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Wyche From Woeful to Wonderful in a Year

Newsday

No, it hasn’t hit Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam Wyche yet. He says it hasn’t anyway. He says he hasn’t awakened in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn, both of which he often does, and thought about what a nice job he and his players have done in turning a 4-11 team last year into a 12-4 team, one of the NFL’s Final Four.

“It either hasn’t hit me, or I’m one whale of a modest guy,” Wyche said, trying to come up with an answer why. “I think it’s the former.”

This was Wyche’s wild time on New Year’s Eve: He got home from the Bengals’ 21-13 playoff win over Seattle at about 9:30 p.m. He and his wife, Jane, began watching the tape of the game. At 12:15, near the end of the game replay, Jane looked at her watch and noticed it was 1989. “Happy New Year,” Jane said to Sam.

“Uh, yeah. Happy New Year,” Sam said to Jane.

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They raised no toasts to ’89. They went to bed soon afterward. But Sam could sleep only until 3 o’clock. He got up, put on a pot of coffee, flipped on CNN, read the winter L.L. Bean catalogue, drank coffee and wished he could fall asleep.

“Right now,” he said, “I just can’t turn it off.”

Sam Wyche and his family have 1987 forever Etch-A-Sketched (Wyche’s term) in their minds. It is the year, Wyche recalled Thursday, that “we had to look up to see bottom.”

It started with a cloud over Wyche’s head. He had coached the Bengals for three years without reaching the playoffs. To many, the Bengals were one of the NFL’s great underachieving teams, with a rising, young quarterback in Boomer Esiason, an above-average running game, a fine offensive line and a suspect defense that confused NFL observers because of its many high-round draft picks.

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In 1987, Wyche coached the fourth year of his five-year contract. General Manager Paul Brown was patient, but he was thinking about making a change if the Bengals weren’t impressive in 1987.

Things started well enough, with a 23-21 win over playoff-bound Indianapolis. In Week 2, the Bengals led San Francisco, 26-20, with six seconds left. But on fourth-and-25 from the Bengals’ 30, Wyche chose to have Esiason pitch to running back James Brooks, whom the coach hoped could evade tacklers for six seconds and allow the clock to run out.

But Brooks was stopped quickly for a 5-yard loss. From the Bengals’ 20 with two seconds left, Cincinnati single-covered Jerry Rice, and he caught the winning TD pass.

That wasn’t enough. In Pittsburgh, in the first post-strike game, the Bengals trailed, 23-20, with no timeouts left and the clock running at 18 seconds after a completion. Instead of having Esiason throw an incompletion to stop the clock and allow the field-goal team time to get on the field, Wyche sent the field-goal team on right away. The clock ran out before they could attempt the tying field goal. “Wicky Wacky screws up again,” Pittsburgh assistant coach Dick Hoak said after the game, referring to Wyche.

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Four important Bengals were hurt for much of the year (Brooks, wide receivers Eddie Brown and Cris Collinsworth, and tackle Anthony Munoz). And the strike divided this team worse than most.

“The strike was a total collision,” Collinsworth said. “We had guys, after Sam was critical of Boomer early during the strike, say, ‘He wants us to practice? Forget it. We’re not practicing.’ ”

The worst for the Wyches came against New Orleans, when the Bengals blew a 24-3 lead and lost, 41-24. During the game, Wyche’s 14-year-old daughter, Kerry, saw a “Fire Wyche” sign being paraded around the stadium. She urged the carriers to cease, telling them that this was her father they were maligning. They called her a whore. Kerry burst into tears.

When Wyche was leaving the field after the game, his face was hit dead-on with a full cup of beer.

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“I thought how nice it would be to work in another city,” Jane said.

“It was the worst time of my professional life,” Sam said. “Did I realize I might be relieved of my job? Absolutely. Did it destroy me? No.”

In the week after the season, Paul Brown gave Wyche a list of coaching and personal modifications he’d have to follow if he wanted to remain for the fifth and final year of his contract. The modifications included eating three square meals a day and getting more rest. Wyche said yes. He would stay for his fifth year, with his coaching future on the line.

The funny thing is, there’s no incredible coaching turnaround story. Wyche is Wyche. He still flies off the handle at a player or a situation, sometimes to make a motivational point. He still brainstorms with his staff every Tuesday, thinking of new offensive ways to boggle defenses.

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He gets his three square meals, though. And there are a couple of small things that have happened. The Bengals have been healthy. And Wyche, after the strike-related disaster of 1987, decided to assign roommates for training camp 1988 -- blacks with whites and defensive players with offensive players, when possible.

“My big gamble,” he said. It hasn’t won games, and the rooming assignments haven’t stuck for the regular season. “But,” said running back Stanford Jennings, “it might be a factor in us forgetting about the strike.”

“Basically,” said Munoz, “I see the same Sam. Maybe he’s getting a little more sleep, but that’s about it.”

“I don’t notice a big change in Sam,” said line coach Jim McNally. “He’s the same guy. There have just been more opportunities to pinpoint blame on him in the past.”

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To Wyche, the best lesson of the Bengals’ success is the importance of continuity. “It’s a heck of a good lesson for other owners in the NFL,” he said. “Our turnaround came because we didn’t make wholesale changes. Once you have a good staff with a competent head coach, you’re going to have some success. The cycle’s going to work in your favor at some point.”


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