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Sam Wyche was the right coach at the wrong time for the Bucs

Rick Stroud | The former Bengals and Bucs coach died Thursday at age 74.
In this Oct. 23, 1995 file photo, Bucs coach Sam Wyche (left) and quarterback Trent Dilfer (center) have a heated discussion with some officials during a TV time out. Wyche died Thursday, three days shy of his 75th birthday.
In this Oct. 23, 1995 file photo, Bucs coach Sam Wyche (left) and quarterback Trent Dilfer (center) have a heated discussion with some officials during a TV time out. Wyche died Thursday, three days shy of his 75th birthday. [ ROWLAND, JACK | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 3, 2020|Updated Jan. 3, 2020

TAMPA — Shortly after his first practice with the Bucs, Sam Wyche was asked how quarterback Vinny Testaverde had fared directing his hurry-up offense.

“Well, he didn’t run into the goal post or anything,’’ Wyche deadpanned. “So far, so good.’’

Wyche’s timing and sense of humor was as good as any late-night talk show host. He could be entertaining and self-deprecating.

He also was a great person and a very good coach, but that’s where Wyche’s timing failed him in Tampa Bay.

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He was only a few years removed from leading the Bengals to an AFC title and appearance in Super Bowl 22, where Joe Montana led the 49ers on a 92-yard drive and passed to John Taylor for the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left.

Wyche had been Montana’s first quarterback coach under Bill Walsh and they won a Super Bowl together.

But he was hired by the Bucs in 1992 at the end of Hugh Culverhouse’s battle with cancer and exited one year after the sale of the team to Malcolm Glazer.

He had the last year of Testaverde and the first two of Trent Dilfer.

He was there when Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks were drafted but not able to watch them develop into first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame players.

“To say he had a chance is exaggerating,’’ said Falcons president Rich McKay, who served as the team’s general manager in Wyche’s final season in Tampa Bay. “There were too many things working against him.

“Remember, he comes into a team where the owner is sick, it’s the start of free agency, all of football was changing, including the structure of organizations. We were just treading water. That’s what it felt like a lot.’’

Wyche died Thursday afternoon after a short battle with metastatic melanoma. He was 74.

In a sense, his timing was unfortunate there, too. Because Wyche had a heart transplant about three years earlier, they could not use the best medicine to treat the melanoma.

Bucs fans make the mistake of lumping Wyche in with other failed head coaches who couldn’t hold a whistle to him.

He didn’t have the ineptitude of Leeman Bennett or the insufferable attitude of Ray Perkins. He wasn’t overwhelmed like Richard Williamson.

He simply was overmatched, on the 53-man roster and by a minuscule payroll. After Culverhouse’s death from lung cancer in 1994, the team was run by a charitable trust that included McKay, Culverhouse’s law partner Stephen Story and Jack Donlan.

“That was a period when we were trying to get the things ready to be sold,’’ McKay said. “So much of what was going on didn’t involve trying to win football games. It’s a tough thing for the guy charged with the responsibility of winning football games.’’

It’s important to note that Wyche won the job in ’92 over other attractive candidates such as Mike Holmgren, who was hired to coach the Green Bay Packers, and former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan.

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Culverhouse wanted someone experienced enough to handle both the coaching and front office duties. McKay became the team’s general manager in ’95 after the Glazers closed on the deal and Wyche was supportive.

Wyche managed to attract what became important free agents such as Hardy Nickerson and Martin Mayhew, but knowing he was out-gunned in most games, he always tried to find an edge.

In ’93, the Bucs went to Los Angeles to play the Raiders at the L.A. Coliseum. The Raiders’ reputation as one of the league’s most penalized teams was well established and Wyche wanted to take the fight to them.

The Bucs had an undrafted safety Curtis Buckley at wide receiver on the game’s first play. Buckley went in motion on a running play and drilled Raiders safety Derrick Hoskins. “Curtis’ job was to go down and block the safety, which he did,” Wyche said. “Knocked the living crap out of him. The safety got up 2½ seconds after the whistle had blown and knocked the living crap out of Curtis. One of our goals was to go into the game and be the most intense football team in the history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

Wyche was an innovator with the Bengals no-huddle offense. But with the Bucs, a lot of the offensive creativity appeared to be more desperate tricks with a lesser team. An amateur magician, Wyche tried to make the Bucs’ string of double-digit losing seasons disappear.

After going 5-11, 5-11 and 6-10, Wyche had the Bucs at 5-2 to start the ’95 season, the first under the Glazers.

“Five-dash-two,’’ is how Wyche boasted about it.

But the bravado was short-lived. Dilfer, in his first full season as a starter, threw four touchdowns passes and 18 interceptions while completing 54 percent of his passes. The Bucs went 2-7 down the stretch, including an improbable 13-10 win over the Green Bay Packers.

At the time, it was feared the Glazers would move the Bucs to Cleveland if they couldn’t get a stadium built at taxpayer’s expense in Tampa.

Wyche endured all of it and really set the table for Tony Dungy with John Lynch, Sapp and Brooks.

Related: Ex-Buc John Lynch a Pro Football Hall of Fame Finalist again

After he left the Bucs, Wyche had three stints as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Pickens High School in South Carolina. He served as the Bills’ quarterbacks coach under Mike Mularkey, whom he hired on his first Bucs staff as a quality control coach.

He was a pilot, a broadcaster and a city councilman. He was a great father to Zac and Kerry and a devoted husband to Jane, whom he met while playing quarterback at Furman.

He cared about his community and tried to end poverty and homelessness everywhere he lived.

Three years ago, doctors told Wyche he was down to his final days when miraculously a heart donor was found.

He would’ve turned 75 in three days.

“Everybody loved Sam,’’ McKay said.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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