Monday, November 17, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Wacky at times, but still brilliant

Brilliance requires stupidity. Or at least the ability to recognize stupidity.

In fact, stupidity is the actual mother of invention. Plato will tell you "necessity is the mother of invention," but frankly, Plato's a hack. Besides, how can you trust a guy with only one name? Would you let Prince date your daughter?

Sometimes stupidity just smacks you across the face and demands action. Such was the case for Sam Wyche, an NFL coaching pioneer who will be speaking at the Roanoke Valley Sports Club meeting tonight. The event at the Salem Civic Center begins with social time at 5:45, with dinner starting at 6:30. Cost for nonmembers is $20.

For Wyche, innovation that still heavily influences the game today can be traced to a simple thought he had in 1984: How stupid are we as an offense?

He didn't say that out loud. But that's what he was thinking as he watched the big, slow defensive linemen jog off the practice field, replaced by speedy pass rushers. That's what crossed his mind as he saw the plodding middle linebackers hit the sidelines and the fleet cover corners sprint on.

It was just the routine activity during a routine nickel drill, but it got Wyche thinking.

"We're going to go back here and caucus for 20 seconds and let them get all their best rushers and best cover people in," Wyche remembers thinking as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. "And we're going to line up and do exactly what they thought we'd do -- throw the ball."

Not too bright, really. But Wyche's response was. Right on the spot, he conjured up the no-huddle offense -- derivatives of which you still see out of the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and other high-powered attacks.

Meanwhile, the 63-year-old Atlanta native has been bucking the status quo ever since.

Three years removed from his last NFL job -- as an assistant for the Buffalo Bills -- Wyche is now a volunteer assistant coach at Pickens High School in Pickens, S.C. He's the only ex-NFL head coach currently working in the prep ranks.

Wyche made his name as an NFL iconoclast with a sharp sense of humor and a disdain for convention. During his tenure with the Bengals from 1984-91, the league office constantly tweaked the rules to try to counter Wyche's wrinkles.

"They changed them every week for almost four years," Wyche said by phone last week. "Every week they had a different rule. I'm not exaggerating. It was so frustrating."

Wyche admits he made mistakes as a young coach -- sparring with the media among them.

"But there were a lot more things that I felt like I did right, took a stand where other people wouldn't," he said. "Everything from the no-huddle offense to the sideline to technical things, pretty good strategy that nobody wanted to try because it hadn't been tried before and they didn't want to be the first one to fail, I guess. But I frankly didn't care.

"Women in the locker room, for example. I still think the league is wrong. Dead wrong. Even though they fined me all that money one year because I put a curtain up in the locker room to prevent women from having to go into a room full of naked men in order to do their job. The commissioner fined me $30,000 and later told me that he'd actually never been into a locker room after a game.

"I said, 'Well, you need to do that because you have no idea what a steamy, nasty, uncomfortable place it is and certainly no place for someone from the opposite sex.'

"He said, 'Well, I'm still going to fine you 30 grand.' But that's all right. I got unsolicited donations starting within days that totaled over $41,000. I donated all of that to charity. Of course, the first 30 went to the Brian Piccolo Fund. So I had a $71,000 tax deduction that year. I came out like a bandit, actually."

It wasn't the last time he turned controversy into a positive. Few NFL fans will forget Wyche's famous quote during the Bengals-Browns game in Cincinnati in December 1989.

"We had some snowballs being thrown because the fans disagreed with the official," Wyche recalled. "I actually disagreed with him too, on the same things, but I didn't have any snowballs to throw. I told the official, 'If you want me to, I'll stop all these throwing snowballs.' He said, 'Absolutely, do it.' By the time I got over there, my foot had already been inserted well into my mouth and I couldn't get it out."

Wyche took the microphone from the public-address announcer on the field and admonished the fans. Then Wyche shouted, "You don't live in Cleveland! You live in Cincinnati!"

Naturally, the comment made him a villain in Cleveland. But he doesn't regret it.

"Oh, no," Wyche said. "I think NFL Films has it ranked as the third greatest quote in NFL history. How could I regret that?"

Besides, some good came out if it. That offseason, Wyche went to Cleveland to mend fences. With the help of Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, they set up a dunking booth in the middle of downtown.

Wyche's Bengals had beaten Kosar's Browns twice that year. As Wyche positioned himself in the booth -- and Kosar prepared to throw a rawhide bone at the target -- Wyche came up with an idea.

"To introduce the first throw I said, "All right Bernie, you're up. Let he without a win cast the first bone!' " Wyche said with a chuckle. "I thought that was pretty clever. Apparently no one up there reads the Bible, so they didn't laugh very much. But they sure lined up after that."

And they raised $11,000 for the homeless and abused.

More brilliance spawned by a little stupidity.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email