1-27-03, 5:05 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Sam Wyche went fishing.
The man who came within 34 seconds of leading the Bengals to a Super Bowl championship spent Sunday at his Florida vacation home out in the boat and by the time he got it back on shore and cleaned it out, his Buccaneers of old were closing out a 48-21 victory over the Raiders and Oakland center Barret Robbins was being mentioned in the same breath as Stanley Wilson.
As the Buccaneers head coach and director of football operations in the mid-1990s, Wyche played a role in drafting the core of Tampa Bay's now Super-certified defense in tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks, and safety John Lynch. As the Bengals coach on Jan. 22, 1989, Wyche had to deal with Wilson's cocaine binge less than 24 hours before Cincinnati's 20-16 loss in Super Bowl XXIII.
But they are worlds away for Wyche. When the Bucs chose Sapp 12th and Brooks 28th, it turned out to be Wyche's last NFL Draft. It was the spring of 1995, so long ago that Jerry Rice caught a touchdown pass from Steve Young in the last Super Bowl.
"The Super Bowl is such a long day, I just felt like I had something more fun to do," Wyche said Monday. "I figured I'd get back and pick up the highlights."
Wyche did make the drive to Tampa for the Bucs' playoff blowout of the 49ers two weeks ago and got a pre-game bear hug from Brooks and sat in the box with Bucs general manager Rich McKay. But that's about as close as he felt to it all.
"I'm happy for them. They deserve it. They were clearly the better team," Wyche said. "I was glad I was a guy who worked hard for them while I was there and helped, but I think those are the only three guys left. They were young pups and you knew they were going to be good. I just wish I had been there when they got the experience, but I didn't have that time."
Drafting Brooks?A no-brainer. An Anthony Munoz off the field and a speed demon on it. Two years before, Lynch had been more of a gamble in the third round because he was seriously considering playing pro baseball.
Bill Walsh, Wyche's mentor who just happened to coach Lynch at Stanford, kept counseling Wyche to stay after him.
"Bill told me if I could convince him to play football, we would have a great player," Wyche said. "He was right about that."
The Sapp pick wasn't as tough as people thought. The Miami product free fell through the first round because of rampant drug rumors, but when Wyche, McKay, and then player personnel man Jerry Angelo went for a walk outside just before the 12th pick of the round, they were certain their scouts had it right.
"Because of geography and familiarity, our scouts had a very good feel for the Florida schools," Wyche said. "They had said all along that they felt whatever happened that it was just college stuff and that he certainly wasn't any kind of drug abuser. And look at how the guy has played, he's been tremendous."
Wyche did have a reality check with drugs and it came in the biggest game of his life, the night before the Bengals were to play Walsh's 49ers. Wyche had to tell his team that Wilson, their starting fullback, had been found in a cocaine-induced stupor in his hotel room. Robbins' absence is still unexplained, but, like Wilson, he was suddenly gone after a week of no apparent problems.
"I think it does have an impact physically as well as mentally," Wyche said. "You take a center out of there and that is the heart and soul of your offensive line, the guy making the calls, and never mind the exchange with the quarterback. Plus, I felt that was the big matchup of the game, the Bucs' pass rush against the Raiders offensive line, and they had trouble protecting.
"You could say we had other running backs after Stanley, but remember how the field was," said Wyche of the sandy quagmire in Miami. "It was coming up in chunks. Stanley had that skating style where he just glided with that wide gait. He would have had everybody missing on that stuff. I don't think there is any doubt he would have impacted the game if he had played."
But forget the playbook. Wyche remembers the psychological strain.
"I don't know when the Raiders knew, but we had to think about it for a long time, too," Wyche said. "Not only the night before, but most of the next day because it was like playing a night game. There is time to think about why a teammate isn't there and what could have gone wrong. And then, once the game starts, there is that subconscious feeling of 'What if he had been there?' No question it hurts your team."