ATLANTA, October 19, 2013 — The National Football League lost a legend as Bum Phillips entered oblate spheroid heaven at age 90. The former Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints coach and father of Houston Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was more than just a great coach. He was one of the all time great characters.
With his jeans, cowboy boots and ten gallon hat, he was Texas football. While he never got to the Super Bowl, he remained a beloved figure long after he retired. He was always good for a quote, with an occasional malaprop thrown in.
Bum Phillips led the Houston Oilers to the AFC Title Game in both 1978 and 1979, but they could not get past the Steel Curtain that formed the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty. In all fairness, neither did any other team. Phillips often remarked that it did not take a genius to hand the ball to running back Earl Campbell. Phillips and Campbell had the fans chanting “Luv Ya Blue” in the deafening Astrodome.
After a 1980 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders, Phillips was fired by owner Bud Adams. Many of the fans never forgave Adams. Adams would become more hated after moving the team to Nashville and renaming them the Tennessee Titans, but many other fans long before that declared Bum’s firing the last straw (hat). Houston eventually received an expansion team known as the Texans, but plenty of fans still want the return of the name and colors of the Oilers. Adams owns those rights.
Bum was not on the coaching unemployment line for long. As soon as Adams axed him, another suitor was waiting.
Bum then took over a Saints team that had never had a winning season or made the playoffs. In the last game of the 1983 season, the Saints and Rams met with everything on the line. Both teams were 8-7, and a win would give the Saints their first winning season, division crown and playoff birth. In one of the most bizarre games ever played, the Saints defense gave up zero touchdowns. Yet the Saints offense gave up two interceptions for touchdowns, a punt return for a touchdown, and a safety. On the last play of the game, the Saints led 24-23 and the Rams lined up for a 42-yard field goal. A sign in the crowd read, “It ain’t over ‘till the fat man spits.”
In sheer heartbreaking fashion, the kick was good for the 26-24 Rams win. Phillips quietly spit on the ground as the announcer solemnly intoned “and the Saints have still never had a winning season.”
Yet Phillips was a winner. His overall coaching record including the playoffs was 85-80. He was also a winner among the many people who loved his folksy nature and crazy sayings.
“You can’t practice being miserable.”
“Don Shula? Now there’s a good football coach. He can take his’n and beat your’n, or he can take your’n and beat his’n.”
“There are two types of coaches: them that’s been fired and them that are gonna be fired.”
“Two kinds of ballplayers aren’t worth a darn: One that never does what he’s told and one who does nothing except what he’s told.”
“I joined the Marine Corps. I learned my lesson. I never joined anything again in my life. I went in as a private and, 31 months later, I came out a private. I thought they couldn’t win that war without me. Then I got in there and I thought they couldn’t win because of me. I was no hero. The guys who died fighting were the heroes. And the Marine Corps was real spit and polish. I wasn’t.”
He said he took his wife, Wade’s mother, with him on road games because she was to ugly to kiss goodbye.
In retirement, he said, “I don’t do a damn thing, and I don’t start that until Noon.”
Like many southerners, beneath the homespun charm and drawl was a man with a ton of brains. He taught defense to many football understudies, and his son remains one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the game.
More importantly, Bum Phillips brought love and passion and entertainment to a game that thrives on characters. He honored the game of football, and the love and remembrances from fans reflect the measure of the man.
Now he is in the lord’s favorite sportsbar, with his hat on the next stool. Always the gentleman, he took it off indoors.
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