CINCINNATI — Sam Wyche was part football coach, part folk hero to the Queen City.
Wyche was head coach of one of the Bengals’ greatest teams, one of professional football’s great innovators, and among the most popular figures in this city’s sports history. He was a family man, an advocate for those experiencing homelessness, and an antagonizer.
But perhaps his most successful role, Anthony Munoz would attest, was as a team-builder.
When the 1988 Super Bowl team was honored at Paul Brown Stadium during the 2018 season, many of the players credited Wyche for establishing a culture of unity that helped them complete one of the NFL’s greatest turnarounds, going from a 4-11 record to a 12-4 mark the following season.
During training camp prior to the ’88 season, Wyche assigned roommates differently. Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz, who had previously roomed with fellow offensive lineman Max Montoya, was paired with linebacker Leo Barker. Munoz, a Mexican-American, and Barker, who hailed from Panama, both spoke Spanish, but the familiarity ended there.
“It goes across racial lines, it goes across position lines, goes across offense and defense,” Munoz told WCPO.com. “All the linemen used to hang out together. Now, I’ve got a linebacker. You give Sam a lot of credit for that. It was a genius move on his part.”
Stanford Jennings, an African-American running back, roomed with quarterback Boomer Esiason, and so on, in an effort to promote as much diversity as possible.
“It was all about understanding what’s important for each other,” said Jennings. “You learn about their families, you know a little bit more about someone, you’re going to work a little harder for each other. It’s that type of collective bonding that happened.”
Jennings’ 93-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XXIII remains one of the best moments in Bengals history. In the wake of Stanley Wilson’s drug overdose the night before, Wyche used the birth of Jennings’ daughter, Kelsey, as a rallying point for the team prior to the game.
When Jennings arrived at the sideline after his touchdown, Wyche said to him, “That’s for Kelsey!”
Wyche's impact on the local community was far-reaching.
Wyche was known to drive around Downtown and Over-the-Rhine on game days to take his mind off football. He soon became a passionate advocate for people experiencing homelessness, and his efforts to help those in need continued throughout his tenure here.
While Wyche had a knack for bringing people together, he also wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers.
Wyche, dubbed “Wicky Wacky” by opposing coaches, was mocked for his no-huddle offense and “sugar” huddles, brief gatherings near the line of scrimmage designed for quick snaps to prevent opposing defenses from making adjustments and substituting. Wyche’s innovations resulted in new rules pertaining to player substitutions and clock stoppages for player injuries, which remain in effect today.
And, Wyche’s name still gets mentioned whenever the “Battle of Ohio” is waged here or in Cleveland.
On Dec. 10, 1989, when the fans began peppering the Riverfront Stadium turf with snow balls during a game against the Seattle Seahawks, Wyche took the mic and urged the fans to stop by saying, “Will the next person that sees anyone throw anything onto the field point ‘em out, and get ‘em out of there. You don’t live in Cleveland; you live in Cincinnati!”
Wyche’s tirade drew a roar from the partisan crowd. But many of his actions didn’t garner a positive reaction, like his decision in 1990 to bar a female reporter from the locker room, which earned him a nearly $30,000 fine from the league. Wyche had been fined almost $3,000 the previous year for barring all media members from the locker room and asking his players not to speak to reporters after a loss to the Seahawks.
Wyche’s spats with rival coaches, most notably Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville, became the stuff of legend. His feud with Glanville reached a boiling point in 1989 when Wyche called an onside kick despite leading by 45 points. The Bengals won 61-7.
Wyche also wasn’t about to leave Cincinnati without a fight. When his tenure as Bengals head coach ended immediately after the 1991 season, Wyche insisted he’d been fired, but team president Mike Brown said he quit.
Wyche wasn’t finished coaching just yet. He led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 23-41 record in four seasons before serving two seasons as quarterbacks coach for the Buffalo Bills.
For parts of five seasons from 2002 to 2008, while battling health issues, Wyche was a volunteer offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Pickens (SC) High School.
Wyche was a quarterback on the Bengals’ 1968 expansion team and an apprentice under legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh.
After he returned to Cincinnati as head coach, Wyche led the Bengals for eight seasons (1984-91) and his teams won two AFC Central Division titles and an AFC championship in 1988. In Super Bowl XXIII, the Bengals lost 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers on an infamous touchdown pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.
In 1990, Wyche led the Bengals to the playoffs again, defeating the Houston Oilers 41-14 at Riverfront Stadium before losing to the L.A. Raiders 20-10. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since.
In recent years, Wyche had a myriad of health issues and underwent a heart transplant in 2016. But Wyche always maintained a positive spirit before passing away at his home in South Carolina Thursday a few months after being diagnosed with cancer.
Overall, the Bengals were five games below .500 under Wyche and had only three winning seasons. But he’ll be fondly remembered, not only for one special season in ’88, but the many contributions he made to the sport and the legacy he left in this city.
“Sam was a wonderful guy,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said in a statement. “As our coach, he had great success and took us to the Super Bowl. He was friends with everyone here, both during his tenure as head coach and afterwards. We not only liked him, we admired him as a man. He had a great generosity of spirit and lived his life trying to help others. We express our condolences to (wife) Jane and his children Zak and Kerry.”
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