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

January 18, 1989|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — 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.

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