12-7-02, 9:30 a.m.
Sam Wyche makes the 90-minute drive from the house in Pickens, S.C. , to Charlotte, N.C., Sunday to watch his old team play, but he figures he's come a longer way than that.
"I wanted to stand on the sidelines every day in the hot sun and the rain and whatever else there was," says Wyche of his stint this season as the most overqualified prep quarterbacks coach in America. "I did it. I feel good and I think it shows I'm healthy."
Make no mistake. At age 57, with an improving voice and a revitalized heart, Wyche wants back in the NFL as an offensive coordinator or head coach, or some other job of substance and, "not as some kind of flunky."
And make no mistake about this. When he says hello to Bengals President Mike Brown Sunday at Ericsson Stadium, it isn't because he is gunning for a job with the team he parted ways with on that strange Christmas Eve of 1991.
Was he fired? Or did he quit?
Not even his hairdresser knows for sure. But Bengaldom knows this. The Bengals haven't had a winning season since he was the head coach.
Wyche wants to pay his respects to Brown and his family because that's what friends do. He has too much regard for the current head coach, Dick LeBeau, his only defensive coordinator in eight seasons as the head man in Cincinnati, to do anything else Sunday. There is no motive for 2003 and no bitterness about 1991.
In fact, the invitation to come over for the game came from one of his old producers at CBS.
"All that is water under the bridge," Wyche says of '91. "Mike and I are friends. We've kept in touch down through the years. That's all it would be. Two friends saying hello."
It's been 11 years since they said good-bye so abruptly after 64 wins,
a slew of sellouts, a batch of controversy, one no-huddle, and one glorious run to the Super Bowl. Since then the events have spun faster than the newspaper headlines from one of those old black-and-white movies.
Wyche went to Tampa Bay as head coach for four years. Then he went to the TV studio and the broadcasting booth. Then he was struck down by a sliced vocal cord and the frightening revelation of heart disease that he now believes he has under control.
The Bengals? They're working on their third head coach since Wyche left, are enduring the slings and arrows of being the worst team of the decade, and are headed to a New Year's Eve in which another coaching change would surprise no one.
Wyche knows all about dark days in December on the river and the awful records and the public outcry for house cleanings, changes, firings. When everyone thought he was going to get canned in December of 1987 after 4-11, he didn't. When everyone thought he would survive in December of 1991 after 3-13, he didn't.
"The only year I really had that horrible feeling at the end," Wyche says, "is '87. It was such a tough year with the strike."
His last meeting with the Brown family as coach is right there with Rudolph and Frosty in the stuff of Christmas lore now. That's because it depends with whom you talk if you want the skinny.
Wyche insists he didn't go in demanding changes with the NFL on the brink of free agency and that he considered the meeting the normal post-season, nuts-and-bolts planning for 1992. Brown insists the same thing, that he went into that meeting with no plans to make a change.
"I've told Mike this a few times since," Wyche said. "We should have waited a few days for the meeting. It was the day right after the last game of the season and everyone was exhausted and drained and tired because it had been such a hard year. We just should have waited a few days."
Now, Wyche has waited eight years to get back into the NFL as a coach and he thinks the time is right.
That may qualify as being flunky.
His voice is better and while he admits, "Players would have to lean in a little bit to hear me," he thinks a small amplification device would pick up whatever was lost.
As for his heart, well, there has never been a question that his heart is in the right place, has there? He thinks medication has eased his battle with cardiomyopathy and that the initial diagnosis that he needed a heart transplant within three to five years is now by the boards.
His heart function still isn't normal, but the medicine has vastly improved it and there is evidence of the boundless energy that marked one of the busiest and most controversial coaching terms in NFL history.
If he wasn't helping the homeless, he was refining the no-huddle. If he wasn't taking on the NFL's women-in-the-locker-room policy, he was urging Bengaldom to take up tennis and golf if they didn't like the Bengals' record, or telling them they didn't live in Cleveland.
"I miss it, that I do know," Wyche said of coaching. "The heart wouldn't be a problem. The voice might be an issue, but I think that could be taken care of with some technology."
He missed it so much that he became an unpaid volunteer assistant coach for the high school team in his town of Pickens this past season, and the voice and heart held up as he took the quarterbacks under his wing.
The guy to watch?
"R.J. Webb," Wyche says. "He's a sophomore, lefty, a terrific athlete and a great kid. Michael Vick? That's what I call him. I think he'll be a good Division I recruit."
Wyche is also working on a fun book about his experiences in the league with Cincinnati called "Bengals Tales." When he's not doing that, he's teaching "The Canterbury Tales," or anything else as a substitute teacher at the high school.
"I'm OK with Chaucer," Wyche says. "I've got my MBA so accounting, or economics, or business is no problem and I like history a lot. I've even had the band. I just let them play for me."
The classes last 90 minutes, too long for any species to sit and learn. So Wyche splits it up with a "halftime." It's a magic show of the tricks he used to perform when he was on the circuit, and then they go back to work.
Maybe that's it. If there is some kind of curse, the last man to ever coach the Bengals to the playoffs could perform one of his infamous tricks at the 50-yard line just before kickoff and put the last 12 seasons up in smoke.
"I see a team that is playing very hard in spite of their record and that's a credit to Dick," Wyche says.
Ask him why he was successful and Wyche ticks off a couple of immediate reasons: "Great players like Boomer Esiason, Anthony Munoz James Brooks, the no-huddle threw defenses off for a couple of years because they weren't used to it, we had a quarterback who was at times like a bouncing bronco but I still rode him, and you have to have that consistency at quarterback, and you had a coaching staff who knew what they were and filled their roles."
Wyche knows Mike Brown has been ripped for showing too much loyalty to coaches and his distaste for change.
"Loyalty is a trait that I happen to like and respect," Wyche says. "You don't see it much nowadays. Mike has made changes in the past. Now, will he do it on a whim? No. Will he bring in a general manager? I think something like that is going to be slow to happen. But I can tell he's doing things differently than when I was there."
Wyche will enjoy the game and shaking hands, he'll drive back home, work on his weekly column he writes for the newspaper in Pickens, and wait.
"It would be fun to get back into it," he says. "But I don't want to just hang around. I want to work."