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'68 Bengals: No guarantee

Rookie quarterback Greg Cook of the Cincinnati Bengals, right, is shown with tight end Bob Trumpy, Nov. 12, 1969, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gene Smith)
Rookie quarterback Greg Cook of the Cincinnati Bengals, right, is shown with tight end Bob Trumpy, Nov. 12, 1969, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gene Smith)

7:30 a.m.

Sam Wyche, who played quarterback on an expansion team when it really was an expansion team, could see it in his mind's eye.

Say, for instance, a team like the Patriots or Bills had guaranteed a win against the 1968 Bengals. Those 1968 Bengals, an honest-to-goodness expansion team of kids whom thought they never would be and veterans who never were. Wyche could see his coach, Paul Brown, 60 years young, standing at the podium in front of Bob Trumpy, Bob Johnson, Paul Robinson, John Stofa and all the rest.

Brown would have put down his half-rimmed glasses on the podium, leaned forward ever so slightly with a smile just as slight and said, "Well, they guaranteed a win. I guess we don't have a chance."

"Then he would have looked to his left and right," Wyche said, "like, 'We're going to kick their ass.'"

The Bengals of Warren McVea, Tom Smiley and Fletcher Smith weren't very good. Somehow they went 3-11 that first year and Bob Johnson still isn't sure how they got those three wins.

But they would have rallied around a guarantee.

"We had some hard guys who had been around, like Sherrill Headrick and Bobby Hunt," Trumpy said. "They would have had us going."

But there wasn't much talent. They figure Paul Brown got them three wins through sheer will.

"There was simply no way we were going to win," Johnson said. "We were a strange menagerie."

As opposed to that expansion team in Houston the Bengals play this Sunday. If the '68 Bengals were a "strange menagerie," of veterans from the bottom of other NFL rosters and youngsters who had been cut before, then the Texans are an all-star team in their first season.

With a blank check to fill up the NFL's $71 million salary cap, and other teams virtually forced to give up high-priced players in the pool, Texans general manager Charley Casserly plucked four Pro Bowlers and nine starters in the expansion draft and then concentrated on a rich college draft that gave him the No. 1 selection and an extra pick in all but the first and fourth rounds.

"Charley Casserly told me," said Trumpy, the radio voice of Sunday Night football, "that he had an owner who pretty much could spend what he wanted, plus he has access to a huge amount of draft picks in the first two years. That just makes it completely different."

In ''68, all Paul Brown had compared to that was an old yellow manila folder. Inside was a day-to-day accounting of his first pro team, the 1946 Cleveland Browns, in a league where every team was new.

"He judged us against them," Trumpy said. "We might have been a
little further along than them one day, or not quite with them another. But that's how he judged us."

The Bengals' expansion draft back in '67? They were presented with scraps of paper with illegibly written names, some of them retired or crippled. They couldn't even get the first pick in the draft. Bob Johnson, the Bengals' only
center for their first decade, came to Cincinnati from Tennessee as the second

How different is expansion now? In '68,Trumpy went through six different roommates at training camp, Brown cut a punter at halftime, and Wyche got a start in the preseason because the University of South Carolina coaching staff needed to know if they were going to have him as a graduate assistant.

Of course, it's a different, newer, slicker world now. Back then, a team's first pick wasn't a lock to be a quarterback. Take a center today with your franchise's first pick and you would be executed in public by Mel Kiper Jr.'s hair. But back then, it was as logical as Paul Brown saying, "You need a center to start the play."

It was just different. For one thing, there was Brown's training camp at Wilmington College. The Gulag. Trumpy remembers the bus coming every day. It would drop off eight to 10 to 12 players, and take about the same amount away. "The Turk," of that camp, defensive line coach Jack Donaldson, knocked on Trumpy's door six times and each time it was to cut the other guy.

That was the camp where Johnson remembered a 7-foot giant name Richard Sligh who played defensive line. Legend is when Donaldson knocked on his door, Sligh was spinning the cylinder of a gun and Donaldson said, "Wrong room," and got out of there.

"Every time I thought it was me," Trumpy said. "My first roommate didn't even make it through breakfast. We hadn't even practiced yet and he got cut. They said he was too short.

"The one thing about Paul that year," Trumpy said. "He kept looking."

He looked at guys like Wyche, who was in the middle of exam week at South Carolina as he pursued his master's as a graduate assistant coach when he came to Cincinnati for a workout. They signed him for $16,000 and when he phoned his wife back home, he said, "We're rich."

But he was also worried. A few weeks into training camp, the South Carolina staff called to see if he was coming back to help them coach. Wyche didn't know where he stood as far as making the team, so he screwed up enough courage one day after lunch to ask Brown.

"I told him if I had a chance, I would stay," Wyche said. "But if I didn't, I'd go home right now back to school. He told me, 'I'll start you in Buffalo and we might not know for sure, but we'll have a better idea and let you know.' I did well enough that he thought I had a chance. I think he was looking for guys like me. Not great athletes, but I was smart and I hustled, I wanted to do well."

Now back home in South Carolina, Wyche laughed, because nothing like that would happen now.

"I don't think so," Wyche said. "A free-agent quarterback getting a start to see if he can play or go back to college?"

Trumpy had a similar experience with "The Old Man." He signed for $15,000 and would get $1,000 once he made the team. But his wife was pregnant with their first child back in California and even though it was the middle of training camp, he needed an answer. If he was going to make the team, he needed to fly her out to Cincinnati and get her set up with a doctor. If not. . .

"Don't do it young man. I'm afraid this is good-bye," advised a veteran newspaperman standing outside Brown's office door.

But Trumpy went in, asked, and got the famous arched eyebrows in return.

"He said he liked the fact that my family was important to me and I wanted to be with them and, yes, I made the team," Trumpy said. "Then I reminded him about the $1,000 and he gave me a check."

By the time Trumpy got back to the dorm's third floor where the rookies were housed and had heard of the meeting, every head was poking out of a doorway and Trumpy's shirt was drenched in sweat.

"The Old Man," they said was the major reason they won three and lost four games by 10 points or less that first year. Trumpy isn't sure if he knew talented players, but he certainly knew talented assistant coaches with Bill Walsh coaching tight ends, Bill Johnson the line, and Tom Bass coaching the secondary.

"Sometime during that season," Trumpy said, "Walsh came up with a formation to attack the safeties in which I swear I became the first tight end to move around. We had to call the league to find out if it was legal."

Bob Johnson remembers the first exhibition game against Kansas City and how he must have snapped for 15 punts in a 38-14 loss.

As Johnson and what seemed to be about 200 other guys huddled around Brown in a tiny locker room after the game, Johnson cringed. He figured the great Paul Brown, who had once coached in 11 pro championship games, would blast these guys to bits.

"It was my first night with the team and we were just awful, terrible," said Johnson, who had arrived from the College All-Star Game. "But he looked around and said quietly, 'Not bad, not bad. We'll build on this.' I think that did a lot for us."

But he could be brutal, too. Early in the season, Brown was trying a punter from Alabama named Rex Keeling. He got off a three-yard punt and five-yard punt and at halftime, Brown said loud enough for everyone to hear, "Pack up, Keeling. . .Give him his bus ticket . .That's what I get for trying to make a punter out of a car salesman."

Texans coach Dom Capers certainly doesn't have that problem Sunday. But the Bengals face an age-old problem of playing a team fired up by the opponents' words.

Trumpy knows that Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau is simply trying to fire up the NFL's only winless team. But the '68 Bengals remember one of those Paul Brownisms from that first year.

"When you lose, say little. When you win, say even less."

"I think that's how we won some of those games," Johnson said. "They underestimated us. We were an expansion team and they didn't prepare for us."

But that was back when an expansion team was an expansion team.

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