By Gary Shelton
TAMPA — For the Tampa Bay Bucs, halftime was always miserable.
There was usually a fresh deficit to overcome, and some players needed to see the trainer, and some needed to get something to drink, and some needed to find a place to pee, and some needed fluids replenished. Some players needed to counseling by their head coach, and some from an assistant, and some wanted to check out the brunette in row three, and some had to take over as the starter because the old guy was throwing up. Some wanted to gripe to the coaches about the officials, or to the officials about the coaches.
Other coaches try to calm the chaos of those few minutes, of all the emotions that a pro football game can build by halftime.
Sam? He practiced it.
Really. In the middle of the season, while other players were learning about intricate blitzes or hot pass routes off of audibles, Sam Wyche actually practiced halftime. It was 1992, and the Bucs had been outscored 40-17 in five games. Sam, being Sam, thought the trouble was halftime. Me? I thought it was the opponents were better in the third quarter.
But that was Sam, and with Sam, an idea was another bee buzzing around the hive. There were thousands of them, all buzzing their own tune, all flying their own pattern, none of them unexpressed, any of them capable of lighting and stinging at any moment. You never knew which thought would take over Sam, or how long it would last.
That was the world of Wyche, the outrageous, outlandish Wyche. He had himself some fun.
These days, Wyche is trying to adjust to a new heart. He just had a last-second transplant at a time the news seemed to be going south. But Sam always had enough heart.
He was the best guy you’ve ever met, and he was the most combative, and he was the most vindictive. All of it was Sam. I used to say that Sam had 17 personalities, and one of them was a great guy, but you could never count on that guy showing up. He would completely change his offense on a Wednesday, and change it again next Wednesday.
He could sit with you one night, and explain why the Bucs thought Craig Erickson was a better bet to replace Vinny Testaverde than Steve Buerlein. And the next day, he would chide you in front of the world for a question he thought was loaded. I stood beside him when someone threw a pair of binoculars at him. I saw the crowd sit behind him and imitate his finger circling in the air, his signal for the no-huddle.
* * *
He was five-dash-two. Remember?
It was Wyche’s last year in Tampa, and the wolves were out. But success could make Sam smug,and so it did this year, too. After winning five of his seven, including four in a row, he couldn’t help but crow about being “5-dash-2.” Sadly, though, his team finished two-dash-seven.
The last stand of Wyche was perfect. He was playing for a chance to finish .500 after all those years of losing. But Wyche and quarterback Trent Dilfer seemed to resent each other’s oxygen. So early in the game, Wyche pulled him for Casey Weldon. TheBucs were buried, and Dilfer was ticked, and Wyche was talking about miscommunication as the reason Dilfer didn’t know.
* * *
The first time I met Sam was before Super Bowl XXIII in Miami. I liked him. The next year, I happened to be in Cincinnati when the Bucs traded Rod Jones for Jim Skow. Wlyche took me into his office and showed Tim Smith (an old Enquirer buddy of mine) game highlights that made Jones look like Deion Sanders.
I was there when Wyche came out for a post-game interview in a towel, his commentary on women in the locker room. I thought it was a bad message. He was showing that sensible players could indeed wear towels.
In 1992, the Bucs needed a new coach. So Hugh Culverhouse put it to a vote. He actually asked the media who thought wanted as coach. Most voted for Wyche. I voted for Buddy Ryan.
But Wyche won, and he hit Tampa Bay like a politician stumping for votes. He even let a writer I know ride in his plane. As they took off, Wyche turned to the writer and said “You know, I had a dream I would die in a plane crash.” Think that won’t make you tighten your belt?
* * *
We argued. Yes, we did. When Sam huffed off of the practice field, I suggested the Bucs might be better served by actually having a coach there. When Sam held the media captive on a game just before Christmas, making a long, rambling speech about the “season of light,” I was there griping.
Now, Sam never admitted to reading the paper, but I would suggest he could find his name if you put it in the classified ads. That was especially so when the Times ran a story suggesting Wyche had lost his team.
The next day, Wyche rambled on about how that article upset his old, ailing mother. After the press conference, the writer went up to Sam and objected.
Wyche unloaded. “You’re s—,” he said “Just s—.”
The writer, out of reflex, turned on his tape recorder. So Sam whispered, as if tape recorders could’t pick up whispers.”You’re s—,” Wyche repeated again and again.
Then the team’s p.r. guy was in the fray, trying to wrestle the tape recorder from Wyche like Rosey Grier with Sirhan Sirhan. It may have been the most outrageous day in the history of the Bucs.
* * *
Years went by, and eventually, Sam and I got along fine. Maybe that surprised both of us.
He would stop by a Bucs’ game, and he had that great laugh and a twinkle. He was a TV star, which continued until he lost his voice. But if you called him, he was good company. I never had a short conversation with him.
My last headline with Sam came when he was working with Tim Tebow.
“Tim will be a starter or I spent a lot of years in the wrong profession,” he said. Wherever Tebow was drafted, he said, the team would look like a genius.
Here’s the thing. You cannot stay mad at Sam. He was always willing to let yesterday’s argument go. It was one of his gifts.
The arguments with Jerry Glanville? The furor over the no-huddle? Insulting Cleveland? It was all just part of Sam being Sam.
Get well, buddy.
You’ve got more being Sam to come.