Sam Wyche, who pushed the boundaries as an offensive innovator with the Cincinnati Bengals and challenged the NFL’s protocols along the way, has died. He was 74.
Wyche, who had a history of blood clots in his lungs and had a heart transplant in 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina, died Thursday of melanoma, officials with the Bengals confirmed.
“Sam was a wonderful guy. We got to know him as both a player and a coach,” Bengals president Mike Brown said. “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 Jane and his children Zak and Kerry.”
One of the Bengals’ original quarterbacks, Wyche was known for his offensive innovations as a coach. He led the Bengals to their second Super Bowl during the 1988 season by using a no-huddle offense that forced the league to change its substitution rules.
And that wasn’t the only way he made waves throughout the NFL. A nonconformist in a button-down league, Wyche refused to comply with the NFL’s locker room policy for media, ran up the score to settle a personal grudge, and belittled the city of rival Cleveland during his eight seasons in Cincinnati. He later coached Tampa Bay for four seasons.
Wyche was signed by the Bengals for their inaugural season. He got No. 14 — later worn by Ken Anderson and Andy Dalton — and played three seasons with Cincinnati, throwing for 12 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He later spent two years in Washington as a backup and a year each in Detroit and St. Louis.
It’s as a coach that he made his mark on offense. The Bengals hired him as head coach in 1984, and he soon showed a knack for going against the grain. During a game against San Francisco in 1987, he chose to try to run out the clock on fourth down rather than punt or take a safety — the safe choices. When the play failed, Joe Montana got a chance to throw a winning touchdown pass to Jerry Rice, an ending that’s still remembered among the league’s most improbable finishes.
He put his fingerprints on NFL offense with Boomer Esiason as the quarterback. He developed what he called a “sugar huddle” that had his team group near the line after a substitution. If the defense tried to match the substitution, he’d have the offense snap the ball and catch it with too many players on the field. The NFL eventually adopted a rule allowing defenses to match an offense’s substitution before the ball is snapped.
Cincinnati reached the Super Bowl in the 1988 season and lost to the 49ers again on Montana’s touchdown pass with 34 seconds to go.
Wyche loved to push the envelope on offense and loved to go against standard wisdom. A Steelers assistant coach dubbed him “Wicky Wacky” for his go-against-the-grain mentality.
It wasn’t just in the playbook where he showed an independent streak. He developed a history of fines and feuds. He defied league policy by barring reporters from the locker room following a last-minute loss to Seattle in 1989 and clamped a gag order on his players, resulting in a $3,000 fine from the league. A year later, he defied then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue and barred a female reporter from the locker room. He was unrepentant despite a $27,941 fine.
Wyche also famously took a jab at Cleveland during a game against the Seahawks at Riverfront Stadium in 1989. When fans started pelting players with snowballs, Wyche grabbed the public address announcer’s microphone and told fans, “You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati.”
He also feuded with Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville, whom he called a phony. He had the Bengals make an onside kick when they led Glanville’s team by 45 points, and Wyche waved derisively at Glanville as he ran off the field following a 61-7 win near the end of the 1989 season.
During his eight seasons in Cincinnati, Wyche’s teams went 61-66 in the regular season and 3-2 in the playoffs. The Bengals never had consecutive winning seasons, and they made the playoffs just twice during his eight years.
His career ended with more controversy after the 1991 season — owner Mike Brown announced that Wyche had quit during their end-of-the-season meeting, but Wyche insisted he was fired with two years left on his contract.
The Buccaneers hired him for the 1992 season and finished 5-11. Tampa Bay went 23-41 in his four seasons.
Wyche later served as quarterbacks coach in Buffalo and later became a volunteer offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for a high school in South Carolina.