WYCHE : For All His Effort, He Is Still Known as Wicky Wacky

Times Staff Writer

There was once a Cal center named Roy Riegels who ran in the correct direction 10,000 times on the football field, but did anyone call him Right Way Riegels?

No-o-o.

But let him take one wrong turn, as he did after picking up a Georgia Tech fumble in the 1929 Rose Bowl, and he was Wrong Way Riegels forever.

There is now a coach named Sam Wyche . . .

He's 44 years old, in his fifth season, has just put together the league's No. 1 offense and guided the Bengals to the Super Bowl.

Does anyone call him innovative?

Bold?

Dynamic?

Try Wicky Wacky.

A Pittsburgh Steelers assistant hung that on him last season when Wyche botched the end of their game. This was shortly after Sam's pratfall de resistance, against the San Francisco 49ers, replays of which are being shown every hour on the hour this week. If Custer had survived the Little Bighorn, he wouldn't have been asked about it any more than has Wyche about this.

Do they call Wyche warm?

Caring?

Down to earth?

Many do, since 99% of the time, he's as nice as you please and has a heart that is clearly in the right place. This is the man who drives around the empty streets early Sunday mornings before games, notices the people sleeping in the doorways, and volunteers to speak during the off-season for $5,000 a pop so he can donate the money to aid the homeless.

Unfortunately, there are those nights when the moon is full and he grows fangs and turns into a werewolf.

There's still a warrant out for his arrest in New Orleans, where he slammed the locker-room door on the hand of a deputy sheriff who was trying to serve papers on a Bengal player in 1985. Wyche missed both the Super Bowl and the scouting combine workout that season, because the law in New Orleans would have picked him up the moment he set his first tiger paw down at the airport.

In 1986, after a close loss at Denver, he threw a 5-alarm tantrum in the postgame press conference. He kicked the door on the way in, ordered reporters to wipe those smiles off their faces and ask their questions.

A traffic reporter, working weekends for National Public Radio, asked why Wyche had kicked the door. Wyche ordered that the man be removed, leaped off the podium, grabbed his microphone, tore the sponge cover off it and threw it in his face.

Wyche later apologized for this one and no charges were filed.

In 1987, he had those losses to the Steelers and 49ers to explain, and a 4-11 record.

Let's face it, we can't put this man up for canonization yet. He's lucky he's still working.

Working he is, however, and quite well.

He has a team in the championship game and is known around the league as a bright guy with a fine football mind.

"If Sam has a problem, it's that he's too much of a human being," says Boomer Esiason, who knows all about Sam's problems, having been one for their first few years together.

"He cares too much. An NFL coach has got to walk around like a block of granite, not caring about anything. I mean, if I had a problem, I wish that were my problem."

And inventive?

Says Esiason: "He's brought a lot of things to this game. Our audibling system is incredible. Our language is incredible.

"Most teams would say, '84-Z-in.' We never say that. We go, 'Split-Painter-Denver-Zebra-Dover.' What the hell is that?

"It took me 2 years to learn the damn language. I'm yelling out there, 'Ralph!' and 'Lou!' and 'Lester!' and 'Denver!' and 'Dallas!' and the Bills (the Bengals' opponent in the conference final) are saying, 'They're coming this way! No, that way! No, they're coming at me!'

"They don't know what the hell we're doing."

"Sam's always thinking. He's thinking about our offensive schemes. Or he's scheming about the way our offense thinks, I don't know."

--Boomer Esiason

The first thing to understand about Wyche, he's an overachiever.

His brother, Bubba, was a star quarterback at Tennessee. Sam was a plugger who had to walk on at Furman.

But it was Sam who gutted it out in the Continental League, got a tryout with the newly formed Bengals and impressed enough coaches with his want-to to last 9 pro seasons.

"I wasn't very good," he says. "I didn't have a very strong arm. I was the guy who stayed after practice because I needed it. I knew the game plans cold because I knew if I had to rely on sheer ability, I was in trouble.

"But it didn't take anybody very long to figure out I couldn't hit a quick 'out' to the left and they'd trade me somewhere else. I played for 5 teams in the space of 9 years."

The next thing to understand is that Wyche is smart.

And the next, that he was groomed as a Bengal quarterback, and as a 49er assistant coach, by Bill Walsh.

Genius may be excessive language for a man with flair for X's and O's, even one who could get 300 yards of passing offense out of a Scout troop, but whatever you want to call Walsh, he's among the game's most astute men and has proved it several times over.

Walsh isn't at all offended at being called a genius, however. Raider Coach Tom Flores, asked at the '84 Super Bowl if he was a genius, too, answered, becomingly, that Einstein was a genius.

Walsh, asked the same question the year before, started his answer this way: "Some people have said that. . . . "

And Walsh raised Wyche from a puppy.

So what we have here is a hard-driving young man with a genius-designate for a mentor who likes the challenge of living by his wits and isn't bashful.

Can Sam think, or what?

Even his quotes are masterpieces of invention:

Did Seattle have Joe Nash feign injury--"The big Nash attack," Sam dubbed it--to stalemate his no-huddle offense?

Sam's protests included one from the often overlooked medical-ethical perspective.

"The Seattle doctors came out on the field," Wyche said. "Either the doctors were duped by all this, or they were involved in the sham. There is a medical code of ethics, you know, and I'm sure the Seattle association of physicians, or whatever the group is, would check into it."

So far, the King County (Wash.) Medical Society has announced no action.

Did the league stop the Bengals from going on a quick count in their no-huddle offense against the Bills?

Sam came up with a jurisprudential angle.

"Sports sometimes teaches the world a lesson," he said. "I think in these days of overcrowding of jails, this is probably an answer. The next time somebody robs a restaurant at 6:30 in the evening, the police should let the crook go and tell the restaurant, 'You can't stay open until 6:30 because you're vulnerable to being robbed.' "

Did Buffalo Coach Marv Levy suggest that the Bengals have enough talent to dispense with the Mickey Mouse stuff and just line up and play?

"That's another disappointment from Marv Levy," Wyche said. "I've always thought so much of him. It's kinda like finding out about Santa Claus."

Wyche can coach, too.

The Bengal offense isn't exactly talent-shy, but his contribution counts, too, and he's had it at the top of the league ratings for years.

He could have run double reverses to his heart's content, and picked off the occasional media straggler, too, without ever calling down public scorn upon himself, but for one feverish moment, late in the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 20, 1987.

The Bengals, who had gone 10-6 the year before and missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker, were 1-0.

The 49ers and Sam's old mentor, Walsh, were in town.

The Bengals led, 26-20, with 6 seconds left, with fourth and long at their 30-yard line.

You're the coach, what's the call?

Did anyone out there say anything but "Punt!"?

Wyche ran halfback James Brooks on a sweep, trying to eat up the remaining time, but the 49ers threw him for a 5-yard loss. The clock stopped at :02. The 49er offense came out and Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice, tying the game, 26-26.

Wyche, clearly in never-never land, then crossed the field to shake Walsh's hand-- before Ray Wersching kicked the extra point that won the game.

To this day, Wyche won't concede it was a bad call.

So how does he remember it?

"Well, we lost a close game," he says. "They were a top team. We played 'em right to the end of the game. . . .

"The strategy at the end of the game was correct. It will be the strategy that we'd employ again."

Not unless he wants Paul Brown to come down from the owner's box and choke him, it won't be.

The august and rarely-heard-from Brown, himself, later alluded to unspecified big mistakes in that game.

The players reportedly weren't too supportive either.

"There were players literally going after him after that game," says Tom Dinkel, a former Bengal linebacker who covers the team for a Cincinnati radio station.

"Some of the players got vocal with Sam. There were players on defense who wanted part of him."

However, there's a sanitizing process at work, too.

Walsh called Wyche the next day and told him it was the right call, that they had put their fastest runners on the punt-block team and would have blocked any kick.

Bob Trumpy, the NBC sports anchor in Cincinnati and a Wyche stalwart, says, "I still don't know what Sam did wrong."

Trumpy says the problem was that the Bengal fullback didn't block the 49er end, resulting in the loss. Of course, a player missing an assignment is part of the risk of running any play.

Unfortunately, Wyche was soon going to have more to answer for.

Five weeks later, with the regulars just back from their strike and the Bengals at 2-3, they picked up the season at Pittsburgh.

The Bengals trailed, 23-20, but reached the Steeler 18, with 15 seconds left and no timeouts. Esiason started to line the offense up so he could spike the ball behind center for an incomplete pass and stop the clock, a tactic that had just been legalized, when Wyche sent the field goal unit on. It couldn't get lined up in time and the clock ran out.

On an elevator down to the locker room, Pittsburgh assistant coach Dick Hoak told a couple of writers:

"Wicky Wacky messed up another one."

A nickname was born.

The Bengals lost 8 of their last 10 games and Wyche's firing was expected imminently.

"I stood around at a lot of practices with Mike Brown (Paul's son, the general manager)," Dinkel says.

"Mike's not one to cuss so he can sound like one of the boys, but he was saying things like, 'I don't believe what the . . . is going on out there. . . . No . . . organization.'

"I think Mike was totally fed up with the deal."

The day after the season, the coaches and writers waited all morning to see what action would be taken. At noon, Wyche and the coaches left, saying they were going to lunch.

Who's buying, yelled a writer.

"Jim McNally," Wyche replied. "He's the only one with a guaranteed contract."

Actually Wyche was forgetting someone. He still had a guaranteed contract, with another year left on it.

The next day, Paul Brown called him in and told him they'd honor it, if Wyche agreed to some changes.

He was to stop skipping meals, stop working all night, stop keeping the staff there all night.

If this sounds a little like the famous Dan White "Twinkie defense," wherein a junk-food diet was argued in court to have driven a man to crime, it should also be noted that Wyche is a lot mellower these days.

"Players feel comfortable around him," Dinkel says. "He's not so schizophrenic."

However, there is one other difference in the Bengals this season, that Brown doesn't mention--and Wyche won't concede.

Did Paul Brown tell him to cut out a lot of the tricky stuff?

"Regardless of what Sam says, they've kept things so simple," Dinkel says.

"They took out all the gadgets. If you say the word gadget to Sam, he'll blow up in your face. He doesn't want people to think he's controlled."

But has he been?

"There's no doubt."

There's no keeping a good man down, though, and Wyche's mind whirls on.

His fake punt helped beat the Bills in the conference final. His plan to have the Gatorade in David Fulcher's barrel replaced by confetti, whereupon he would turn around and douse Fulcher with the real stuff, didn't work, though.

All Cincinnati waits expectantly--fearfully?--for what he might come up with in Sunday's think-off.

"Especially now," Dinkel says. "I think there's going to be some serious gimmick plays in this game."

To borrow the Sundance Kid's injunction to Butch Cassidy:

Keep thinking, Sam. That's what you're good at.

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