Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories revisiting the biggest what-ifs in IU history.
If you disregard his time guiding the Taylor’s Falcons of the Greenville (S.C.) 13- and 14-year-old recreational league, Sam Wyche had no head coaching experience when he took over Indiana’s program in January 1983.
His football bona fides were established during a winding playing career that saw him rise from walk-on to starting quarterback at Furman, then bounce between a series of backup jobs in the professional ranks. A stint as a graduate assistant under South Carolina coach Paul Dietzel initially put him on IU athletic director Ralph Floyd’s radar, and a successful run as an offensive assistant for San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh made him an attractive option for the Hoosiers after Lee Corso’s ouster in 1982.
Yet, even at the time of his introductory press conference at Assembly Hall on Jan. 7, 1983, there were questions about his appointment. What were his motivations for taking the job? Was he in search of a landing spot after the 49ers turned in a disappointing campaign in 1982? Did he see himself eventually returning to the NFL?
“I’m coming here to be a college coach, period,” Wyche told reporters in Bloomington. “This is not a stepping stone.”
Only, it very much was.
Wyche’s tenure as Indiana football coach is known as much for its brevity as it is for anything else, garish cream-colored uniforms and “Flying IU” helmet logo aside. Wyche, who signed a five-year contract, stuck around for only one season before leaving for a job with Paul Brown’s Cincinnati Bengals. The 38-year-old said he agonized over the decision to leave Indiana before determining Brown’s offer was too good to turn down.
But what if Wyche had stayed? How different would the latter half of the 1980s — already one of the most successful periods for Hoosier football — have been for Indiana?
By the spring of 1983, one thing was clear to Wyche: Indiana simply didn’t have much talent. And it certainly didn’t have the depth or skill required to contend with the Big Ten’s heavyweights. “We were not going to beat Michigan and Ohio State unless we could snooker ‘em some way,” Wyche told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “We said, ‘Why don’t we wear ‘em out? We’ll play against a tired Ohio State team, instead of a fresh one.”
So the seeds of Wyche’s famous no-huddle system were planted in Hoosier soil. Beyond a season-opening, 15-10 win over Duke at Memorial Stadium, Wyche and IU didn’t enjoy much success that fall, finishing merely 3-8. The coach’s plan to wear down Ohio State and Michigan also didn’t go as he’d hoped, with the Buckeyes and Wolverines outscoring the Hoosiers 99-35. Yet Wyche was invested in laying a foundation for the future, and a late-October blowout loss at Iowa had him plotting his revenge for the years to come.
Iowa coach Hayden Fry’s decision to have not only his backup quarterback but his third-string quarterback, too, throw the ball late in the Hawkeyes’ 49-3 drubbing of IU left Wyche incensed. Instead of huddling with his players for a postgame speech in the locker room, Wyche gathered his group at midfield at Kinnick Stadium and pointed at the scoreboard. “Don’t you ever forget this,” he barked.
But Wyche never did have the opportunity to get even. Two months later, he was in Cincinnati.
So what if he stayed? For one, Indiana might not have gone winless in 1984. That’s not a knock on Bill Mallory, who at that point was IU’s third coach in as many years. Constant upheaval had left recruiting in tatters, and even Wyche was behind his peers on scouting when he took over the previous January. Perhaps a little continuity may have produced a few more wins.
This is also where it gets tricky. Mallory is rightly regarded as IU’s best coach in program history, guiding the Hoosiers to 69 wins and six bowl games over 13 seasons. His fiery attitude brought some much-needed intensity to Indiana’s program, and in 1987 he became the first Big Ten coach to be awarded the league’s Coach of the Year award in back-to-back seasons. Would IU have achieved the same highs with Wyche as it did under Mallory? It’s tough to say!
Things could’ve been very, very different for Indiana. Maybe, for instance, Heisman Trophy runner-up Anthony Thompson doesn’t come to Bloomington. In 1984, the best running back prospect in the state was North Central High School’s Lars Tate, who was reportedly considering a commitment to Wyche’s program. After Wyche left for the pros, Tate committed to Georgia, where he rushed for 3,017 yards and 36 touchdowns before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft.
Thompson also ended up a second-round pick after a prolific rushing career at IU, with Mallory saying in 1989: “I don’t want to put Lars Tate down, but I’m glad I’ve got Anthony Thompson.” Then again, does Wyche land Michael Irvin as the featured target in his passing attack in 1985?
Does the “Flying IU” helmet decal survive?
RIP Sam Wyche. The IU wife informed me that he was the IU coach for a year (I didn’t recall) and that he was responsible for the flying IU logo and cream jerseys. Both were gone the moment he left town for the Bengals. pic.twitter.com/agcVqIhAbw— Jay Coffin ⚰️ (@JayCoffinGC) January 3, 2020
And what about Indiana’s football facilities? How quickly might IU have pivoted to a more football-focused mindset with Wyche at the helm? Mallory credited his predecessor with starting the push to upgrade Indiana’s dingy Memorial Stadium accommodations beginning in 1983, when Wyche helped establish IU’s “Twelfth-Man Club” to raise funds for new football offices, meeting rooms, a renovated locker room and a new weight room underneath the Memorial Stadium bleachers. Even after leaving Indiana, Wyche donated toward that effort.
“Give Sam credit,” Mallory once said, “because he and Ralph made the commitment to get our facilities upgraded. We’ve made progress in that regard.”
Perhaps most regrettably, Indiana was deprived of Wyche’s most famous quote. In 1989, on a snowy December afternoon at Riverfront Stadium, Wyche grabbed a stadium microphone in the middle of a Bengals game to scold fans who had been tossing snowballs at the visiting Seattle Seahawks.
“Will the next person who sees anybody throw anything on that field point him out and get him out of here?” Wyche barked at the crowd. “You don’t live in Cleveland! You live in Cincinnati!”
Imagine, instead, Wyche’s voice bellowing throughout Memorial Stadium on Nov. 25, 1989 as rowdy students hurl debris at the Purdue sideline: “You don’t live in West Lafayette! You live in Bloomington!”
Previously in the series:
— What if ... IU hired Jerry Tarkanian instead of Bob Knight
— What if ... IU had solved Syracuse’s zone in 2013
— What if ... Phil Dickens and IU football hadn’t gotten the whole dang department sanctioned?
— What if ... Knute Rockne came to Bloomington in 1914 and changed the trajectory of IU football?