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Obituary for Sam Wyche


Samuel David Wyche
January 5, 1945 - January 2, 2020



PICKENS, S.C.—Sam Wyche, who brought imagination to the sport of football, an AFC Championship to the Cincinnati Bengals, and a joy of life to the players, friends, and family around him, died Thursday, January 2, 2020,  after a short battle with metastatic melanoma. He was 74. Wyche, who lived in the country town of Pickens for his last 20 years, died at home, surrounded by his family: wife Jane, daughter Kerry, and son Zak and their families. 

He had a Renaissance life as an NFL player, a college head coach, pro head coach, broadcaster, amateur magician, pilot, sporting-goods store owner, and county council member in Pickens County, his adopted home. 

He was close to death with heart disease in September, 2016, but got a last-minute heart transplant that gave him three more years of life. 

“He was funny, brilliant at football, complicated, forward-thinking and a great human being,” said Boomer Esiason, who had an NFL Most Valuable Player season under Wyche’s tutelage in 1988. “This is such a sad day. He meant everything to me. He made me into the quarterback I became.” 

“It’s so sad when bad things happen to good people,” said Joe Montana, whose first position coach in the NFL with San Francisco was Wyche, in 1979. “Sam was the best. He’s one of those people that it’s so accurate to say, 'They don’t make ‘em like him anymore.’" 

Wyche had a brief pro football career, starting nine games for the expansion Bengals in Cincinnati (1968-’70) under then-coach Paul Brown. He then played as a backup in Washington (1971-’73), Detroit (1974), and St. Louis (1976). 

Familiar with Bill Walsh from Walsh’s days as an offensive assistant in Cincinnati, Wyche got hired on Walsh’s first coaching staff in San Francisco as quarterbacks coach in 1979. His first NFL student was a rookie named Joe Montana. “Sam was exactly what I needed early in my career,” Montana said. “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.” They stayed close for years after Wyche left the 49ers to be the head coach of Indiana University in 1983. 

Despite a 3-8 season with the Hoosiers, Wyche was Brown’s choice to coach the Bengals in 1984. Immediately, Wyche pressed the envelope in the NFL, giving quarterback Ken Anderson and Esiason independence to change plays and run a wide-open offense. It was Wyche who eventually instituted the no-huddle offense that frustrated defenses league-wide and led Esiason to be a dominant NFL quarterback. “He entrusted me with his brainchild, the no-huddle offense, and we were able to make it something great,” Esiason recalled. “Sam was always trying to come up with something new and different, and it’s amazing how often he was able to do that.” 

He often said football should be fun, and players play better when they enjoy what they’re doing. Choreographed by Wyche, the Cincinnati offense exploded for a league-best 448 points in 1988. Cincinnati made the Super Bowl that season against Wyche’s old mentor, Walsh, and former pupil, Montana. And it was Montana who led a late drive for the 49ers to beat Cincinnati 20-16. 

That was only part of what made Wyche the person he was. Before his first game as an NFL head coach n 1984, he posed for the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer in a tuxedo, pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. He loved magic and performed it often—including at a Christmas show at a Cincinnati orphanage in December, 1984, during the season. Most head coaches would do their charitable works in the off-season, but Wyche would do them anytime, anyplace. “I love magic,” he once said. “I love seeing the kids’ faces when I can make them marvel at something I was able to do.” 

“Of course, Sam was brilliant at football,” said Cris Collinsworth, a wide receiver for the Bengals in Wyche’s tenure. “But the thing I hope people see in Sam is the human side. He didn’t sleep much, and I know many mornings he’d be out in Cincinnati, giving money or sandwiches to the homeless, or just listening to their stories. He cared so much more about people, about relationships, and, in particular, about racial relationships. People were much more important to Sam than football.” 

He then coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for four seasons before beginning a career as an NFL TV analyst. 

His final NFL stint came in 2005 and 2006 as quarterbacks coach of the Buffalo Bills. Then he coached at his adopted hometown Pickens High School. 

His time in Buffalo was about when Wyche contracted the degenerative heart disease cardiomyopathy. As the disease progressed over the next 10 years, he knew one day he would need a transplant. That day came in 2016, and he went to a Charlotte hospital that September to wait for a transplant. With Wyche’s time very short, he got the transplant on Sept. 13. 

In his last three years, Wyche became a fervent advocate for organ donation. At that time, he said, “If I told you that you have a chance to save another person’s life … and you’re going to pass, and you’re not going to need your heart anymore, or your liver, or your pancreas, you would give it in a heartbeat. All you do is go by the DMV and get an insignia put on your driver’s license. It doesn’t cost a dime. You have a chance to save somebody’s life … Infants can donate a body part. A 71-year-old man can do the same.” 

Born in Atlanta in 1945, Wyche played football and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Furman University. He later got his Masters in business administration at the University of South Carolina. 

Wyche is survived by his wife of 54 years, Jane Underwood Wyche, of Pickens; his daughter, Kerry Wyche, of Velva, ND, and her children, Ryan, Caroline, and Hank Bodine; his son, Zak Wyche, and his wife, Jennifer, of Cincinnati, OH and their children, Maddy, Sammy, and Jack Wyche. He is also survived by his brother, Bubba Wyche, and his wife, Lindy, of Atlanta, GA. 

Sam was firm in his Christian faith and believed that you preach your own funeral every day by your faith and actions. In honor of his wishes, no services will be held.

Memorials may be made to the Sam Wyche Scholarship Fund at Furman University, 3300 Poinsett Highway, Greenville, SC 29613, Donate Life www.DonateLife.net, or to Rock Springs Baptist Church, 201 Rock Springs Road, Easley, SC 29640. 

Dillard Funeral Home
Pickens, South Carolina
www.DillardFunerals.com
link to obituary on Dillard Funeral Home's website