In 1989, three days after President Bush announced plans to intervene in the savings and loan crisis, Nicholas J. Ketcha Jr. was dispatched to Houston to lead the government's takeover of University Federal Savings.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. veteran had no experience running a thrift, much less one with $4.6 billion in assets. "Our instructions were, 'Use your good judgment on this,' " Mr. Ketcha said. "There was no manual."

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