Sam Wyche’s tenure as the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach from 1984 to 1991 was certainly memorable.
Wyche, a Bill Walsh disciple, led the Bengals to two division titles and an appearance in Super Bowl XXIII during that eight-season stretch.
Behind their famous no-huddle offense, the Bengals threw defenses off and witnessed Boomer Esiason develop into a four-time Pro Bowler.
Wyche also received credit for taking legendary quarterback Joe Montana under his wing during their time together with the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 to 1982.
Wyche wasn’t just a football tactician—he was also a humanitarian who went out of his way to help the homeless of Cincinnati, OH during his head coaching tenure with the Bengals.
There’s no question that Sam Wyche’s legacy with Who-Dey Nation will live on forever.
Early Life and College Days with the Furman Paladins
Samuel David “Sam” Wyche was born in Atlanta, GA on January 5, 1945. He has a brother named Bubba.
Wyche attended North Fulton High School (now known as North Atlanta High School) in his hometown. Wyche played quarterback for the North Fulton Warriors.
Unfortunately, Wyche couldn’t surpass his third-string quarterback status during his high school days.
“I was just kind of a guy on the club,” Wyche told Sports Illustrated’s Kenny Moore in the fall of 1989. “A worker, a classic overachiever.”
Wyche told the Greenville News‘ Bob Castello in February 2016 that his mother drove him in their 1950 Plymouth to the Furman University campus on a two-lane road in the early 1960s.
He sat on the gym steps for close to two hours before Furman Paladins head football coach Bob King emerged.
It turned out King forgot about his meeting with Wyche and his mother. King spent that morning playing golf instead.
When King saw Wyche waiting on the gym steps, he knew Wyche would be a good fit for the football team. King promptly gave Wyche a brochure and told him he could play for the Paladins as a walk-on.
Wyche and his mother went back to Atlanta, GA shortly afterward. Sam filled out his application form and got accepted into Furman University to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree.
King offered Wyche a three-year scholarship at the end of Sam’s freshman year at Furman. Sam Wyche went on to play quarterback for the Furman Paladins from 1963 to 1965.
King constantly reminded his players they could make it to the pro football ranks if they worked hard. However, playing in the AFL or NFL wasn’t on Sam Wyche’s agenda—he was constantly worried about his academics so he made them a priority.
So sorry to hear about death of Sam Wyche. What an awesome time it was to live in Greenville, SC when the former Furman star was coaching the Bengals to the Super Bowl…and owned the sporting goods store where we got all our high school uniforms and gear! pic.twitter.com/P8MvLPFnA9
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) January 3, 2020
Wyche, a freshman, met his future wife Jane, a junior, during their time at Furman University. Before long, the couple planned a December 1965 wedding.
Alas, Wyche fractured his back during a game against the Citadel Bulldogs that month. His mother-in-law, Margaret, volunteered to push him down the aisle in a wheelchair.
Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary. Wyche told Moore some 24 years later that he walked down the aisle wearing a brace.
Although Sam Wyche’s chances of playing pro football took a serious hit, he somehow made it to the CFL, AFL, and NFL as a journeyman backup quarterback from 1966 to 1976.
Football Playing Career
After Sam Wyche graduated from Furman University, he played quarterback for the Continental Football League’s Wheeling Ironmen from 1966 to 1967.
According to Sports Illustrated, Wyche’s broken back during his senior season dimmed his prospects of playing in the National Football League. Hence, he tried his luck with the CFL instead.
Wyche told Moore in 1989 that former Furman Paladins quarterback Billy Canty was the one who got him to try out with the Ironmen.
The expansion franchise, the Cincinnati Bengals, then signed Sam Wyche prior to the 1968 AFL season.
Wyche got off to a hot start as Bengals quarterback that year. He remembered converting on 20 of his 25 pass attempts against the Houston Oilers in his first game for Cincinnati.
To Wyche’s dismay, Miami Dolphins linebacker Nick Buoniconti fractured Wyche’s ankle several weeks later. Regrettably, Wyche was never the same afterward. After the Bengals drafted Greg Cook the following season, Wyche’s fate as a backup was sealed.
Wyche had 1,743 passing yards, 12 touchdown passes, and eight interceptions in 24 career games and nine starts for the Bengals from 1968 to 1970.
Wyche played behind three different starting quarterbacks during his three-year tenure in the Queen City: John Stofa, Greg Cook, and Virgil Carter. He also worked with Bill Walsh, the Bengals’ assistant coach who became his boss with the San Francisco 49ers in 1979.
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) April 13, 2022
Little did Sam Wyche know that he would return to southwest Ohio and become the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach in 1984.
Wyche split his final four seasons among the Washington Redskins, the Detroit Lions, and the St. Louis Cardinals. He threw for a combined five yards and one interception during his intermittent tenure with those teams from 1971 to 1976.
Wyche marveled at the Cardinals’ star-studded coaching, which included Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, and Jim Hanifan.
When the St. Louis Cardinals played the San Diego Chargers in an exhibition game in Tokyo, Japan in 1976, Wyche touched base with Chargers assistant coach Bill Walsh at the New Otani Hotel.
The two men discussed the possibility of working together on the same coaching staff. It ultimately came to fruition in the Bay Area three years later.
The Buffalo Bills signed Wyche following his release from the Cardinals in the fall of 1976. He never played a single down for the Bills in the 1976 NFL campaign.
Sam Wyche retired from the National Football League following the 1976 NFL season.
Wyche finished his seven-year NFL career with 1,748 passing yards, 12 touchdown passes, and nine interceptions.
Sam Wyche soon traded his helmet and cleats for a clipboard and guided the Cincinnati Bengals to another Super Bowl in the 1980s.
Football Coaching Career and Death
Wyche became an assistant coach of the NCAA’s South Carolina Gamecocks while he was studying for his MBA degree in 1967.
The Gamecocks were a mediocre team that won five games in head football coach Paul Dietzel’s second year at the helm.
Wyche became an entrepreneur and operated several “Sam Wyche Sports World” stores in South Carolina several years after his lone season with the Gamecocks.
Wyche used his earnings from the 1972 NFL season as start-up capital. Wyche’s Redskins, for whom he mostly played holder for field goals, lost to the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII that year.
Sam Wyche began his coaching career in the college and pro football ranks a few years after he retired following the 1976 NFL season.
Sam Wyche was on the market for a high school coaching job in 1979. Fortunately, this former Bengals assistant coach, Bill Walsh, called him and asked him if he wanted to become one of his assistants with the San Francisco 49ers.
Wyche agreed and he got his first coaching job in the National Football League.
Wyche helped mentor rookie quarterback Joe Montana—arguably the best signal caller in pro football history.
Montana, who took over starting quarterback duties at the halfway point of the 1980 NFL season, had 8,069 passing yards, 52 touchdown passes, and 32 interceptions during Wyche’s four-year tenure as 49ers assistant coach from 1979 to 1982.
Montana went on to pass for 40,551 yards and 237 touchdowns in his legendary 16-year pro football career. Montana, an eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL MVP, helped the 49ers win four Super Bowl titles. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
#49ers assistant coach Sam Wyche (1979-82) passed away on this day in 2019 after a battle with liver cancer.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) January 2, 2022
Montana felt that Wyche was the perfect coach for him during his first few years in the National Football League.
“Sam was exactly what I needed early in my career,” Wyche told the Greenville News in early 2020. “He was a great teacher. I was a practical joker, and Sam was great at that, too. He had a way of making you feel so good when you were feeling your worst.”
Wyche and Montana remained close for years after the former left San Francisco following the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season.
With Wyche assisting Walsh on the sidelines, the San Francisco 49ers won 13 games in the 1981 NFL season. They won a combined eight games the previous two seasons.
The 49ers capped off their memorable 1981 NFL campaign by winning their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. They beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI, 26-21.
Sam Wyche earned his first and only Super Bowl title as an NFL coach.
Wyche returned to the college football ranks and became the head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers in 1983. The Hoosiers had a sub-par 3-8 win-loss record that year and missed a bowl game for the fourth straight season.
Despite Wyche’s underachieving record with the Hoosiers, the Cincinnati Bengals—the first NFL team he played for as a backup quarterback from 1968 to 1970—hired him to be their head coach in December 1983.
Cincinnati Bengals founder Paul Brown told Sports Illustrated that in 1984, he gave the Green Bay Packers permission to talk to their head coach, Forrest Gregg, who had been with them for 13 seasons.
Gregg decided to leave to coach the Packers and Brown found himself looking for a new coach. Sam Wyche was the first name to come to mind.
“The first man who came to mind was Sam,” Brown told Moore in September 1989. “I felt at ease with him.”
Wyche, who loved performing magic tricks, dressed up as a magician who pulled a rabbit out of a hat for a front-page spread of the Cincinnati Enquirer before his first game as Bengals head coach.
Wyche performed his magic tricks during various charitable endeavors for children year-round.
“I love magic,” Wyche once quipped (via the Greenville News). “I love seeing the kids’ faces when I make them marvel at something I was able to do.”
Former Bengals wide receiver and NFL television analyst Cris Collinsworth lauded Wyche as a football tactician and humanitarian.
He said Wyche, who got by on little sleep, was up and about many early mornings in Cincinnati, OH providing money and food to the less fortunate. For Wyche, a staunch Christian, people mattered more than the gridiron.
Aside from performing magic tricks, Wyche’s other hobbies included flying planes, jogging, playing golf and tennis, and riding motorcycles.
We are saddened to report that former Cincinnati #Bengals head coach Sam Wyche has passed away at the age of 74. Wyche coached the Bengals from 1984 to 1991, leading them to a Super Bowl appearance in 1989.#NFL100 | #SeizeTheDEY | #3ptcnvrsn pic.twitter.com/FddcdrsP47
— The 3 Point Conversion (@3ptCnvrsn) January 2, 2020
Sam Wyche gave quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason free reign to run plays and change them at the line of scrimmage.
Wyche propagated the famous no-huddle offense that threw defenses off. Not only that, but it helped Esiason blossom into a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Esiason gave credit to Wyche for being a constant innovator during his time as Bengals head coach, per the Greenville News.
Wyche also had a reputation for going against conventional wisdom when he called the shots for the Bengals.
For instance, Wyche told the Bengals offense to milk the clock rather than punt the ball away on 4th down in a game against the San Francisco 49ers in the 1987 NFL season.
When the play backfired, 49ers legends Joe Montana and Jerry Rice collaborated on a winning touchdown drive.
One of Wyche’s innovations was the so-called “sugar huddle” where he had his Bengals players huddle up near the line following a substitution.
Wyche then tried to draw a penalty from the opponent by instructing the offense to snap the ball. If the Bengals executed the play correctly, the officials typically threw a flag because the defense had too many players on the field.
Wyche’s non-conformist ways earned him the “Wicky Wacky” moniker from a Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach, per ESPN.
Under Wyche’s leadership, the Bengals reached their second Super Bowl in team history in 1988.
Cincinnati lit up the scoreboard in Wyche’s fifth year at the helm. The Bengals won 12 games and won the AFC Central division title with a league-leading 448 points.
Wyche’s daughter Kerry knew never to bother him when he came home after a loss. However, that wasn’t a problem in 1988—Sam was always a joy to be around that year.
“It was like a party every single evening,” Kerry Wyche told the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Scott Wartman in February 2022.
Unfortunately, the San Francisco 49ers—the team that employed Wyche as an assistant coach from 1979 to 1982—prevailed in Super Bowl XXIII, 20-16.
Wyche’s former understudy at San Francisco, quarterback Joe Montana, orchestrated a decisive game-winning drive in the fourth quarter to propel the 49ers to victory.
Wyche lost to his former head coach and mentor, Bill Walsh. The latter stepped down as 49ers head coach following the 1988 NFL season.
Wyche and the Bengals returned home to a rousing welcome from their fans at Cincinnati’s Fountain Square after their loss to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII.
Wyche’s daughter Kerry remembered the thousands of people who attended the festivities and lifted the Bengals’ spirits, per Wartman.
The Bengals were a mediocre team in 1989. They won eight games and missed the postseason for the fifth time since Wyche took over the head coaching reins six seasons earlier.
Wyche raised a few eyebrows in his sixth year as Cincinnati’s head coach. He banned a female journalist from entering the Bengals’ locker room following a loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Consequently, new NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue slapped a $27,941 fine on Wyche—the largest against an NFL coach at the time, per The New York Times (via ESPN’s Ben Baby).
That same year, Wyche spoke on the stadium microphone to reprimand unruly Bengals fans during a home game against the Seahawks.
Wyche told the fans, “You don’t live in Cleveland; you live in Cincinnati.” That quote was so catchy, the Bengals plastered it outside Paul Brown Stadium.
Wyche’s penchant for uttering catchy phrases wasn’t coincidental—he became a renowned motivational speaker during his football coaching career.
Wyche charged $5,000 per motivational speech in 1989. He raised $80,000 from his speaking engagements that year alone. Wyche usually gave his earnings to the homeless people in the Cincinnati area, per Sports Illustrated.
During Wyche’s coaching tenure with the Bengals, he also clashed with Houston Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville, who he thought was a fake.
In one game where the Bengals led the Oilers by 45 points in 1989, Wyche wanted his team to execute an onside kick.
Wyche then waved mockingly at Glanville on the field following Cincinnati’s 61-7 romp over Houston.
Sam Wyche’s head coaching tenure with the Bengals ended in controversial fashion following the 1991 NFL campaign.
Team owner and general manager Mike Brown publicly announced that Wyche had resigned during their meeting at the end of the season.
However, Wyche insisted that Brown had dismissed him even though he still had two years remaining on his deal, per ESPN.
Sam Wyche had a 61-66 (.480) win-loss record in his eight-year head coaching tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals from 1984 to 1991. He led Cincinnati to two division titles and two postseason appearances during that eight-year time frame.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Wyche following his departure from the Bengals in 1992. The Bucs, who had missed the postseason 13 times in the past 16 seasons prior to Wyche’s hiring, continued to struggle.
Tampa Bay had a below-average 23-41 win-loss mark in Wyche’s four years with the squad from 1992 to 1995.
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) October 31, 2018
Wyche went on a six-year hiatus from coaching after his disastrous tenure in Tampa Bay. He worked as an NBC and CBS sports analyst for the next five years. Wyche worked with famous sports broadcasters such as Marv Albert and Kevin Harlan in the late 1990s.
Sam Wyche returned to the sidelines as the quarterbacks coach for the Pickens Blue Flame, a high school football team from South Carolina, in 2002. He worked in that capacity for two seasons.
Wyche served as the Buffalo Bills’ quarterbacks coach from 2004 to 2005. He mentored Bills quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe, Kelly Holcomb, and J.P. Losman during that two-year time frame.
The Bills won an average of seven games per season with Wyche as their quarterbacks coach. They extended their postseason drought to six years.
After coaching Buffalo’s quarterbacks for two seasons, Wyche returned for a second tour of duty as the Pickens Blue Flame’s quarterbacks coach from 2006 to 2008.
According to the Greenville News, Wyche developed cardiomyopathy (a cardiovascular disease where the heart has difficulties pumping blood to the body) during his coaching tenure in Buffalo, NY.
Wyche’s condition worsened over the next decade to the point that he eventually required a heart transplant in 2016. He underwent surgery midway through his nine-year stint as the Pickens Blue Flame’s offensive coordinator from 2011 to 2019.
Wyche worked as an analyst for Furman Paladins football games after he recovered from his surgical procedure.
Sadly, Sam Wyche passed away on January 3, 2020. He was 74 years old.
According to Wyche’s obituary in the Greenville News, he succumbed to metastatic melanoma.
Wyche previously had blood clots in his lungs and underwent a heart transplant procedure four years before he died.
He became a passionate advocate for organ donation in the three years leading up to his death. He fervently believed that donating his organs before he died could help save another person’s life.
Former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason lauded Wyche for his character. He also gave him credit for molding him into a four-time Pro Bowler.
“He was funny, brilliant at football, complicated, forward-thinking, and a great human being,” Esiason told the Greenville News in January 2020. “This is such a sad day. He meant everything to me. He made me into the quarterback I became.”
Wyche left behind his wife Jane, son Zak, daughter-in-law Jennifer, daughter Kerry, and grandchildren Ryan, Caroline, Hank, Maddy, Sammy, and Jack.
Sam Wyche is a member of the Furman Athletics Hall of Fame, the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, and the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame.