by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

By now, most people have formed some sort of opinion on Jim Wacker.

Wacker is the coach at Texas Christian University who last week dismissed six of his football players — including a Heisman Trophy candidate running back — when he discovered they were accepting money from wealthy alumni.

Accepting such money violates NCAA rules.

Some call Wacker a hero. Some call him an idiot.

Some say he showed courage and morality. Some say he simply beat the NCAA to the punch.

And many are missing the point entirely.

Because to focus on Wacker, the man in the middle, is to overlook the real culprits here — the self-appointed bankers of college recruiting.

They are called “boosters.”

It’s a funny name, when you realize that booster is also the word for an injection you get to fight the measles or tetanus.

In college athletics, however, it works just the opposite: The boosters are the disease. And they keep sticking it to the program.

Athletes — $25,000 per head

Now, I am not talking here of all booster groups. Not the ones that merely sell tickets and paint signs like “BITE EM, WOODCHUCKS!” and yell themselves hoarse.

No. The kind of booster I have in mind suggests a character straight out of “Semi-Tough” — cigar in one hand, drink in the other, two big cars in the garage, a hefty account at the bank, and a sweater with his college insignia that he wears when he and his fat-cat buddies get together on the golf course and needle one another about whose school beat whose last weekend.

Stereotype? You bet. And if you don’t think these people exist, think again. Oh, they may not all be J.R. Ewing, but they are out there. And their lust for winning drives them to the farthest side of common sense.

Take the TCU case, for example, where a booster named Dick Lowe admitted that the going “purchase price” for a top college athlete is now upward of
$25,000, a new car, and $1,000 a month.

Not only did Lowe help come up with such money, but, he said, “it would take a good-sized bus” to haul around all the other TCU boosters who pitched in. There are NCAA rules against this. It didn’t stop them.

“Everyone else in the conference was buying players too,” Lowe said.

How does it work? Simple. There’s no draft in college football. Coaches live or die by their recruiting. And a network of wealthy boosters, spread around the country, can help get the choice athletes by springing into action whenever one is targeted in their area.

They casually “bump into” the recruit. They have off-hand conversations. Suddenly cars are “donated” to the cause. Sometimes jobs for parents or siblings. Pretty soon, cash payments. All very hush-hush. The kid signs with the school. He drives himself to campus in style. The payments continue.

The coaches know about it — despite what some say — and thus are just as guilty. But consider that some of these boosters can sit on the board or committee that helps hire and fire the coaches — and you see how easy it is for a coach to acquiesce.

Besides, they are winning. And winning is what this is all about.Pride and bragging rights

With professional sports, the average fan is tied to a team mostly because he lives in the same city. But with a college team? Well, the alumni went there. They were a part of it. And many feel they are vicariously a part of the football team, too. The team wins; they win. The team earns glory; they earn glory.

They help bring a star player in, and it gives them something to brag about
— particularly to those who attended a rival school.

This is a bit sick, and a bit sad, because you figure people ought to have more in their lives than to tie their self-worth to a college football team. But this is the way it is.

Last fall, the head football coach at Florida resigned amid charges that his program had violated more than 100 NCAA regulations. Several months later, a group of boosters pitched in and bought him a $24,000 Lincoln Continental. Damn shame we got caught, coach, but nice job.

And so it goes. What Jim Wacker did should be applauded. But this weekend, there’ll be those who’ll laugh that TCU just booted away the season. And it’s doubtful the TCU booster will turn and say, “Yeah, but at least we’re honest!”

Until he does, the problem won’t go away.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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