After a 6-0 start in '88, there was no more talk of firing the coach. "We were a resilient team," says Wyche. "We never lost two in a row, and after three of the losses we blew away the next opponent." They finished the regular season 12-4.
The city's backing was now as lusty as its ire had been. 'The electricity in that stadium exceeded anything I've felt in D.C. or San Francisco," says Wyche of Riverfront Stadium last season.
In the midst of all this winning, Sam and Jane raised a glass to his having proved 1987 a fluke. Then they toasted his leaving football. "I was exhausted at the time," says Wyche. "Everybody has a time like that, right? When you ask yourself. What do I really want to do now? Do I want to go into combat again? At that one point, the answer was no. But as we closed in on the world championship, we realized that all the bad times are worth it, worth the moment at the top."
He falls quiet, then says, "We'll probably go through another evening like that. If you're not constantly evaluating your position, you ought to be evaluating why you're not evaluating your position. Then, too, I don't remember 1988 as being all that exciting. Coaches can't enjoy a good year. We're too worried that the whole thing will collapse at the end." It did, of course, but not without passionate, poignant battle on many fronts. In the divisional playoff, Seattle Seahawk nosetackles Joe Nash and Ken Clarke repeatedly faked injury to stop the clock and allow their team to make defensive substitutions against the Bengals' no-huddle attack. Cincinnati still won 21-13.
When Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy vowed to do the same in the AFC Championship Game, the NFL office shamelessly caved in and instructed the referees to nullify any Cincinnati play that in their judgment began with the intent of catching Buffalo with too many men on the field. "Can you imagine what the NFL would have gone through if we'd lost the Buffalo game?" says Wyche. "The style of play that got us there was outlawed not because it was against the rules but because the other team threatened to make the game a farce. We were penalized for the actions of others. To which I said, 'Hey, arrest the crook.'
"The no-huddle had been complimented as fun and interesting by league officials," he continues. "People let you wander around in mediocrity as long as you want. But at the top of the hill, enemies await."
Cincinnati defeated Buffalo 21-10 to reach the Super Bowl against—bittersweet fate—San Francisco. Before the game, the league reversed its position, and Cincinnati's no-huddle weapon was permitted. Wyche says he has yet to use it in its most dramatic form: "I'd love to send all the receivers long, then have them step off the field. Here come fresh ones with no huddle, and they go long. Then in come more new ones.... Boy, would people raise Cain over that."
Wyche is not haunted by the 1989 Super Bowl, despite having good reasons to be. "The night before the game we lost Stanley Wilson to drugs," he says. "On the second series of downs we lost Tim Krumrie to a terrible broken leg. And we still were playing to win with 34 seconds left."
By then, though, the Bengals had been eviscerated by Montana's historic 92-yard touchdown drive. Cincinnati fell 20-16. "The hollow feeling, walking away from losing the Super Bowl," says Wyche, "is that you can have a better team, a better record next year, but you may never get back."
There were other hollow feelings. Wyche has often thought of the unexpectedness of Wilson's descent into cocaine use, of how he found Wilson stuporous and unresponsive in his hotel room that long night before the game. "All week he had had good practices," says Wyche. "He'd had his young son with him. He'd flown in his parents and had a limousine for them. There was no warning. None."