Bum Phillips’ tenure as an NFL head coach wasn’t all that long compared to other coaching legends; five exceedingly memorable years with the Houston Oilers; another five less-than-memorable years with the New Orleans Saints. He never won a Super Bowl, but if ever there was a coach who personified Texas, it was Oail Andrew Phillips, who passed away yesterday at age 90, as Houston Chronicle sportswriter Dale Robertson describes in Phillips’ obituary:
It was as much Luv ya Bum as it was Luv ya Blue in 1978-79 when the Oilers twice reached the NFL’s American Conference Championship Game before losing in Pittsburgh to the Steelers, a storied franchise with a roster full of Hall of Fame-bound players that won four Super Bowls during the six years Phillips was with the Oilers. But such was the special synergy between a town, a team and a homespun, tobacco-chewing, homily-spewing coach that more than 60,000 twice turned out for rowdy Astrodome pep rallies held to welcome Bum and his boys home.At the first one, Phillips clutched his cowboy hat to his chest – he never wore it indoors, you know – wiped away a few tears and, staring toward the rafters, said under his breath, “Gawdalmighty.” He later admitted, “It was a stirrin’ sight.
During the second, he took a defiant tone, nearly bringing the Dome down when he was handed the microphone by roaring, “Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we’re going to kick the sumbich in.”
Sadly, it didn’t happen – and still hasn’t. He was gone after the 1980 season ended with a first-round playoff defeat at Oakland. Houstonian John Mecom hired him almost immediately to turn around his sad-sack Saints, but the Phillips Mojo didn’t translate in New Orleans, where the fans became increasingly surly as the seasons passed and the Saints failed to make progress. He turned in his resignation there with four games remaining in the 1985 season – son Wade, currently the Houston Texans defensive coordinator, replaced him on an interim basis – retiring from coaching at 62 to ride and train horses and sharpen his roping skills.
“I don’t want to do something halfway,” Robertson quotes Phillips as saying in a 2010 interview. “That ain’t fun.”
Bum never did anything halfway, and he certainly had fun, as did the rest of his team. His popularity was helped immeasurably by the surge of the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1970s, the period in which the Cowboys’ cheerleaders became stars and the Cowboys were televised nationally by one of the three TV networks seemingly every week, until they were dubbed “America’s Team” by NFL Films in their 1978 highlight reel. Because they resided in rival conferences within the NFL, the Cowboys and Oilers rarely played each other during the regular season, but the networks played off the Cowboys’ national popularity to play up the folksiness of Phillips and the Oilers. Tom Landry wore suits, wingtips, and fedoras; Phillips wore Stetsons, jeans, and wild custom-made cowboy boots. Landry employed Labyrinthian complex multiple offensive formations and the mysterious Flex Defense; the Oilers’ Earl Campbell simply ran through, over, and on top of rival players. Cowboys fans drove Mercedes and drank Martinis from crystal glasses; the Oilers’ fans drove Ford Broncos and mechanical bulls and drank Budweiser from a can, etc. Landry coached the Cowboys; Phillips was a cowboy.
Perhaps most importantly, Landry was all “bidness” as a coach, particularly during interviews where he rarely said anything for the ages; Phillips was full of endless folksy phrases and homespun Texas wisdom. The Houston Chronicle assembled a whole heaping helping’s worth in Bum’s obit; this is just a sampling:
“Playing Pittsburgh is like eating an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Sometimes before you can get it all in your mouth, it gets all over you.”
“When people say we gotta play Pittsburgh twice a year, I remind them, ‘Well, they gotta play us twice, too.’”
“I like effort and extra effort. If you don’t like my attitude, see your friendly player rep.”
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Bum on his players:
* Running back Earl Campbell: “Yeah, he gets up slow, but he goes down slow, too…I’m not saying Earl is in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in, it don’t take long to call the roll…I won’t give him the ball when it’s first-and-a-mile (when asked about Campbell’s difficulty completing a one-mile at the start of training camp)…I’d feel pressure coaching against him (when asked if he felt pressure coaching Campbell).”
* Quarterback Dan Pastorini: “He likes to be good. He really enjoys the big games and all the attention. But the big thing about Dan is he’d always play with pain, and he didn’t do it for show. A tough kid, that one.”
* Receiver/return man Billy Johnson: “He’s one helluva special team all by hisself.”
And Bum was one helluva coach all by hisself. Rest in peace.