None of the entertaining stories that embody the life of Sam Wyche is as rife with symbolism as the tale of the buzzard.
It's the spring of 2000 and Wyche is piloting his airplane, a six-seat Beachcraft P-Baron, from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Greenville, S.C. He's well into his descent, humming along at about 200 mph and 3,000 feet, when he notices that overhead circles a sizable bird.
"He's 100 feet above, which is pretty close," Wyche says. "But I'm saying, 'One-hundred feet? I'm going down.' "
The buzzard tucks his wings, morphing into a missile, and dives. He obliterates himself against the A-frame of the windshield, opening a hole the size of a hand.
Shards of Plexiglas rain upon Wyche, separating him from his headset, as a crack treks across the width of the windshield.
"That scared me as much as anything because if that windshield broke loose it would behead you so fast you wouldn't be able to react," Wyche says.
He places one hand against the Plexiglas, praying it holds firm, poised to force it overhead in the event that it doesn't. He shouts to his wife, Jane, seated in the back, in that booming, mellifluous voice that served him so well on the football field, in the broadcasting booth, at his speaking engagements.
"The noise is horrendous and I started screaming to Jane in the back to give me the back-up microphone because I don't have any communications, and I wanted the tower to know what had happened and make sure they got me right in," Wyche says. "And she kept handing me the oxygen mask, and I said, 'No, no! We're at 3,000 feet. We don't need oxygen! We need the backup mike!' "
Wyche lands the aircraft without further trouble, taxis to the terminal, the air no longer cleansed by the breeze billowing through the windshield.
"The stench was immediate and horrible," Wyche says. "There was blood all over me, all over Jane, all over the airplane. This is an estimated 18-pound bird that splattered all over. It completely ruined the airplane."
The incident, however harrowing, never knocks Wyche out of character. Forget the $108,000 in damage to his personal airplane. Forget about wallowing in the thought that maybe they were lucky to be alive. Wyche deplanes, props an elbow against the wing in the classic pilot's pose and . . .
"Jane," he says, "get the camera."
The tale of the buzzard, a bird that often depicts unease, or impending doom, is the ideal encapsulation of the life of Wyche. The buzzards always seemed to circle a man who was at the forefront of innovation and was close friends with controversy during a head coaching career that flourished and disintegrated in Cincinnati before a brief revival in Tampa Bay.
Wyche, 59, is back in the NFL after his ability to communicate was impaired, after the nerves leading to his left vocal chord were severed during a lung biopsy, diminishing his voice projection and ending his follow-up career as a football broadcaster. He's coaching quarterbacks for the Buffalo Bills, toiling in the background, which might be a blessing for his diseased heart, a relief to the NFL office, but lamentable in the context of overall entertainment value. It's kind of like reassigning Jay Leno to the Tonight Show band.
Wyche is one of the more distinct, colorful characters the NFL has known. He's a wry humorist not averse to sticking voodoo pins in his own likeness, such as when he devised a Can the Coach food drive during tumultuous times in Cincinnati.
He's bright, having attained a master's degree in business and set his sights on a career in hospital administration before his introduction to coaching was launched and nurtured out of serendipity.
He's a man of conviction with an outspoken bent, having tweaked the NFL's nose by defending the players' right to gather in collective prayer at the end of a game. And by questioning the common decency of allowing female journalists free reign in a men's locker room. Those are two of maybe a dozen peripheral issues he's risen to address over the years.
And Wyche is a man of principle influenced by a keen social conscience. Born and raised in Atlanta, he clings to the words imparted by his mother, Sarah, who in the 1950s used a Biblical road map to steer her son clear of the South's acceptance of segregation. She told a young Sam that Jesus didn't die on the cross for people white or black, rich or poor, but for everyone.
Maybe that's why, years later, the head coach of the Bengals could be found at sunrise on home game days drinking coffee with the homeless in Cincinnati's tougher neighborhoods. Maybe that's why he created and oversaw Home Made, an organization that provided assistance to Cincinnati's poor, why he became a Big Brother during his playing days, why he talked an IBM rep into providing a new computer for a penniless South African student at the University of Cincinnati who'd resorted to eating others' leftovers for lunch.
Wyche's passions run deep but sometimes surface without forethought. He once admonished the snowball-throwing fans at a Bengals game with the instantly famous/infamous jab, "You don't live in Cleveland. You live in Cincinnati." Regretful, he made amends following the season by sitting in a dunk tank in downtown Cleveland while Browns fans threw dog bones at the release lever. Cleveland's Salvation Army was some $10,000 richer for the gesture, although what Wyche remembers most is the chill of the water.
"You talk about major shrinkage?" he says. "That was it."
You see? There he goes again. You never quite know what you're going to get out of Wyche, although you can be sure he'll never lull you to sleep.
"He really is a good guy despite all the stuff he's said or done," Jane says by phone from their horse ranch in her hometown of Pickens, S.C. "That's just Sam. People who really know him love him. He has the most dedicated friends."
Simple twists of fate
Wyche had big plans following his junior season at Furman University, which is to say he had no plans. He finally was going to take a summer off, kick back and relax for a change, until his coach, Jackie Powers, asked him what was on his summer calendar. Powers had a scholarship to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer conference in Black Mountain, N.C. He thought Wyche might find attending worthwhile. Feeling pinched, Wyche dragged his heels to the conference. A couple of years later, after quarterbacking his final game at Furman and dabbling in the minors, the connection Wyche had to Powers resulted in a life-altering offer.
"I'm playing my first year in the minors in Wheeling, W.Va. Wheeling Ironmen," Wyche says. "And I could see after one year that this was really not my future. I had applied and was going to enroll that fall at the Medical College of Virginia to study hospital administration. I was ready to go and Jackie calls me. 'We have an opening at South Carolina for a graduate assistant if you'd like to come down here rather than go there.'
"Graduate assistants are assigned to one of the assistant coaches to be their grunt. Well, the assistant coach they assigned me (to) is a young defensive backfield coach named Lou Holtz. Lou knew I wanted to continue to play. The NFL was expanding into Cincinnati. He had a friend named Rick Forzano, who coached on the staff for the Cincinnati Bengals under Paul Brown. I went out and had a pretty good workout. Got a $16,000 contract. I thought I was richer than I could ever possibly be."
Wyche's eyes gleam at the memory, at the recollection of how good fortune showered upon him.
"Talk about how things kind of work," he says. "I'm going to Medical College of Virginia. Jackie Powers, who had asked me to go to an FCA conference and for some reason took a liking to me, calls me instead of 100 people he could have called to be a graduate assistant at Carolina. I meet Lou Holtz. Lou Holtz gets me into the pros. My (offensive) coach is a guy named Bill Walsh. Bill Walsh later hires me (as quarterbacks coach) for the 49ers."
Wyche pauses, reflects. "He kind of works in strange ways? Well, there's something to that phrase."
There were coaches in the NFL, such as Pittsburgh assistant Dick Hoak, who thought Wyche was out of his mind, a loose cannon with fanciful ideas that could never translate into success on the football field. "Wicky Wacky" is the nickname Hoak hung upon Wyche after unconventional clock management cost the Bengals a chance to tie the Steelers in a 1987 game.
Wyche's mind always seems to be whirring, striving to find an edge, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. He was as much a student as a backup quarterback during a nine-year NFL playing career split among five teams, including the '76 Bills. He earned his Ph.D. as an offensive strategist while coaching under Walsh in San Francisco.
But it was as a rookie head coach in Cincinnati that Wyche came up with an idea that would temporarily revolutionize the game, that would propel Cincinnati to Super Bowl XXIII after the 1988 season and, coincidentally, fuel Buffalo's AFC dynasty teams of the early 1990s.
The no-huddle offense? It was the brainchild of Wyche.
"Here's how it started," he begins. "I'm in training camp in Wilmington, Ohio, in 1984 and I blow the whistle and I say it's nickel period. Well, nickel period is practicing third down-and-8 while the defense is in a sub-nickel or dime; they put in extra defensive backs, they put in a pass rusher, they take out the big, old, fat lineman and take out the slow linebacker.
"And I'm saying, 'Wait a second. It's third-and-8. Everybody in the stadium knows we're going to throw the ball. And we're going to stand back there for 20 seconds and caucus while they bring in their best pass rusher, their best cover guys, and they get the guys out who can't do those jobs? Why give them a chance to do that?' So the next day, without telling Dick LeBeau, our defensive coordinator . . ."
The effect was immediately apparent. LeBeau countered with unsophisticated coverages inviting to the passing game. He couldn't match up the way he preferred. The Bengals unleashed the offense against unsuspecting opponents, with Kenny Anderson and later Boomer Esiason running the show.
The league didn't know what to make of it at first. Officials would pick up the ball, allowing the defense to set, prompting Wyche to call and remind administrators that the offense determines the tempo.
"We went through all kinds of battles like that," Wyche says. "Not having the privacy of a huddle while you called a play had been done before, but not play after play after play."
A way with humor
There's more than a little Patch Adams in Wyche, who'll often resort to humor to make a point or wriggle out of a heated situation of his own creation. Tim Krumrie, the Bills' defensive line coach, played for Wyche in Cincinnati. He remembers the day his coach went, well, over the top to restore order among the overzealous Bengals.
"We were fighting in practice all the time," Krumrie said. "Sam was always breaking up fights and stuff like that. One day a fight started and Sam got in the middle of it and kind of caught an arm.
"At the practice facility there was kind of an embankment over the side. Well, somebody swung and he flew out of the way and rolled down the embankment with a blood capsule in his mouth.
"He came up all bloody and stuff. And at that stage we were all like, 'Uh-oh, we hurt the coach.'
"He said, 'Now I want you guys to quit all the damn fighting and everything else.' That was hilarious. For a split second there we really thought we had hurt him. He proved his point, though. It stopped."
The strike season of '87 tested Wyche unlike any other. The Bengals were disinclined to pursue quality replacement players. And they never regained their footing once the dispute was settled, finishing 4-11 just a season after going 10-6.
"It was bad news," Wyche says. "Everybody was screaming for my hide. And they were having a food drive, which we had planned long before we knew the outcome of the season. So I came up with the idea, why don't we do this? Have two big barrels there, one of them can say Can the Coach, the other one Don't Can the Coach. And you can put cans in either one. I figured we might as well have fun with it. If I was going to get fired, I was going to get fired."
How many NFL coaches could you envision building their own gallows and leaving fans to decide whether to pop the floor? How could Wyche possibly be so at ease with himself to invite the masses to weigh in on his fate?
"This will sound so egotistical, but 'I don't think football is the only thing I can do' is the only way to put it," says Wyche, who remained with the Bengals through the '91 season. "I don't think, like some people do, that this is it, that this is their lifeblood. I work hard and do those kinds of things, but if it doesn't work out I'll have something else I'll work hard at."
Embracing the booth
Wyche was right. He could adjust. He made a quick transition to broadcasting after his four-year run as coach of Tampa Bay ended in 1995.
Wyche loved his new occupation. The pressures were minimal compared to coaching. He was still around football people, still feeding off the camaraderie. He had the freedom of flying his own plane to games, to relish his one true hobby. "That," says Jane, "was his relaxation."
Wyche likely would never have left the booth, never coached again, if he'd had his way. But shortly after the buzzard incident, he started feeling ill, de-energized. Some days he was bed-ridden all but an hour a day.
Doctors found blood clots in his lungs. Lymph nodes were enlarged. He was whisked into a biopsy, and during the procedure the nerve endings of his left vocal chord were severed. His voice was gone, and his overall condition continued to deteriorate.
It was almost another year before Wyche was found to be suffering from cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease. His heart was pumping blood at less than half its standard efficiency. A pacemaker was installed, which means he can no longer fly a plane. He still takes 12 pills a day, a combination, he says, "that really has done wonders for me."
With his overall health stabilized, Wyche underwent throat surgery. His voice was restored, to a casual speaking tone, insufficient for work in the booth. His days as a broadcaster were over: He did his last game Sept. 23, 2001.
He spent two years as an assistant football coach in Pickens, S.C., one year doubling as a substitute teacher earning $48 a day. He'd teach anything. Economics. History. Jazz ensemble. He'd probably be directing the school's production of "The Music Man" if contact with an old friend, new Bills head coach Mike Mularkey, hadn't reopened the doors to the NFL. And once the job was his, Jane could see that old fire had been ignited.
"He missed the broadcast booth tremendously because there wasn't the pressure of coaching and he got to see old friends," she says. "But I guess he did miss the excitement of being on the field. He was really excited before his first game. It was just like old times. He's just really happy to be back. I've never seen him so happy."