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A few days ago, the NFL lost a legend. Even in his heyday, not many people would have known who he was if you gave them his given name, Oail Andrew Phillips, Jr. But in the late 1970’s, “Bum” Phillips was a household name.
Phillips didn’t look the part of one of the best NFL head coaches of his era. He didn’t have the steely demeanor of Chuck Noll. He wasn’t a staunch disciplinarian like Bud Grant. He wasn’t an animated maniac like John Madden. Rather he was more the guy you’d see filling up his pickup truck if you were buying gas at the gravel-road pumps in Goliad, Texas. From his trademark cowboy hat to his well-worn cowboy boots, and the giant belt buckle in-between, Phillips was the antithesis of the “Playboy” NFL of the 1970’s.
That’s why I loved him.
As a kid, I wasn’t a fan of the Houston Oilers, but it was hard not to like Bum or his team. In the NFL of my childhood, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant team of the era, and their head coach Chuck Noll had the personality of the meanest school principal imaginable; the kind who wouldn’t just make you stay after school, the kind that might just come to your house and break the heads off all your Pez dispensers. Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers were the foil to that evil football empire. The Oilers and the Steelers were in the same division in those days, and for two Sundays a year (and usually a third in the play-offs), you could count on three epic hours of championship football. The Oilers just never seemed to be able to get over that Steeler hump, but then again, in those days, nobody could.
Despite all that, if Bum Phillips wasn’t the best coach in the history of the Houston Oilers, he certainly was the most iconic. I had forgotten that Phillips was only the Oilers’ head coach from 1975 to 1980, but like all things typcially Texan, his legacy was much larger than that. He led the Oilers to a 59-38 record over those six seasons, including two epic battles with the Steelers for a trip to the Super Bowl. Both times they came up short, but after each loss, they were welcomed home by more than 40,000 cheering fans at the Astrodome. That Oiler fight song is stuck in my head to this day.
The “Luv Ya Blue” era is still talked about to this day in Houston. There has never been a team that city embraced more than the Bum Phillips Oilers…not the “Phi Slamma Jamma” University of Houston Cougars, not the Houston Astros in their heydays of the 1980’s and 90’s, not even the NBA champion Houston Rockets. led by “Phi Slamma Jamma” alum Hakeem Olajuwon.
It was after the second playoff loss to the Steelers that Phillips uttered one of the great quotes in all of Texas sports history. They even made a song about it.
“One year ago we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door. next year we’re gonna kick the son of a bitch.” The crowd emittted a roar The Astrodome never heard before, The Astrodome would never hear it again, either.
After the Oilers lost a first-round playoff game in 1980, Bum Phillips was fired on New Year’s Eve by Oilers owner K.S. “Bud” Adams. Never again would you see the Astrodome literally rocking with those blue pom-poms and “Luv Ya Blue!” signs. Never again would the Houston Oilers be that close to a championship. and never again would Oail Andrew Phillips, Jr. patrol an NFL sideline in Texas as the home head coach.
To me, watching Bum Phillips coaching the New Orleans Saints was another example of a guy I looked up to being reduced to something that would have been clownish if it weren’t for the power of that man’s presence alone. Bum Phillips’ trademark cowboy hat always told me something about his character, and oddly enough, it did so when he wasn’t wearing it. I had always wondered why during home games in Houston, Phillips never wore his hat. When he moved to New Orleans, he still didn’t wear it. Here was Bum Phillips, the newly-crowned king of the New Orleans Saints, and he refused to wear the trappings of his office.
After graduating from French High School in Beaumont, Texas in 1941, Phillips enrolled at Lamar College, where he withdrew before earning a single credit to enlist in the Marine Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Phillips served with distinction in the South Pacific.
Even before I discovered it, I always had an inkling Phillips had been a Marine. The clue came to me in all those games in domes where Phillips wouldn’t wear his hat. Under that big, ol’ Stetson, there was the king of all flat-top hair cuts; the kind that could give a toothbrush “bristle-envy'” and you knew was measured daily with a steel-edged ruler.
So, after all that, what were the big clues about Bum Phillips character? A guy who still wears his flat-top decades after his active-duty days is a guy who understand concepts like honor, duty, and discipline. But more important than that is what Phillips said himself.
“My mama always said it was impolite to wear your hat indoors.”
That’s the stuff that made the guy a hero of mine, and is what made him a legend in both football and Texas. That’s the stuff that gave him the opportunities to learn the art of coaching from other legends like Paul “Bear” Bryant), Hayden Fry, and Paul Yeoman. That’s the stuff that made Phillips a clear choice for a hypothetical Texas Football Coach “Mt. Rushmore.” Think about it, can you come up with a better list than Darrell Royal, Gordon Wood, Tom Landry, and Oail Andrew Phillips, Jr. ? No, you can’t.
It all started with 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. It continued with a victory over those same Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs.
A year later, they beat the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs to set up 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 (and what led to today’s instant replay review system), Houston lost on the field but again captured the hearts of fans. When it came to those mammoth Astrodome post-loss 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.”
You’ll never forget them Bum, and in turn, we will never forget you.