He faced a faculty dressed in academic gowns, and the concert chorale had just performed. "Very formal," he recalled the other day over coffee. "Really big. Vice President Bush was the keynote speaker last year."
"So what do I want to happen at TCU in the next five years?" Tucker began, reading from a copy of the speech. "For starters, I want to beat Kansas State on Saturday night," at which point the crowd erupted, including the high-minded in their formal attire. "This convocation is not a pep rally, to be sure. But I stand behind our team and our coaches because I am deeply died purple, and because intercollegiate football desperately needs good models . . . When we complete the turnaround here, as we shall, it will have national significance far beyond scoreboards and turnstiles. For we will have proven beyond question that success and integrity can fit together, and we will have set an example for football and universities and coaches and fans across the land."
The only similarity between Jim Wacker and Jenkins' T.J. Lambert may be in the power of their personalities, which can sometimes be a disadvantage, especially in recruiting. "I scare some kids," Wacker says, "coming on too strong. They wonder if I'm for real. So I look for kids who have a burning desire to come to this school. We're best with the good old country boys, the fellas out in East and West Texas. You see, a highly sophisticated kid doesn't want us. They all want SMU, or maybe even UT in Austin. The money, prestige, they go at it like a bug on a light.
"Now TCU, there's nothing overwhelming about TCU."