Bum Phillips

A Personal Reflection by James Shannon

The accolades rolled in last week when Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips tweeted the news that his dad, legendary football coach Bum Phillips had died at the age of 90.

David Barron wrote in the Houston Chronicle that he "spent half his adult life as a football coach and every waking moment as the personification of all things Texan." Younger readers who missed the prime of his coaching career – he retired nearly 30 years ago – might not understand why Phillips was voted one of the "all-time top ten Texans" in a Houston Post poll in 1991 - behind Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, George Bush, Nolan Ryan, and Red Adair, but ahead of Lyndon Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Willie Nelson, and Earl Campbell.

Even in a state where great football coaches are revered, he was something special - rivaled only by University of Texas legend Darrell K. Royal for the public’s loyalty and affection. I suppose you could make a case for another man in a hat, but Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys was more admired than beloved, a remote figure compared to the folksier DKR or Bum.

I was raised in Houston and Bum Phillips was part of my life for nearly 40 years. My father was a season ticket holder for the Houston Oilers for a long decade of suffering before Phillips arrived in Houston as defensive coordinator for new Oilers head coach Sid Gillman. That was in 1973 and we couldn’t have known it at the time but our team – and our lives – would be slowly transformed by these events. We lost my dad six months before Bum passed, but this confluence of football, my father and Bum Phillips has been one of the great joys of my life.

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His Southeast Texas pedigree was second to none. Oail Andrew Phillips, Jr. was born on Sept. 29, 1923, in Orange, the son of a truck driver.

“My name’s pronounced ‘Awl,’ but no one could pronounce it right,” he once told an interviewer. “Even in school, I answered to the name Bum. Oail was my daddy’s first name, too. But he went by the nickname Flip.” He got his nickname when a younger sister, Edrina, tried to say “brother,” only to have it come out as “bumble” and later “bum.”

He graduated from French High School in Beaumont and went to work at the Magnolia Refinery (now ExxonMobil). When a supervisor tried to extract a contribution to a charity not to the 21-year-old Bum’s liking, he quit. He enrolled at Lamar Junior College after being offered a scholarship and studied and played football. He enlisted in the Marine Corps when World War II broke out. After he returned from the war, he enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, lettering in football in 1948 and 1949 and graduating with a degree in education in 1949.

In 1950, he was hired as a teacher and assistant coach at Nederland High School, becoming head coach the following year. His coaching career took him to high schools in Jacksonville and Amarillo before being named head coach at Port Neches–Groves in 1963-1964. His son Wade was quarterback of those teams but was converted into a linebacker by Bill Yeoman when he got a scholarship to University of Houston. Bum followed his boy to UH and became a coach there.

Bum’s coaching career bounced back and forth between college and football for nearly two decades. He was an assistant to Bear Bryant at Texas A&M in 1958. He also coached at Southern Methodist University for Hayden Fry, and Oklahoma State University for Jim Stanley. He was the head coach at the University of Texas at El Paso (then known as Texas Western) for one season in 1962. Phillips did not stumble into these positions like some sort of collegiate football Forrest Gump. Despite his laconic speech and deep Texas accent, these coaches recognized his sharp mind. Bryant adopted the defensive line numbering system Phillips devised while coaching high school and it remains in use today.

He moved to the NFL in 1967 when San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman hired him as a defensive assistant. When Gillman became head coach of the Houston Oilers in 1973, he brought Phillips with him as his defensive coordinator. Gillman was known as an  offensive innovator - much of the current NFL dominance of the passing game can be traced to his influence.

The Oilers were pitiful on defense, however, and that’s where Phillips came in. The inspiration for his trademark defense can be traced to his time with the Chargers.

“The fourth year I was out there, we did not have enough defensive linemen to play four down people. So, I just went back and started working up a 3-4, which did our personnel good and we started playing it,” Phillips recalled. “And, of course, Sid, he didn’t think we could play it. He thought the people would just run the ball on you. I told him, well, that is the reason why Oklahoma uses it. They can’t run the ball on the 3-4. They might think they can, but they can’t.”

He hit paydirt when he finally got some horsepower up front to implement his 3-4. The Oilers had previously drafted defensive end Elvin Bethea out of North Carolina A&T and traded with the Kansas City Chiefs for nose tackle Curley Culp. The presence of those men on the three-man line freed the linebackers to wreak havoc all over the field – and the efforts of Bethea and Culp did not go unrecognized. Both men were perennial all-pro selections and are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Gillman retired after two years and Phillips succeeded him as head coach of a franchise that had been in woeful disarray when they arrived. Phillips restored the team to respectability and then opportunity came knocking. The Oilers had the first pick in the 1978 NFL draft and selected Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell from the University of Texas – and the rest is history.

With the powerful Campbell running the ball and a swarming defense, the Oilers became one of the best teams in the NFL. Unfortunately, it was the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers, arguably the best team that ever took the field. In 1978 and again in 1979, they beat the Oilers in Pittsburgh to advance to the Super Bowl – but they had already cemented their relationship with the fans in Houston. This spawned the “Love ya, Blue” era; fans greeted their warriors returning in defeat with an unprecedented show of affection. Over 50,000 packed into the Astrodome after that first championship game. The next year when the Steelers won a narrow victory decided on a controversial play, they number in attendance topped 70,000 with hundreds of thousands more lining the streets between the airport and the stadium. Just writing these words gives me chills; it was literally like nothing I had seen or felt before or since.

And the man at the center of it all was Bum Phillips. That is why to men and women of a certain age his passing is fraught with so much emotion. It is a vivid memory of a time and place when people of every race, gender and social situation came together and celebrated something bigger than themselves, so real you could touch it.

An emotional Phillips shouted above a deafening roar, “Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we’re going to kick the son of a bitch in."  He later apologized to his mother for using harsh language but the adoring masses were ready to kick the door in themselves if asked.

Phillips had built the team around Campbell, one of the best running backs to ever lace up cleats, but the success of those Oilers could also be attributed to men like Carl Mauck, their fiery center. He played college ball at Southern Illinois University then was signed by the Baltimore Colts. He bounced around the league until 1975 when Phillips got him, having met Mauck when both men were with the Chargers. He became the emotional leader of the team and earned his paycheck blocking for Campbell.

He developed a close relationship with starting quarterback Dan Pastorini, who had been horribly battered behind a porous offensive line before Phillips arrived. The two men remained close and he said Pastorini was like a son. Some people were surprised when he traded his oft-injured “son” to the Oakland Raiders for quarterback Ken Stabler after the 1979 season. This provoked much discussion among Oiler fans but my dad said Bum didn’t allow sentiment to win out over pragmatism. Time would prove both men correct.   

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Phillips became a national celebrity, appearing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” to promote his autobiography “He Ain’t No Bum” in 1981 and was the subject of numerous songs, newspaper stories and magazine articles. Campbell emulated his style of dress, music and living; the two men remained extremely close friends until Phillip’s death.

“Luv ya, Blue” remains the greatest Houston sports story of all time, surpassing even the 1994 and 1995 championship Rockets teams that starred Akeem Olajuwon who had played his college ball at the University of Houston.

Phillips left the Oilers after the 1980 season and became head coach of the New Orleans Saints. He was reunited with Earl Campbell who was traded to the Saints by the Oilers.  He retired in 1985 at the age of 62 and never coached football again, preferring to do charitable work, much of it in Southeast Texas. The Hughen Center’s Bob Hope School in Port Arthur that serves children and adults with disabilities was close to his heart. He and wife Debbie remained in close contact with friends and family in Southeast Texas.

I moved to Groves when I became Mid and South County editor of The Examiner in 2009 and was suddenly immersed in the streets where Bum walked, kind of like Lincoln in Illinois. The men who were his spiritual – and literal – successors were the head coaches at Nederland and Port Neches-Groves.

Larry Neuman, who has had a long, successful run as head coach at Nederland, combines the sharp football instincts and the taciturn folk wisdom of Phillips. A few seasons ago, he saw his top three quarterbacks lost for the season with injury. I called him and asked, “Coach, what are you going to do now?”

Neuman drily responded, “Well, if it’s alright with everybody, we’re going to go ahead and play the rest of the games.” That is what they did, and Nederland went on a winning streak and made the playoffs.

Matt Burnett played football at PN-G and went to Lamar University before returning as head coach of his alma mater for over a decade. Out of college, he signed with the Houston Oilers as a free agent defensive lineman. Burnett is a big man, but the average player at his position is even bigger so he faced an uphill climb.

Burnett described an incident during training camp where he was discouraged at his progress – or the lack of same – and was sitting somewhat dejected on a bench in the locker room wondering if anybody even knew he was on the team. Suddenly he heard somebody behind him singing “The Cherokee”, the unmistakable fight song of PN-G. “Always be faithful to the purple and white…” You know the song if you’ve ever been to a PN-G game because the band, cheerleaders, and Indianettes – along with hundreds of fans sing it dozens of times per game. The singer was Wade, then a defensive assistant.

What does that have to do with Bum Phillips, you ask. A few years after Burnett told me that story I was at a PN-G playoff game the same day Wade Phillips had been unceremoniously fired as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys and heard them playing “The Cherokee” and suddenly thought of Wade, Burnett, the Oilers, PN-G, Bum and the circle of love, good feeling and community that athletics can generate – and I hoped some of those things surrounded him that night.

Wade, who had been the head coach of the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos before the Cowboys is currently the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texas and is still regarded as one of the best coaches in the NFL despite the recent Texans’ swoon. But I think he took it all with a grain of salt and remembered what his daddy said: “There's two kinds of coaches, them that's fired and them that's gonna be fired." My dad reminded me of that quote when I told him how I felt when Wade got fired.

Gretchen Hargroder is a portfolio manager at UBS who has known Bum all her life; Phillips is her mother’s first cousin. Hargroder said her parents were frequent visitors at the ranch in Goliad where Phillips spent his retirement years.

“Bum had a pair of cowboy boots with Oiler trim that he said my dad could have if they fit him. My dad is not a small man but those boots swallowed his feet. ‘I’d have to hold the tops to walk in them,’ he said. ‘It would take a big man to fill those boots.’” After contemplating the irony of that statement, she said, “I imagine a lot of people are thinking something like  that this week.”

The street connecting Nederland and Port Neches was renamed Bum Phillips Way in his honor, with the great man in attendance shyly cracking a few jokes, visibly moved.

When he died, young people sitting in the living room when their parents and grandparents heard the news might have wondered what the fuss was all about.

“Wasn’t he a football coach?” they may have asked.

 Oh my, yes.