General manager Rich McKay said Wednesday the Tampa Bay Bucs are a better team than they were the day they hired Sam Wyche four years ago.
But McKay also made it clear the Bucs are better off without him.
In a move that was anticipated, the Bucs fired Wyche, their fifth head coach, announcing the decision at a morning news conference. Wyche, who had a year remaining on his five-year, $3.9-million contract, was dismissed just four days after the close of the 1995 regular season.
Wyche came to Tampa Bay in 1992 with Super Bowl credentials. But in four seasons with the Bucs, the man who led the Cincinnati Bengals to the NFL championship game finished with a 23-41 record in Tampa Bay and four straight losing seasons, including this year's disappointing 7-9 mark.
McKay characterized the decision as a "mutual agreement," but Wyche sounded very much like a coach who had been relieved of his duties _ even in teasing McKay and members of the Malcolm Glazer family, the team owners.
"Rich McKay is a good friend, and it was very hard on Rich, and Bryan and Joel and Malcolm," Wyche said. "You know, this is their first time (firing a coach). The first time is always the most memorable, as I recall. Whatever you do.
"I tried to make it as hard on Rich as I could, so it would be absolutely a great learning experience for him. But I couldn't do it. He's too good of a guy. The team is in good hands. Somebody's going to come in here and get it done for the fans that deserve the wins on the football field."
The Bucs' wish list of coaching candidates is thought to start with University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, a former Bucs quarterback who will lead the undefeated Gators in their national championship showdown with Nebraska in Tuesday night's Fiesta Bowl.
Other candidates could include former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, who is thought to be uninterested in giving up his studio analyst role with the Fox television network for anything but the Miami Dolphins coaching job; Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner; San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll; Minnesota defensive coordinator Tony Dungy; and University of Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez.
Spurrier's contract has rollover clauses that extend it until 2002, but he has a window of opportunity that allows him to talk to NFL teams each year between Dec. 1 and the day after Florida's final game.
"My comment about that is always the same," said Spurrier, asked about the Bucs' opening. "I'm very happy to be at Florida and I hope to be there for many years."
McKay issued no timetable for the coaching search, but he did acknowledge the franchise's stadium situation, and potential relocation, would be factors in the process.
"(The coaching search) could take one day; it could take four months," McKay said. "It's an important issue obviously to the franchise and therefore the object is to make it in a manner that you've taken the appropriate amount of time, done the appropriate research, and then made the decision.
"There's a lot to be done with respect to the stadium issue and with respect to the coach issue. But we've got to get it done. and we will."
Wyche's coaching future was a topic of speculation in the season's final six weeks, but McKay wasted little time in settling it once the Bucs closed 1995 with a 37-10 home loss to Detroit on Saturday. The defeat ensured an 13th straight losing season for Tampa Bay _ the longest losing streak in the league _ and capped a 2-7 second-half slide.
After taking Sunday and Monday off for Christmas, McKay and Wyche held a season-ending review on Tuesday, with McKay also meeting with Bryan and Joel Glazer.
"We sat down yesterday and talked long and hard," McKay said. "It really came to a head last night. Our feeling was if this was going to take place, better to take place now than to take place in three weeks, because there was a lot of speculation concerning what may or may not happen.
"I think Sam is the consummate professional, and when we sat and analyzed exactly where we were and exactly where this ownership group wants to get _ and that's being a championship-caliber team _ we felt like it was in everybody's best interest to make this change and make it now."
Reached at his mother's home in California, Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer wished Wyche well.
"There's two people that take the most blame in an organization when things go bad, that's the head coach and the quarterback," said Dilfer, whose relationship with Wyche was strained in the season's second half. "Obviously the organization feels like it needs to go in another direction. The firing of Sam is expressing that. I wish Sam the best in the future.
"I know the Glazers will do everything they can to make the organization a championship-caliber organization in the future and go whatever direction they need to achieve that."
Wyche's contract, which called for nearly $800,000 a year, included a fifth-year buyout clause that is estimated to have saved the club about half that figure.
As for Wyche's assistants, none were dismissed Wednesday. All but three have contracts that expire in February, but depending on the wishes of the next Bucs coach, any or all could be retained. The three that have a year left on their two-year contracts all came to Tampa Bay in 1995: defensive coordinator Rusty Tillman, defensive line coach Tom Pratt and running backs coach Kippy Brown.
Wyche is unlikely to land another NFL head coaching job, but he is known to have already drawn the interest of Fox for a possible analyst job next season.
Wyche did not take questions from a media contingent that he has repeatedly feuded with in recent weeks, but he took time to thank Bucs fans and players for their support, and said the media had been "more than fair" to him. He also predicted success just around the corner for the NFL's losingest franchise.
"I really believe that good things are ahead and a good man will come in here and reap some of the benefits of the hard work that we put in," Wyche said. "I wish we could have done that, but we didn't quite get there. So these are the things that happen when you don't get there."
Said McKay: "What Sam did was build a base for the team. We're better than we were in 1992 when he took over. This team has made giant strides, and our hope is that we can take the next step."
The day he was hired by Tampa Bay, Wyche, the team's second choice behind former Giants coach Bill Parcells, made a rather bold prediction.
"We're going to make second choice into first place before it's all over with," said Wyche, who despite becoming the winningest coach in franchise history with a .359 winning percentage, never finished higher than last or tied for the worst record in the NFC Central.
Wyche's NFL coaching record
Wyche's NFL Head Coaching Record
1984 Cincinnati Bengals 8-8
1985 Cincinnati Bengals 7-9
1986 Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
1987 Cincinnati Bengals 4-11
1988 Cincinnati Bengals 12-4 (2-1)+
1989 Cincinnati Bengals 8-8
1990 Cincinnati Bengals 9-7 (1-1)+
1991 Cincinnati Bengals 3-13
1992 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11
1993 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11
1994 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10
1995 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9
Total 84-107 (3-2)+