NFL welcomes back Wyche

2-20-04, 8:10 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

INDIANAPOLIS _ Mike Mularkey, the Bills' new head coach, learned it from Sam Wyche. Every one who wrote him a note or got a call asking about a job working for him in Buffalo, got a note or a call back.

"Sam was the only coach in the league who got back to me when I first asked around," said Mularkey of 1994, the year Wyche hired him on his staff at Tampa Bay. "You learn how to treat people in this league, and Sam taught me that."

Wyche, the former Bengals and Buccaneers head coach, made his return to the NFL stage after an eight-year absence here Thursday at the league scouting combine as the Bills quarterbacks coach. And, as usual, Wyche had them laughing.

"It was a flat-out pity hire," Wyche said of his new job. "I wouldn't let go of (Mularkey's) leg. He was carrying me around, I was begging him."

That meeting came, at all places, last June in Memphis, Tenn., at "The Brat," the charity golf tournament run by Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and father Zeke.

"That's when he told me he realized what he did to me that first year he hired me," Mularkey said of his stint as a quality control coach working with the tight ends. "He had me working both sides of the ball and was killing me."

All kidding aside, the Bills are 'thrilled," to have Wyche working with quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

"He's really a perfect guy for the job," said Bills general manager Tom Donahoe. "You've got a young head coach, a new offensive coordinator who

has never done it before in Tom Clements, and we hope he can help get the quarterback on track. He's an interesting guy to be around. He's always been a creative guy, but the big thing about him is that he's a tremendous person."

Wyche was visibly moved to be back around his old colleagues Thursday morning.

"It's a brotherhood-sisterhood," he said. "So far, eight of 10 say we're glad you're back. . .I go around the corner and I say, 'Oh yeah, I remember that.' But I don't remember it until I go around the corner.'"

Wyche admitted he hadn't kept up with the league in the past two or three years, since he was diagnosed with heart disease and his voice was permanently damaged when a nerve to his left vocal cord was cut during surgery.

"If this hadn't happened to my voice, I would have stayed in broadcasting until they didn't want me," Wyche said.

Medication has eased his heart problem and although he'll never be able to raise his voice, breathing exercises and time have made it possible for him to be understood in an office setting.

"At practice, I'll just get close to (the players)" he said.

Donahoe said Wyche's voice wasn't really an issue during a week trial in Buffalo before he was named two weeks ago.

"I don't think Mike had a problem with that," Donahoe said. "I think we wanted to give Sam that week to make sure he was comfortable with what had to be done."

Wyche joked that he got no calls in his effort to get back into the game at 1-800-CALL SAM, but he's grateful Mularkey has repaid him and he caught himself getting nostalgic. Here he's studying Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris, son of M.L. Harris, a tight end on Wyche's first Bengals' team in 1984. Then he caught himself talking to Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer about grandchildren.

"I don't look it. I'm almost 40 years old," said the 59-year-old Wyche.

"That was the most competitive division in football in those years," said Wyche of the AFC Central when Schottenheimer coached the Browns. "Jerry Glanville was in Houston. Chuck Noll was in Pittsburgh. There wasn't a week off and we were all rivals."

Wyche saw Yankee farmhand Drew Henson's workout at quarterback last week and finds it impressive that baseball hasn't played havoc with his throwing motion. He thinks Harris kept himself in the draft picture with his play in the Senior Bowl, and, like everybody else he's taken with Miami of Ohio quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"I have not seen him in person or on the hoof," Wyche said. "But my impressions are he is a top quarterback. He has most of the quarterback skills to make it in the pros. . .When you break his game down and add his size (6-4, 240 pounds) and intellect, I think he'll be a very good player."

CENTER OF ATTENTION: You've got to feel the Bengals aren't going to take a center with the 17th pick, but you also have to feel they hope Virginia Tech's Jake Grove slips in the second round. Don't count on it, but they can dream about a guy

who responded to charges Thursday that he's a dirty player: "I'd rather be known as dirty than soft."

Grove figures to go late first or early second, and the Bengals could end up talking about Kansas State's Nick Leckey in the second or third round after they coached him in the Senior Bowl. They also coached Ohio State's Alex Stepanovich, a player projected by some as a fourth-rounder.

Stepanovich, a transplanted guard, prefers center ("I like playing in tight") and said he got used to and comfortable with Bengals line coach Paul Alexander's angle blocking scheme the week he spent with him in Mobile, Ala.

"When you do it right, you can see why it works and Coach Alexander does a great job teaching it," Stepanovich said.

Stepanovich ended up taking about as many questions about Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett and said he was used to the so-called distractions because of the pressures of playing in Columbus. But he said all the right things about Clarett: "He ends up doing well whatever he does."

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