MAGIC BACK FOR BENGALS’ WYCHE : Less Work, More Sleep Do Trick for Coach
Sam Wyche, the trick-play enthusiast who coaches the National Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals, was at home as usual one night a few weeks ago when Boomer Esiason, his quarterback, called.
It was just before 10 p.m.
As Esiason tells it, Wyche’s daughter, Kerry, picked up the phone, listened a moment and murmured: “Sorry, Boomer, but Sam’s in bed already.”
“In bed!” the quarterback replied, incredulous. “Last year, at 3 o’clock in the morning, he answered the phone himself.”
“I know,” Kerry Wyche said patiently. “But that was last year.”
Last year, indeed. What a difference a year makes in Cincinnati, where the Bengals are leading their division this week with an 8-2 record.
Only 12 months ago, Wyche, one of the NFL’s most innovative coaches, was working 16 to 18 hours a day, the Bengals were making at least that many errors every Sunday, they were on their way to a 4-11 record, and the coach, almost certainly, was on his way out.
In one of the league’s strangest losing seasons, his team had lost one game when it failed to stop the clock, another when it stopped it too soon, another when the field-goal team messed up. There were, in fact, new and exciting blunders every week.
By November, the firing of Sam Wyche was anticipated hourly, and by December more often than that. His record at Cincinnati after 4 years had fallen to 29-34.
“You sort of expect to be (fired) when you don’t win,” Wyche’s wife, Jane, said the other day.
Only one thing saved him, in the view of well-placed league sources. He had a season remaining on his contract, and the club, which is among the NFL’s most frugal, wasn’t about to throw away thousands of dollars paying him off.
Paul Brown, the Bengals’ 80-year-old general manager, was unavailable for comment, but a Cincinnati source said: “You know P.B. He isn’t going to pay a guy for not working.”
In any event, when Wyche’s bad season ended last winter, the Bengals left him dangling in the cold Ohio wind for 2 days.
Then they called him in and set down two conditions.
“They (Paul and his son, legal counsel Mike Brown) said they weren’t asking me, they were telling me, that, first, I had to eat three square meals a day,” Wyche recalled.
“Second, I had to get out of the office every night at 8, go home, see the family and go to bed.”
For Wyche, it was a fate worse than death. Like Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil, Sid Gillman and most other winning coaches, he would rather watch a football film than eat.
Last year at the office, every night at 8, Wyche was just getting started.
This year, forced to use their time and resources more wisely, the Bengals and their coaches have prospered--as have the coaches’ wives.
“We’re glad to have him home earlier,” Jane Wyche said. “And sometimes, he doesn’t even bring along a (football) tape.”
Success hasn’t surprised Wyche, whose name is pronounced with a ch as in ouch.
“This was a really good team last year,” he said.
The most improvement has been on defense. “We’re more consistent now,” Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams said.
But mainly, the breaks are just evening up this year, Wyche insists.
“Last year, every bizarre thing that could possibly happen to every team in the league--over 5 or 10 years--happened to us in 1 year,” he said.
There was a day, for example, when a bus full of football players was ready to leave the Bengal camp after a 2-hour practice. As the bus driver closed the door and put his hand on the gearshift, he was startled to see another football player sitting down on the pavement in front of him.
This turned out to be one of the Bengals’ biggest players, quarterback Esiason, who stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs nearly 230 pounds.
“Scat,” said the driver.
“Strikebreaker,” said Esiason, who, as the Bengals’ player representative, was protesting the daily appearance of the non-union men who had taken union players’ jobs during the league’s 4-week player strike.
The Bengals were harmed more than many of their opponents by the NFL’s great labor disturbance of last year.
“Cincinnati hated the Boomer for going out on strike,” said sportswriter Bob Baptist, who covers the Bengals for the Columbus Dispatch. “The club is very conservative, and Cincinnati is a white, button-down, ultraconservative town.”
During 1987 games at Riverfront Stadium, even after the strike was over, hecklers made life miserable for Cincinnati’s union players.
Toward the end of the season, Esiason, who said he was tired of being cursed out in his own stadium, told Baptist: “That’s why I’ve asked to be traded (to Washington). Who wants to live in a hell like this?”
As of 1988, having withdrawn his trade-me request, Esiason has plainly adjusted. One of the league’s leading quarterbacks, he is also known as one of the NFL’s most agreeable and civilized players.
But even today, with the Bengals at 8-2 and himself a town hero, Esiason remembers.
“I’ll never forget last year,” he said. “I was hardened by what happened last year. It motivates me.”
SETTING FIRE TO A HARD-TRY GUY
In the words of their father, Joe, who lives in Atlanta, Sam and Bubba Wyche compare favorably as good-looking, look-alike athletes.
Sam, a former quarterback, is a candid, pleasant, big blond who weighs 220 and stands more than 6-3. And that goes also, presumably, for former quarterback Bubba Wyche, an Atlanta businessman who at 42 is 15 months younger than Sam.
Joe said that one day long ago in Atlanta, his boys began their athletic careers together trying out for the same Little League team. That day, Sam, 11, fielded every grounder hit to him at third base, where he enjoyed himself hugely until Bubba, 9, took his turn and misplayed many of the same balls.
That upset Sam.
“So I went out there again, and purposely missed a few,” he said. “I didn’t want Bubba to feel bad.”
It is in the record that Bubba’s unhappiness was short-lived. When the manager made out the lineup card a day later, Bubba was at third base, and Sam was on the bench.
“That taught me,” said Sam. “Never let up.”
And since then, he said, he hasn’t. Or as his father, a former fast-food chain executive, said: “That set fire to Sam.”
On fire for the last 30 years, Sam has been distinguished all that time by his aggressiveness. “I’m a hard-try guy,” he said.
From Georgia, where Joe Wyche, 69, has been building a 2-story, 5-bedroom, lake-side resort house for the whole family, he said: “Sam was always the first guy at (football) practice. Then at home, he was the first to hit the books. He’d dive into his homework, and study like mad until bedtime.”
Still, for years, Sam couldn’t shake Bubba, because, said Joe, “everything came easy to Bubba.”
In their high school years, there was an afternoon when a football game program graphically illustrated the problem.
Doubling as backup quarterback and defensive backfield starter, Sam had returned for his senior season to the same team that Bubba had just joined as a sophomore quarterback.
Nonetheless, on the day of the first game, when the 3-deep lineups were printed in the program’s centerfold, Sam discovered that the coach had listed Bubba as the team’s No. 2 quarterback.
Sam was listed as No. 3.
“Your kid brother--that was pretty hard to swallow,” Sam said.
He swallowed it, though, that and more. For Bubba went from high school to Tennessee and played quarterback for 4 years, leading the Volunteers over Alabama at Birmingham 1 season--when Bear Bryant and Kenny Stabler were Crimson Tide heroes--and taking Tennessee to the Cotton Bowl.
In those years, unfortunately for the Wyche family, nobody wanted Bubba’s big brother. There wasn’t a nibble for hard-try Sam, until, finally, swallowing his pride, he walked on at Furman.
There he told the coach he was a quarterback. And there, as a freshman, he proved as good as his word in his first game.
When the mighty Florida State freshman team took little Furman lightly, Sam threw 2 touchdown passes and scored the third in a 21-14 upset.
“That one game set up my whole life,” said Sam. “It led to a scholarship, which led to everything else.”
By everything else he meant, among other things, a graduate year at South Carolina, where he earned a master’s degree in business administration, followed by a year in the Continental League, then a tryout with the expansion Cincinnati Bengals in 1970, and, finally, a job as a quarterback on the Bengal team, where he was molded by his two most influential future employers, Bill Walsh and Paul Brown.
At last, Sam had caught Bubba, who played in Canada on a Grey Cup team, but never in the NFL.
Inflamed by his more talented brother, Sam lasted 7 years as an NFL quarterback.
Sam’s wife agrees that if his family fired him up, Furman set him up.
“You see, Sam and I met at Furman,” Jane Wyche said.
Their children are Zak, 17, and Kerry, 15. Their Cincinnati home is a century-old carriage house with a tennis court in the front yard. Sam plays tennis every Friday--in season and out, weather permitting--sometimes with Jane.
“He always wins,” she said. “I wouldn’t dare beat him.”
Their San Francisco friends remember that as a tennis player, Wyche didn’t always win there. He didn’t always beat Bill Walsh in the years when he worked for the 49ers as their offensive coordinator.
Walsh and Wyche played their most famous match one day at training camp, on a team travel day, when Walsh thought he could get in a fast set before flight time. As the entire 49er squad sat waiting on the team bus, Wyche kept holding serve.
Nearly 2 hours later, both players were on the edge of exhaustion when Walsh finally broke through, just in time to catch the plane.
“If I’d won that set, I swear, Bill would have missed the kickoff,” said Wyche.
Jane Wyche remembers the last Sunday of the off-season last July with more fondness than any tennis game, or anything else that’s happened since.
“We went to Muncie (Ind.),” she said.
Although that isn’t everyone’s idea of a big time, the Wyches loved it because they made the trip in their own 4-place airplane. They got up early and flew over for breakfast, Jane said, then cruised back.
“You feel so free up there,” she said. “Sam leaves all his cares on the ground.”
He needs the plane to visit his money. He owns a chain of 11 sporting goods stores, each known as “Sam Wyche’s Sports World,” in North and South Carolina. The company is based in Greenville, S.C., where Wyche’s partner handles the day-to-day operations.
Asked where he got the stake to invest in the business, Wyche said he used his Super Bowl share--$7,500--after playing for the Washington Redskins in Los Angeles in Super Bowl VII.
He was in Greenville one day last spring, he said, inspecting one of his biggest stores, when a customer made it all the way to the tennis rackets before a salesman inquired pleasantly, “Can I help you, sir?”
When the customer left, Wyche had a word with the salesman, reminding him of Wyche’s Rule No. 1: “Don’t let any customer hit that third stride before you greet him with, ‘Can I help you, sir?’ ”
Thinking that over, Wyche remembered: “We do have one exception. You can say, ‘Can I help you, miss?’ ”
The foundation of business success, he said, is making customers feel important, treating them fairly.
“It’s the same in football,” he said.
Wyche’s biggest fault as a football coach, his friends have often said, is that he’s too honest, too candid. He grew up saying what he thinks, most of the time, anyway, and the habit is hard to break.
“He’s learning that football coaches can’t always do that,” Walsh said. “I think he’s better than he used to be.”
Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler can tell you how Wyche used to be. After leading his Indiana University team into Ann Arbor when he was between tours with the 49ers and Bengals, Wyche said he was appalled at the inadequacies of the visitors’ dressing room.
At his press conference after the game, he told a group of Detroit writers: “I can’t believe this place. My players were hanging their clothes on rusty nails.”
That offended Schembechler, and one of his aides fired back: “Sam’s been in California too long (4 years) to be coaching a college team.”
Still, within the year, his candor paid off.
“The first thing Bo did in the off-season was fix the visitors’ dressing room,” Wyche said. “He moved in all the lockers from the girls’ volleyball team.”
THE NFL’S ‘MOST CREATIVE COACH’
On the morning of a Ram-49er game here a few years ago, a reporter walking past Wyche’s room at the 49er hotel was surprised to hear somebody pounding a typewriter inside.
Knocking at the door, the reporter said: “Hey, Sam, this is a funny time to write a letter home.”
“Letter, hell,” said Wyche. “I’m typing out the (afternoon’s) first 20 plays.”
On Walsh’s teams, the first quarter is always scripted well in advance of the opening kickoff. And in 1979-82, when Wyche was the 49ers’ passing-game coach, he volunteered to do the typing himself.
He wanted to memorize the plays as he wrote them down.
“I have a reading problem,” he said. “I first noticed it as a kid reading a book one day when the lines kept jumping up and down.”
At football games, in his 10 years as a coach, this disability has apparently never hindered him. In fact, he sees it as a blessing.
“I always learn the game plan by heart,” he said.
His most remarkable recommendation came from Walsh in 1979. Although Wyche hadn’t coached before, and had been out of football for 3 years, after the Buffalo Bills cut him in 1976, the 49ers wanted him to run their pass offense.
“I first tried to get him when I was at Stanford,” Walsh said. “But he’d just started in the sporting goods business then, and it was too lucrative to leave. By 1979 he was ready.”
Why did this particular leader--a passing expert himself and a veteran of many championships--want this particular assistant?
“Wyche is the most creative coach in the game,” Walsh said.
Present company excepted?
“He’s the most creative coach, period--you and me included,” Walsh said.
Wyche’s imaginative approach to football is most noticeable, perhaps, when the Bengals are moving the ball in their no-huddle offense, which they use either regularly or occasionally, depending on the opponent.
They’re the only NFL team relying on the no-huddle as a staple, and by freezing the other team’s specialists on the sideline, such an offense gains a major advantage over the defense.
At a recent game, it worked like this:
--For a first-down play late in the first quarter, after a punt, Wyche had inserted the players he wanted to use on second down.
--Then on second and 7, the Bengals lined up quickly, without huddling--before the defensive coaches could send in any situation specialists--and gained 28 yards on a pass.
--Finally, with the defense off balance, the Bengals, never huddling, swiftly drove another 52 yards to a touchdown.
Other NFL teams avoid the no-huddle offense because it puts too much pressure on their signal callers, those in the coaching booth upstairs as well as those on the sideline, who are connected by telephone.
This group must think rapidly, first to assimilate the previous play, then to decide on the best possible new play, and finally--most important of all--to get it to the quarterback while the offensive players are moving to the line of scrimmage without huddling.
Most coaches don’t seem to be up to that.
“What you have to do is think one play ahead,” said Wyche. “At times, one series ahead. On first and 10, I’m always thinking something like this: ‘What’s best on second and 5?’ I’ll say to myself, ‘Screen.’ Or maybe, ‘Sweep.’ I’ll at least have something in mind.
“The no-huddle is actually easier on the signal caller. It gets you thinking about the ifs earlier.”
At Cincinnati, Wyche also scripts his first 20 plays, borrowing the idea from Walsh, but he has become best known for his trick plays: reverses, fake reverses, double reverses, halfback passes, tackle-eligible passes, and the like.
All teams use some tricks. For Wyche, in contrast, tricks often seem to be a way of life. Every time he lost a game last year, during his 4-11 nightmare of a season, at least one writer or opposing coach blamed it on one or more of what they called his wacky plays.
On the day that Cincinnati lost to Pittsburgh in the last minute, a Steeler assistant, Dick Hoak, got on the press elevator after the game and gave Wyche a new nickname. On the ride down to the locker room, Hoak confided: “Wicky Wacky screwed another one up.”
Wyche’s shorter work week this year has prompted him to cut down some on trick plays, but they have been a factor in most games. One time he told a Bengal tight end to inform the referee that he wouldn’t be eligible for a pass on the next play, that a tackle would, instead.
Then the tackle lined up on one side, the tight end on the other.
The play, however, wasn’t even a pass. It was a run that went for a first down while the confused strong safety was trying to decide whether the tackle or tight end was on the strong side of the Bengal line.
On another occasion, Wyche closed practice to the press for the last 25 minutes of the week’s final practice period, prompting the next day’s headline: “Bengals Work in Secret on New Trick Play.”
The opponents presumably came to the same conclusion.
“It gave them something to think about,” Wyche said. “They didn’t know that we just practiced kickoffs for 25 minutes.”
Wyche’s reputation as a magician is so widespread in Cincinnati and the rest of the division that he is seldom questioned at length on any other subject.
At a recent road game, when he ran into a group of 20 or 25 traveling Bengal fans in the team’s hotel lobby, they asked not for his autograph but for a preview description of his next trick play.
Unsure if some were fans of his opponents, he gathered the gang together and whispered: “Actually, we’re going to have our outside linebackers line up in their huddle.”
In fact, Wyche really is a magician, off the field as well as on. He can make coins disappear. He can pull the king of diamonds out of your hip pocket.
So in the midst of Cincinnati’s losing streak last year, it seemed fitting enough to Boomer Esiason and one or two other players that they should take him out one night for an evening of relaxation at a nearby nightclub.
After all, it was his last year as a coach, or so the papers said.
Esiason finally chose a comedy club, and there, he said, “We sat and had a few beers.”
It was a Good Samaritan deed. For an hour or two, the players did their best to cheer Wyche up.
He didn’t even smile.
This year, he’s smiling again.