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When Tampa Bay hosts Buffalo in its home opener on Sept. 18, it will mark the return of former Buccaneers head coach Sam Wyche, who coached the old orange-and-white-clad team from 1992-95. It has been 10 years since Wyche was fired after a promising 5-2 start in 1995 turned into a 7-9 finish, and he will return to Tampa to face his former team on the opponent sidelines. After an eight-year absence from the NFL, Wyche is entering his second year as the Bills’ quarterbacks coach where he has the tough task of readying the strong-armed J.P. Losman for his first year as Buffalo’s starting signal caller.
Wyche was hired by the Bucs in 1992 after posting a 3-13 record in Cincinnati – just four years removed from taking the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Despite some impressive drafts and an improving record that saw the team go 6-10 in ’94 and 7-9 in ’95 after two consecutive 5-11 seasons, Wyche had lost the locker room at the end of his Tampa Bay tenure and Malcolm Glazer had seen enough after just one year as the Bucs’ new owner. Wyche was replaced by Tony Dungy for the 1996 season.
Life after his stint coaching the Bucs has had its share of ups and downs, as Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds found out in this conversation with witty, candid and outspoken Wyche.
Sam, when the Bucs play host to the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 18 it will mark your return to Tampa Bay. It’s been 10 years since you were coach of the Buccaneers. Have you thought about coming back to Tampa Bay and the feelings that might stir up inside you?
“The first thing that strikes me is that you are reminding me it has been 10 years. I didn’t realize that. I hadn’t thought about that part of it. Hopefully, I’m generally thought of fondly and there aren’t too many snipers there. I’ve still got a lot of friends there. We lived over in Clearwater for four years and we didn’t move out of the area right away. I was working for NBC Sports when I left the Bucs, and could basically live wherever we wanted to live. We still have a lot of friends down there and the first thing we did when we saw that we were playing in Week 2 down there was to get a hold of some of those friends and let them know that I will have absolutely no time to spend with them socializing due to travel. It’s a business trip.”
Although Tampa Bay compiled a 23-41 record during your tenure, I got the sense that you tried to make Buccaneers football fun after two dull, dreary campaigns by Ray Perkins and Richard Williamson. You got heavily involved in community relations and tried to do some things to generate fan enthusiasm.
“When I first got there, one of the first things I did was list the needs of the team. They weren’t all football technique needs. They were community relations, too. If you are winning, there’s no problem. People want to come to the games and be associated with you. That’s the nature in every NFL city. But until we could become winners, we had to lay some other groundwork to get everyone pulling behind us for that future day. We did come very close. That last little bit that we were there as a staff … in 1994 we won four of our last five games in a row. Then the last year I was there, we started out winning and we were 5-2 at one point. Then we played that dadgum Atlanta team and they beat us up (24-21) and we had a hard time recovering from it physically. But we got some new faces in there that turned out to be good players for the Bucs and Tony and Jon Gruden. That’s what we set out to do. We knew it wasn’t a very good team that had not won in a long time. The organization wasn’t very competitive and didn’t carry a lot of respect. We were trying to gain that back and gain some respect in the community.”
In your final season, the Bucs started off 5-dash-2, and when you reminded reporters of that record and told them how to write it, it seemed like you were fed up with the media and their coverage of you and the team. Did you get a fair shot from the media or do you think that all of the losing had jaded the reporters to the point that they couldn’t see that the team was making some progress?
“A lot of that stems from the scoreboard. If you don’t win – regardless of how hard you work, or how many things you are doing right or how close you are getting – none of that counts. There is winning and then there is last place. There is no in between. That’s just the nature of it. In terms of the players and the coaches, we take a lot of pride in knowing what is going on behind those walls. In our view, when they are criticized – unfairly in our view – you just react. Some coaches can swallow hard, but I’m not one of them. (Laughs).”
Many point to the Bucs’ 1995 draft as the turning point for the franchise’s turnaround, but in my point of view, getting linebacker Hardy Nickerson in 1993 was even more important for the attitude and the leadership he brought to the team. Nickerson was the player young John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks could look up to.
“You’re right. We tried to get him the year prior to that. For two straight years in fact, we had the deal ready to go and with 30 minutes before the deadline that the Pittsburgh Steelers had to match our contract offer, the Rooney family said, ‘Match it’ in 1992. In fact, I’m told that Mr. Rooney was at a banquet in his honor and he excused himself long enough to make the phone call and then go back in to the banquet. That’s how close we were to getting him a year earlier. I knew we needed to add some leadership to that football team before we ever stood a chance to turn it around completely. He was one of the guys I targeted as being important. Of course the draft picks that came behind him were just upgrades in the talent level and they needed that mentor to help them along.”
Sam, some history revisionists in Tampa Bay curiously leave your name out when mentioning the Bucs’ drafting of Sapp and Brooks and only credit Rich McKay, although your title in 1995 was head coach and director of football operations.
“We drafted John Lynch a year or two earlier and he was crucial to that franchise, too. I think everyone worked together. I was the director of football operations. That last year was the year that Mr. Glazer had taken control of the team. When he came in, I was never notified of any change of my status, but there was clearly a role change by Rich in terms of being more assertive in what was going on in the office. Rich and I remained good friends and I’ll say it was a collaborative effort. I still remember going out in the back behind One Buccaneer Place and we were getting down to our draft pick and Warren Sapp was still on the board. We thought he would have been gone. The scouts, Rich, me, Jerry Angelo and Tim Ruskell were all back there, and I asked them if there was any reason why this guy wasn’t gone yet. Somebody had to know something. We were so close as an organization to all of the schools in Florida, and one of the scouts said that this guy was not a bad guy. He might have had a story or two written about him, but he didn’t do anything worse than what a lot of college kids do coming through. On that basis, it was not me or Rich, it was the scouts doing their job and us giving them the go ahead to pick him when we did.”
Sam, how close were you to turning the corner in Tampa Bay? You made some progress, but could not deliver in a winning season.
“It was a good time. We knew we were getting close. If you combine the end of of my next to last year and the front end of my last year and the preseason games, we were pretty used to winning. We weren’t used to losing. That was the atmosphere we were trying to create, but we couldn’t sustain it that next year. We lost a ton of close games – heartbreakers – that made the difference in keeping my job and turning it around earlier than it happened with Tony.”
How did McKay break the news to you that you had been fired?
“I was in my office and it was after we lost the last game to Detroit. We lost a game that I thought we could have and should have won. The disappointment there was that I had some players who didn’t give me everything they had in that last two or three games. I regret not getting them out of the lineup, too. They were doing themselves, the team and everybody a disservice. But I was looking at that film by myself and Rich came in and was kind of trying to be as gentle as he could. (Laughs) I picked up on what was going on and I purposefully made it as hard on him as I could and then I told him three minutes later that I was going to make this so hard on him. I said I’m going to make him a better administrator because he’s going to have to do that a lot in his career. He told me that was what Mr. Glazer wanted to do, and I called Mr. Glazer and thanked him for the one-year looksie that he gave me since he didn’t originally sign me as the coach, and I told him where I thought the team was strong and where I thought the team needed to make improvements. It was the same thing I did with Tony when he was hired. I went in and spent an hour with him and told him what I knew just so he’d have a little history with every player on the team and some background. Other than me intentionally giving Rich one hard time and play-acting as if my heart was being crushed – and it was, I guess – I was making it known that he was hurting my feelings. (Laughs)”
Here’s the question that can never be truly answered. Sam, in your mind, what would have happened with the Bucs if you had been given the 1996 season, which came complete with two first-round draft picks and Lynch, Sapp, Brooks and Trent Dilfer all having another year under their belt?
“I’d like to think that we would have done the same thing they did in 1997 a year earlier. I’ll never be able to prove that, but I think that’s where we were. I would have had to let some players go. I would not put up with a handful of players – and I’ll never mention their names – that quit on us that year. It doesn’t take anybody long to recognize who the quitters were and I would have to get rid of them. We would have been stronger. That would have made me happy because Tampa remains my favorite city that I’ve ever been in. I loved the town and the weather. I was a private pilot until I got my little heart problem and I loved the water. It couldn’t have been a better situation for me.”
What was going through your mind when Dilfer won his first Super Bowl – in Tampa (with the Baltimore Ravens) of all places? And what were you thinking on January 26, 2003 when the last NFL team you coached did the unthinkable and won its first Super Bowl? You still had a handful of your players on the Bucs’ Super Bowl squad.
“There was a lot of turnover for that Super Bowl team. That wasn’t my team by any stretch of the imagination – just a few players. I had a lot of personal interest in some of those players because I had some blood, sweat and tears in them. My feelings about Trent were that I caught him on the young side, the growing side of a young athlete who was a great college player. He was not ready to make the transition immediately to the pros. It was going to take him a couple of years, which it did. The unfortunate part of it was that I fell into that part of it where he wasn’t quite ready to go. Trent is a good guy and a good friend now. We share our stories when we get the chance to chat, which isn’t that often anymore. The Bills played Seattle in Seattle and we had a chance to chat out there and reminiscence on some things. Our relationship is good. But I was very happy for Tampa Bay. I have to admit, there was certainly no resentment, but there was the longing that I could have been a part of that and wish I had been able to hang in there long enough to be a part of that. Players play the game. Coaches get their share of the credit and do their jobs, but it’s the players who win or lose the game. Coaches don’t.”
What were some of your fondest memories in your four years in Tampa as head coach of the Buccaneers?
“When I first went there I remember being on a flatbed truck outside of the stadium and a large group of fans welcoming me and my family. That was one of the earlier things I remember. I remember the first two games we played after I became the head coach and we won both of those games at home. The second one was Green Bay and we beat them pretty soundly in that ball game and I can remember the feeling among the players and the fans that things were going to get better. The other things revolve around the town. I remember some big wins like Michael Husted kicking a field goal against the Minnesota Vikings at home, and I can remember Rich McKay telling me after the game that he leaned over to whoever he was sitting next to up in the box and he said our new stadium was riding on this kick – and it was a 53-yarder on a windy day. We made the kick and won the game. Some of the other things were trying to time out snaps at practice in between takeoffs and landings at the airport because the practice field was so close to the end of the runways.” (Laughs)
I remember in 1995 you hired some guy named Mike Mularky, a former NFL player, to be your quality control coach in Tampa Bay. Did you ever think that years later he would be hiring you?
“Mike Mularky. Yes, I know him well. I’m in Buffalo because of a pity hire! (Laughs) I think he just felt like he had to do it because I was getting old and couldn’t get a job anywhere else. Mike had never coached in the NFL before back in 1995. He had written me and called me, and I had a policy that if a coach who was looking for a job contacted me, I always wrote him back personally or I called him personally. We always wrote back or called anyone who had taken the time or interest in our team. I called Mike back and he insisted that he wanted to pursue it. I told him that I was going to be in Mobile at the Senior Bowl and to be sure to look me up. I remembered him as a player, but had never met him before. Sure enough, he pulled the money together and flew down from Minnesota and found me on the sidelines of the Senior Bowl. My instincts and initial impressions were so strong almost immediately that I actually created a job for him. We didn’t have an opening. He worked with the tight ends and did the quality control film study and film breakdowns for us. As a result of that, he got a job in Pittsburgh and climbed the ladder pretty quickly as I thought he might. When he got the job in Buffalo he called me and I had mentioned that I thought my heart had gotten strong enough now that I could do it. I wanted to do it and that I was climbing the walls and volunteering at the local high school to feed my hunger for the game of football. He called me one night and asked if I was interested in joining him. He read me the names of some of the other guys he was going to have on the staff and the first name was Brad Rolle, who was the strength coach in Tampa. The next guy was Jim McNally, who was my line coach in Cincinnati, and one of the best ever. Tim Krumrie was going to be the defensive line coach and had played for me for years and on our Super Bowl team in 1988. Jerry Gray, who had been in Tampa for a short time while I was there, was going to be the defensive coordinator. It was just the place I was supposed to be. I was very lucky and I have no complaints.”
After coaching with the Buccaneers you went into broadcasting, but weren’t able to continue on in that profession due to a serious heart ailment. How did you contract your heart condition, and how is your health these days?
“Broadcasting was a perfect elixir for me because I wasn’t on the sideline, but I was at the game. I started off with a great partner in Marv Albert with NBC. Then when Mike Ditka went back into coaching, I replaced him in studio in New York every week. When NBC lost the NFL contract I went with CBS. That was perfect. Then I got sick. Literally, somebody sneezed around me or somebody sneezed into their hand and I shook hands with them and then I rubbed my eye or picked my nose and got the germ in my body and it attacked my heart. I have viral cardiomyopathy and I will always have it. It means my heart is deteriorating slowly but surely. In the process of dealing with that I had the nerve of my left vocal cord severed in an operation. That’s what ended my broadcast career. I could have made it with the heart due to the medication, but when they cut the nerve to my left vocal cord I couldn’t talk loud enough to compete with the crowd noise at the games. That was a big tragedy in my life because I really enjoyed the broadcasting and would probably still be in it. I got laid out and was very, very sick for two years and stayed in bed more than anything else because I had no energy. The medication finally kicked in and I avoided the heart transplant and off I went to Buffalo.”
Looking back on your Bucs coaching career, is there any one loss that stings more than any other?
“The game that haunts me as much as any of them was a game where we were ahead at the half (27-3) on a Sunday night against the Rams and they came back to beat us (31-27). If you have any competitive spirit when you get the lead – as Paul Brown used to say – once you set your heel in their chin, don’t stop to reset it. Don’t smile until the last gun. No smiles yet.”
Do you expect any reaction from the Sam Wyche fans when you step foot in Raymond James Stadium for the first time as an enemy coach with the Bills?
“They won’t recognize that I’ve wandered into the stadium, but I expect the feedback to be positive. There was a group of hardcore fans who wanted you to win. They were crippled like the players and coaches were when we didn’t win, but they were right there for you next week. I look forward to seeing them. But we’re going to play so hard that we’re going to beat the Bucs. I’m going to use a “Gipper” speech that will come from every angle with the Bills. (Laughs) But Tampa is nothing but good memories for me. You always wish that you had won three Super Bowls and retired as king of the hill, but that doesn’t happen unless you are Bill Walsh or Chuck Knoll.”
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