Bum Phillips dies at age 90
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 Friday, Oct. 18, 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. 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.
His Southeast Texas pedigree was second to none. Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips Jr. was born 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 1963-64. 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. He was an assistant to Bear Bryant at Texas A&M in 1958.
He also coached Southern Methodist University for Hayden Fry, and Oklahoma State University with 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 college 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.
San Diego Chargers head coach Sid Gillman hired him as a defensive assistant and 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, and 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 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 harnessed some horsepower on the hoof 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 upfront 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 the Oilers had already cemented their relationship with the fans in Houston. This spawned the “Love ya, Blue” era, and 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, the number in attendance topped 70,000 with hundreds of thousands more lining the streets between the airport and the stadium. It was literally like nothing the city of Houston had seen or felt before.
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 became a national celebrity, appearing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and was the subject of numerous songs, books and magazine articles. Campbell emulated his style of dress, music and living; the two men remained extremely close friends until Phillips’ death.
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.
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 last week, 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.
— James Shannon
Editor’s note: In addition to his son, Wade, Phillips is survived by his wife, Debbie, whom he married in 1990; five daughters from a previous marriage; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.