Houston icon Bum Phillips dies
Posted on October 18, 2013 at 10:02 pm by David Barron in General \
Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips Jr., who spent half his adult life as a football coach and every waking moment as the personification of all things Texan, died Friday at his ranch in Goliad.
Phillips was three weeks past his 90th birthday and more than three decades removed from his heyday as head coach of the Oilers from 1975 through 1980. But he will be remembered as the personification of a time, a place and a team that remains deep in the hearts of everyone who saw them play.
The end came on a cool autumn football weekend as Houston’s current pro team, the Texans, prepares to play Sunday with his son, Wade, serving as defensive coordinator. Family members said Wade Phillips visited with his father before rejoining the team for its trip to Kansas City.
“Bum is gone to Heaven-loved and will be missed by all -great Dad,Coach, and Christian,” Wade Phillips, whose Twitter handle is @sonofbum, tweeted shortly after 10 p.m.
Bum Phillips was a product of a family that traced its roots to Texas’ frontier past, and he did his job dressed in boots, jeans and a white Stetson – except at the Astrodome, since his mama told him it was impolite to wear a hat indoors.
He was, said one admirer, the “Will Rogers of the NFL,” justly famous for such sayings as, “There’s two kinds of coaches: them that’s been fired, and them that’s gonna be fired.”
But it was his relationship with his players – and theirs to him – and his ability to relate to fans that cemented his place among the legends of Texas football coaches with the likes of Darrell Royal, Tom Landry and Gordon Wood.
“Bum Phillips’ Oilers succeeded in a way that will never be measured by percentages and trophies,” wrote former Chronicle columnist Ed Fowler in a book about the team. “They symbolized a city rather than merely representing it.”
They called it “Luv Ya Blue,” and from 1978 through 1980, it was the biggest thing in Houston sports. In truth, the city has not seen anything to top it.
Twice Phillips’ Oilers battled the Pittsburgh Steelers for a berth in the Super Bowl, and both times they came up short. After each loss, they were welcomed home by more than 40,000 cheering fans at the Astrodome, inspiring one of the most famous quotations in the history of Texas sports.
“One year ago we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door,” Phillips said after the 1980 title-game loss. “Next year we’re gonna kick the sumbitch in.”
But they never did. After the Oilers lost a first-round playoff game in 1980, Phillips was fired on Dec. 31, 1980, by Oilers owner K.S. “Bud” Adams. Never ggain, until their departure for Nashville in 1997, would the Oilers again so captivate their fans or come so close to a championship.
Phillips coached for five years with the New Orleans Saints but remained a Texan, moving for the last time in 1996 to the 400-acre ranch outside Goliad where he spent his final years, true to the values he set out in an interview in the mid-1970s.
“I don’t think I could change if I wanted to, and I don’t see any reason to,” he said. “I’m going to try to live my life the way I think it ought to be led, raise my children the way they ought to be raised, coach the way I ought to coach and treat people the way they ought to be treated.
“If that happens to be country, well, then I’m country.”
‘They believe in him’
Phillips was born Sept. 29, 1923, in Orange. Both grandfathers were ranchers, and one rode the Chisholm Trail and worked for Charles Goodnight, the pioneer 19th-centrury Texas cattleman and rancher.
He got his nickname when his sister Edrina’s efforts to say “brother” came out “bumble,” which was shortened to “Bum.” “I don’t mind,” he said, “as long as it’s a name and not a description.”
He graduated from Beaumont’s French High School, served with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II and took a job with Magnolia Petroleum under the assumption he’d work there until he retired.
But, early on, he got into a squabble with a superior about contributing to the company’s favored charity, which happened to be a cause he didn’t support.
He asked his boss if he could give to another good charity and, after that idea was rejected, he replied, “Then tell the man at the gate to have my check ready. I’m leaving.”
Phillips was 21 and hadn’t completed a college course, having withdrawn from Lamar College his freshman year to enlist after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But driving home from the Magnolia plant, he passed the Lamar practice field and stopped to watch. Spying him, a coach came over and asked if he was interested in trying out.
“He told me I could have a scholarship if I wanted one,” Phillips recalled years later. “I really wasn’t that interested, but I realized I could go to school on the GI bill and (football) would be something I could do until I got a good job.”
After college at Lamar and Stephen F. Austin State University, he began his coaching career as an assistant in Nederland in 1950. He became head coach the next year and later was head coach at Jacksonville, Amarillo, Port Neches-Groves and Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) and an assistant at Texas A&M (to Paul “Bear” Bryant), Houston (to Bill Yeoman, SMU (to Hayden Fry) and Oklahoma State.
“He has a great knack for handling people. They believe in him,” said Bryant, who tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Phillips to join him at Alabama after the 1957 season. “Bum’s a terrific individual with a lot of class. He has a knack for selling, which is the same as coaching.”
In 1967, he joined the San Diego Chargers as an assistant to Sid Gillman and came to Houston as Gillman’s defensive coordinator with the Oilers in 1974. He became coach and general manager when Gillman resigned after the 1974 season.
In the five years before Phillips became head coach, the Oilers were 16-52-2. In his six seasons as head coach, Houston was 55-35 with three playoff appearances and two appearances in the AFC Championship Game, losing 34-5 to Pittsburgh after the 1978 season and 27-13 to end the 1979 season.
Their breakout season was 1978, when Phillips swapped three draft picks and tight end Jimmie Giles to Tampa Bay in return for the No. 1 pick in the 1978 NFL draft, which the Oilers used to select Texas running back Earl Campbell, the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner from Tyler.
Campbell joined such veterans as center Carl Mauck, quarterback Dan Pastorini, linebackers Robert Brazile and Greg Bingham and defensive lineman Elvin Bethea on a team that captured Houston’s heart.
They were 10-6 in 1978, including a memorable 35-30 victory over Miami behind Campbell’s 199 rushing yards that introduced the “Monday Night Football” audience to the “Luv Ya Blue” phenomenon, and beat the Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs 17-9, Houston’s first playoff victory since 1961, before losing to the Steelers for the AFC title.
A year later, they improved to 11-5 and beat the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs before another AFC title showdown at Pittsburgh. In a game that will be remembered for an official’s blown call on what appeared to be a touchdown pass to Oilers receiver Mike Renfro, Houston lost on the field but again captured the hearts of fans.
Of the first of the two mammoth Dome pep rallies, Phillips said, “Don’t forget all those people standing along the road when we were driving in. There must have been a hundred thousand of them out there. And we’d lost the damned game. I’ll take that memory to my grave.”
Houston advanced once more to the playoffs in 1980, losing to the Oakland Raiders in the first round, and Phillips was fired amid Adams’ complaints that the team lacked discipline.
“People said I was too easy on my players,” Phillips said. “We weren’t too easy on them. I love my mama, and she loved me, but she whipped me when she needed to. That’s how I felt about players.”
Trust equaled success
Former KHOU (Channel 11) sports director Gifford Nielsen, who played quarterback for Phillips in the late 1970s, then worked with him on Oilers radio broadcasts in the 1990s, said Phillips built winning teams by knocking down barriers between players.
“He could take a conservative kid out of Utah, put him with a kid who grew up in the projects in Pittsburgh, a guy from Southern California and a guy from the Deep South, and it didn’t matter what color was their skin, how big they were and what their talent level was,” Nielsen said. “He would bring them together as a team.
“The reason people liked Bum so much is because he was real. He always said, ‘Trust me, and we’ll do things my way and great things will happen.’ When we did trust him, we were successful, and it carried over not only to the team but the fans.
“Whenever we went on the road, people wanted to see Bum Phillips, and it was because of the genuine person he is. That is his legacy.”
Outside Houston, Phillips became a popular Texas-sized personality, in large part thanks to the efforts of NFL Films, which devoted an entire hour to the best of Bum as part of its “Lost Treasures of NFL Films” series.
“We probably shot more footage and had more fun following Bum around than any coach in the game,” the late NFL Films president Steve Sabol said in an interview for the series. “The perception was that because he wore a cowboy hat instead of a headset that he didn’t do much coaching. But that wasn’t the case.”
Not only did Phillips know ‘X’s’ and ‘Os’, he influenced the manner in which they’re still taught today, inventing a numbering system for the alignment of defensive linemen that he passed on to Bryant in the 1950s.
He also was the inventor and namesake of the “Bummerooski,” a trick intentional fumble play that the Oilers used to score a touchdown against the Chicago Bears in 1980.
Neal Morgan, who played at Nederland on Phillips’ first team as head coach and later became a coach and author, said coaches flocked to clinics to hear Phillips talk football.
“We often skipped lectures we had paid to attend and sat in a hotel room watching Bum draw ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ on a blackboard until the wee hours of the morning,” Morgan wrote in a story for Bill McMurray’s book “Texas High School Football.”
Wade Phillips, who worked as an assistant coach with his father, said Bum remained an icon among Texas coaches well after retirement.
“We were at a coaching clinic in San Angelo with (Texas coach) Mack Brown in 2005, and they had him come up on stage and he got a standing ovation,” Wade Phillips said. “It was nice of him to realize that people still thought well of him.”
He became a full-time rancher after leaving the Saints in 1985, prompting another Bum-ism when he was asked about his retirement activities and replied, “Nothin’. And I don’t start doing that until noon.”
“It wasn’t because I didn’t like coaching anymore,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I just wanted to do some other things, things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid, before I got too old to do them. When you’re a coach, you don’t have time to do nothing else.”
In retirement, it wasn’t uncommon for the Phillipses to put in 11-hour days on their 400-acre ranch outside Goliad, where they moved in 1996 to raise and train cutting horses.
He was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and in 2004 was one of 43 Houston sports legends honored during the first “opening ceremony” program at a Super Bowl, joining former players Elvin Bethea, Pastorini and Campbell.
Characteristically, he downplayed the honor.
“So many names being tossed around,” he said, “makes me feel like a cow chip that somebody threw into the punch bowl. I’m going to go around and get autographs that night, because I don’t feel I’m in the same league.”
Phillips was hospitalized earlier this year after falling at his ranch, and his wife, Debbie, said there had been “a few bumps in the road” this year. But Phillips was upbeat, telling Chronicle staff writer Dale Robertson, “I’m gonna die sometime, but it ain’t now.”
He celebrated his 90th birthday by asking friends and fans to contribute $90 each to Bum Phillips Charities, which is raising money to build Camp Heart Sign, a summer camp on the couple’s ranch in Goliad benefiting children, families and educators that depend on American Sign Language (ASL) as a primary means of communicating.
In an interview with television station KIII, Phillips said, “Ninety is better than 89. I didn’t live what I would say is a proper life, but I lived a good life.”
The Phillips family asks for donations to the Bum Phillips Charities at 2981 S. Riverdale Lane, Goliad, Texas, 77963. You can go to bumphillipscharities.com as well. The family’s goal is to help build a home for deaf children in Goliad.