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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Former Bucs coach Wyche is back in high school, imparting more than offensive strategy.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published September 20, 2006
PICKENS, S.C. - Sam Wyche paced the sideline, itching to go over the play that had just resulted in an interception by his quarterback inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Nope, each of Wyche's offensive skill players - every receiver, every running back and the starting quarterback - was still on the field several plays later. At Pickens High, everyone plays both ways for the Blue Flame.
The former Super Bowl coach with 16 seasons of NFL experience, including four with the Bucs, tucked his playsheet under his arm and strode to the end of the bench to watch the defense on a cool, damp Friday night. Over the loudspeaker, fans of the Blue Flame were urged to buy funnel cake.
"This is my story, I guess," Wyche said with a smile. "Withering away to nothing."
On the contrary.
Sure, it might seem at first that Wyche, 61, is merely an out-of-work NFL coach and former network broadcaster with health problems, so desperate to walk a sideline he'll call quarterback option plays in rural northwest South Carolina.
Think what you want.
Wyche is having a blast as a volunteer offensive coordinator at the school where his wife, Jane, was a former Miss Pickens, his fancy NFL playbook shrunken to a single sheet of paper and his viral-infected heart brimming at the sight of the underdog Pickens varsity bursting through a paper banner.
"This is just a kick," Wyche said. "It's fun being around the kids because they're at that age when things are important to them that aren't important to pro football players anymore. Besides arithmetic and English they've got that first girlfriend ... and the second, third and fourth. This is just an impressionable age. Really, you couldn't hit them at a more important time."
Friday night, Pickens played host to big-city Greenville, ranked No. 2 in the state's 50-team division for schools with 900-1,400 students. As Wyche put his offense through warmup drills to the blaring beat of 10-year-old hip-hop, it was clear the Blue Flame was outmanned and undersized against the mammoth Red Raiders. Wyche, who coached the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII, was nervous with anticipation.
When the time came, he put his hand over his heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
By kickoff, the concrete home stands at 56-year-old Bruce Stadium were full, as always, with about 2,500 parents, neighbors, teachers, alumni and students. Teenage girls toting colorful Vera Bradley bags and boys wearing frayed ballcaps were there to be seen, not to see the game. No one paid much attention to the man a head taller than anyone else on the sideline signaling in his own plays.
Thirty-six Counter Weak Z Return.
Wyche's game plan, his busiest of the season, consisted of about 25 plays: seven runs, including counters and options, the rest passes, including shotgun and triple-receiver formations. Also, there was a special personnel group, DUNK, in which a sixth offensive lineman became a tight end to gain an extra blocker.
"My little piece of strategy," Wyche said.
The Blue Flame marched down the field on its first two possessions, only to have both end with interceptions in the red zone. The quarterback, a 17-year-old senior, played every snap on offense and defense and was the holder on kicks, leaving Wyche barely the 90 or so seconds it took Greenville to punt or kick off to reassuringly put his hand on Andy Fowler's shoulder and talk strategy.
"It's pretty cool," said Fowler, also an ace pitcher on the baseball team. "Nobody in high school gets a former NFL coach to be your coach. It's awesome. He's a great teacher. For a little while I was like, 'Can I say this?' I was pretty nervous, but things loosened up."
For Wyche, all roads lead back to Pickens. Some 45 years ago, Jane was a majorette in the Pickens halftime show. Twirling was her talent in the Miss South Carolina pageant.
"About every third guy I meet used to date her," Wyche said. " 'Hello, how are you? I used to date Jane.' "
Wyche played quarterback at nearby Furman. The couple owns a ranch where they breed Morgan horses about a mile and a half down the road from Pickens High.
"I guess I'm a big fish in a small pond," Wyche said. "But I can't remember a player I coached who didn't bring up his high school coach and what he said, or 'that drill we used to do.' The pros don't forget what they learned in high school."
Wyche would know. He was a head coach for 12 seasons in the NFL, eight in Cincinnati and four in Tampa Bay. An innovator with the Bengals, Wyche struggled to generate any type of offense for the Bucs and was fired after the 1995 season.
After that, Wyche was a broadcaster for NBC and CBS, living in Pickens and flying his own plane to NFL games until doctors diagnosed him with viral cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition that can be treated but not cured. During a biopsy in March 2000, a surgeon severed Wyche's left vocal cord, leaving his voice a raspy whisper and his television career a thing of the past.
Wyche discovered there weren't many opportunities for a former coach with heart disease who couldn't talk very well. He spent time as a substitute teacher, including English class and jazz ensemble. The NFL called again and he spent two seasons as quarterbacks coach of the Buffalo Bills, but the team hired a new staff for 2006 and Wyche returned to Pickens.
His heart, regulated by a pacemaker and medication, remains surprisingly strong. Every year, doctors tell Wyche he will need a transplant in two to four years. The next year, they shake their heads and give him the same time frame.
His voice, however, remains weak. Unable to work in television, Wyche expects to pursue a job as a radio analyst, which requires less speaking. Until then, he'll find fulfillment teaching the Blue Flame to properly execute 96 Exit Fullback Swing Double Right Flop.
"He's a very humble guy," said Pickens head coach Brett Turner, who at 36 is more than 25 years younger than his sage offensive coordinator. "It's been an enjoyable experience for us as coaches and for the kids, but it's not so much Sam Wyche the Super Bowl coach as Sam Wyche the person. He's very down to Earth, strong in his faith, which is important to us around here. What's neat to watch is the relationships he builds with these kids. He sincerely cares about the kids."
So, that's how Wyche, a man who got to live his football fantasy, found himself at halftime Friday night, standing on the slope of a hill in front of a cinder-block field house, surrounded by boys whose dreams have not fully taken shape.
Pickens trailed 14-7.
A physical and moral victory.
"They're getting their butts kicked right now and they know it," Wyche told his offense seated on the hill in front of him, a panoramic view of the field behind him. "We ran out of time at the end and were a little sloppy doing it, but we'll laugh about that later after we beat them. You are not tired, right?"
Wyche urged his linemen to get past the Red Raiders' front four to block the linebackers. A senior guard with a scholarship offer from nearby Clemson explained he couldn't get there because a defensive lineman was diving at his feet.
"He's diving at you?" Wyche said, the fingers of his left hand pressed to his larynx for maximum volume, struggling to be heard above the Pickens High band. "When he's diving at you, shove him down and step in the middle of his back with your cleats."
In one half of football, Blue Flame players began to realize they were capable of more than they had thought against their powerhouse opponent. They expected to lose 65-0. Instead, they began to believe.
"This is when the fun part begins," Wyche said.
Pickens scored on a safety and a long drive in which Wyche called the same counter run play seven straight times to pull within 21-15 with 1:22 left in the third quarter. Not until the game's final period did the Red Raiders' size and strength, combined with a costly Blue Flame turnover, result in a 40-15 victory for the visitors.
Pickens fell to 2-2 but remains a playoff contender.
In a bit of irony, Greenville and its Division I college prospect of a quarterback ran a no-huddle offense for most of the night, a quick-paced attack Wyche is widely credited for being the first to use in the NFL outside the two-minute drill. Chances are, no one on Wyche's team knows that.
Most of what the Blue Flame players know about Wyche comes from watching classic footage of NFL games: "We saw you on TV last night. You were yelling at the officials again."
Now, Wyche can't yell at anyone. Not that he would in his current role. Known in the NFL as a players' coach for his sense of humor and close relationships, Wyche is careful at the high school level to instruct rather than criticize.
"You have to keep being encouraging, because they're looking for your approval," Wyche said. "They're looking for somebody to say, 'Good job,' so they can go home and tell mom and dad, 'The Coach said I did well.' In the pros, you lay it on the line. In high school you're spreading tact around everywhere you go."
Then again, some things are the same no matter what the level of competition. Even in high school, officials blow calls, players make mistakes, and nearly winning a Super Bowl doesn't count for diddly-squat when it comes to choosing a play on third and 12.
Late in the game, with Pickens attempting to rally, Wyche committed to running the ball despite the dwindling clock. Then, with Greenville crowding the line of scrimmage, Wyche called for Pickens to go deep. Fowler mustered his remaining strength and launched a high-arcing pass.
It was intercepted.
After the game, a Pickens lineman approached Wyche to apologize: "Hey, Coach, I'm sorry. I got all heated up out there and didn't mean to say that to you."
Whatever the player said, Wyche hadn't heard.
"Were you mad at me for something?" Wyche asked.
"Yeah, when you threw that ball, I thought we should have run it."
"Well, you're probably right," he said. "We should have run it."
It seems the players respect Wyche's age more than his experience. Then again, at least someone was willing to talk strategy with Wyche after an interception.