"Then Sam went to Indiana [he was hired as the Hoosier coach in '83]. Now, I knew no one was going to do well doing that. They just didn't have the players. Then in 1984, Green Bay asked us for Forrest Gregg [who was then coaching the Bengals]. Forrest wanted to go. Returning to Green Bay, where he had played, was the ultimate for him, he thought at the time. So we had to find a coach. The first man who came to mind was Sam. I felt at ease with him."
But Wyche was reluctant. He liked Indiana. "He wasn't sure he'd been fair to them, after only one year," says Brown. "I pointed out that professional football is the pure science of football, not a recruiting war." The matrix, having done him so many favors, would not hear of Wyche declining his due. At Wyche's introductory press conference, Brown ceremoniously returned the new coach's old playbook.
Cincinnati's records in Wyche's first two seasons were 8-8 and 7-9, respectively. In 1986, with Boomer Esiason leading the offense, the Bengals went 10-6. "We had a good team coming," says Wyche. That made 1987 all the more galling. Cincinnati lost early and memorably. In the second game of the season, Wyche called a sweep to run out the clock on fourth down with six seconds to play while leading San Francisco 26-20. Defensive end Kevin Fagan, who was unblocked, shot into the Bengal backfield and tackled running back James Brooks with two seconds to go. Montana used them to connect with Jerry Rice for a 25-yard touchdown to give the 49ers an astounding 27-26 victory.
Walsh and Montana called Wyche to commiserate. Walsh publicly defended Wyche's strategy, which rejected the time-honored options of punting or taking a safety. But the play inflamed Cincinnati. A local paper called him "a social leper." Visible in much of the furor was resentment of his innovative nature. Suddenly he was Wicky Wacky Wyche, and 61% of the callers to WLW radio wanted him fired.
Finally, during the players' strike, which began the next week, the team—with a strong union element and a strong nonunion element—nearly disintegrated. "We were one comment, one incident away from coming apart at the seams," says Wyche. After the four-week strike, the Bengals were a spooked, snakebitten assemblage. They repeatedly outgained opponents but were killed by late-game fades. Injuries cut them to pieces. "It is just steady, excruciating suffering," said Wyche at one point. "My insides are eroding."
Now he says, "The worst part was the knowledge of being so near to winning. Our focus had been split by the strike. The all-out assault on the head coach on the talk shows was a constant distraction. I wasn't affected, but the players were. When you're always being asked about your coach, it hurts preparation."
The dynamics of any team are almost impenetrably complex. At most, a few dozen men had enough knowledge of the Bengals' situation to offer an informed opinion on Wyche's performance. One was strength coach Kim Wood, an intensely voluble sandstone of a man who has worked among the bellows and grunts in the team's cramped weight room since 1975.
"This is a wild-dog culture," says Wood. "Pro football is not a business for nice people. But Sam is honest and sincere, a man who treats you as a man, as opposed to a child, or a regiment. He followed a tough act. Forrest Gregg is a powerful leadership' coach. Sam is smart, but the romance of a charismatic leader is not there. He's not a savior; he simply does his job. He'll plan, he'll make decisions, he'll facilitate learning. He'll be honest, and that puts a lot of responsibility on the players.
"Sam kept his objectivity," Wood continues. "We weren't winning, but the program did not spin out of control. We had a chance in every game. He never wavered from his judgment that we were a good team, and that kept the players' faith in their ability."
Brown had promised Wyche that the strike season was not to be held against the coaches, but he couldn't speak for all of Cincinnati. "I didn't see the news much in those days," says Wyche. "Jane would read the paper, clear the debris and leave me the weather report."