Boos turn to barrage as frustration swells
For the record, things turned ugly at 7:05 p.m. Sunday. That was when the fans quit calling for Sam Wyche's head and starting aiming at it.
To that point, making sport of Wyche had provided most of the charm to the crowd on this dismally familiar day. Wrapped around a 36-13 loss to Minnesota, fans had booed Wyche, they had insulted Wyche, and they had risen in unison to mock him. At one point, dozens of them stood, circling their fingers in the air the way he does when calling formations, holding up two fingers the way he does, putting their hands in their chins the way he does.
But then it was no longer fun. Then it was sick. Wyche was running off the field, a losing coach for the 28th time in his 40 games as head coach of Tampa Bay, when the hostility boiled over. Several cups of ice flew toward him. So did a yellow rain slicker. Then came a black binoculars case, the binoculars still inside, that crashed near his feet and skidded into the concrete wall nearby where it lay like a gauntlet.
It was stupid and it was dangerous. But it showed that the mood of those who continue to pay to watch this team has turned nasty.
Wyche is exactly halfway through his contract now, and things are getting worse. The Bucs have now been beaten badly in four of their past five games, and there is no sign of improvement in sight. Any choice he makes at quarterback seems to be the wrong one, his offense cannot move the ball and his defense can no longer hold things together.
Wyche stood at the podium Sunday, trying to explain the latest horror, and the frustration was etched into his face as clearly as the sweat upon it. He looked drained, tired, frustrated, discouraged. For once, he was not combative, he was not defensive. His voice was wounded, painful, self-searching.
"I don't blame anybody for the booing," he said. "Does it surprise me? No. Do I deserve it? Yeah probably. If you don't win, you have to put up with that. That's a fair deal. Everybody shares in everything. And I'm the lead dog in the sharing."
There will be those who continue to call for Wyche's head today. That is the temptation, but it is not the proper time. Yet. An interim coach never solved anything except to create confusion. Remember Richard Williamson and his glittering 1-2 interim record that earned him a full season at the helm?
No. But it is time for the administrators in charge of the team - in the back offices where these things happen - to start to check out their other options. Wyche has said often that no one from this team has called Jimmy Johnson. Well, it is high time they did. Steve Spurrier, too. If fans can talk about upgrading at quarterback, or running back, why shouldn't they talk about upgrading at coach?
Remember, coaches are not fired in the NFL simply for their coaching knowledge. They are fired for their record and for how they spin the turnstiles. With 23,000 season tickets likely to fall to about 15,000, with fans screaming their frustration, how can the Bucs afford not to consider a change?
"Let me say this," Wyche said softly. "Nobody is more disappointed than me, the coaches and the players. We work awfully hard at this. This is not something that we take lightly. This is not something where we don't put in the hours doing things that have worked over and over in our careers as coaches and players. But when it doesn't work, people get frustrated. I don't begrudge them. I wish I hadn't put them in the position where they had to react that way. But I did. So I'm going to have to quicken my two-step so I can dodge those things."
Said quarterback Craig Erickson, who was running beside Wyche at the time: "It was lucky that whoever threw it had about the same accuracy I had today."
There was a time when fans would chortle about Wyche's talk of playoffs, a heat-of-the-moment statement after the Bucs beat the Bears at home last year. Really, no one ever expected the Bucs to make the playoffs. But progress didn't seem like a lot to ask.
It hasn't happened. The fifth-place schedule. The high-priced free agents. The increased payroll. The popular draft. None of it has helped.
"I'm discouraged by our play today," Wyche said. "I'm disappointed I haven't been able to lead this team better than I have. That's the most discouraging thing personally. When you feel you have the right people, and the players have done a good job getting ready "But I'm obviously not getting them in the right frame of mind to play on Sunday."
And so what else is there left to do but boo? When there are few first downs, and fewer touchdowns, when the other team is scoring like Penn State, what is left to the fan but to heckle? Long, loudly and lustily. This, then, is what Tampa Stadium has come to. The fans standing and matching Wyche move for move, hand motion for hand motion, in a sign-language of losing. Heckling and booing. Throwing things. "Maybe they've had enough," Wyche said. "Think that might be it?
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1994