Remembering the loving but tough Bum Phillips

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Remembering the loving but tough Bum Phillips
October 19, 2013, 7:15 pm
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Former NFL coach Bum Phillips, seen here in 1979, died on Friday at the age of 90. (AP)

Bum Phillips, who died Friday at age 90, will be remembered as the folksy coach who walked the sidelines in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a white Stetson, a colorful figure who led the Houston Oilers to the threshold of the Super Bowl in the 1970s but couldn't quite get past the Pittsburgh Steelers.
 
The Oilers came ever so close in the 1980 AFC championship game with the Steelers when wide receiver Mike Renfro caught what appeared to be a touchdown pass but the officials ruled him out of bounds. There was no replay rule at the time so the call went unchallenged although TV replays indicated Renfro was, indeed, in bounds.The resulting furor led to the NFL adopting the current replay rule.    

The Houston fans were outraged and claimed that blown call cost the Oilers a trip to the Super Bowl. Asked about it later, Phillips was typically gracious.
 
"Everybody says if we'd gotten that touchdown, we'd have won the game," Phillips said. "I would like to think that, but I don't really believe that. I think [the Steelers] would have found a way to win, the way they did to win four Super Bowls in six years."
 
That was Bum's way. He never offered excuses, he never pointed fingers. He once summed up his football philosophy by saying: "Football is a game of failure. You fail all the time, but you aren't a failure until you start blaming someone else."
 
Phillips coached six seasons in Houston and five more in New Orleans. He came up the hard way, starting out as a high school coach in Texas, then a college assistant and finally breaking into the NFL as an assistant under Sid Gillman in San Diego. When Gillman went to the Oilers, he brought Phillips with him and Phillips later succeeded him as head coach.
 
Under Phillips, the Oilers enjoyed a resurgence led by Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell and featuring the kick returns and end-zone dances of Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, the former Widener star. The Astrodome was a rocking place in those days with the fans dressed in Oilers blue and singing the team fight song. Everywhere you went in Houston, there were "Luv Ya Blue" signs.
 
No one was more loved than Phillips, who connected with the fans and players in a unique way. He was plain spoken, down to earth and totally Texas. NFL Films president Steve Sabol put it very well when he said: "Bum looked like a square-dance caller but if you check the record, he took over a couple of bad teams and won a lot of games."
 
Phillips created a family atmosphere with the Oilers. On Saturdays, players were allowed to bring their children and even their pets to practice. While the players did the pregame walk-through, the kids and dogs were romping on the sidelines. Later, there might be a barbecue or maybe some country music.
 
I went to the Oilers' training camp one summer and asked where I'd find the head coach. I was told he was in the other room.
 
"I don't want to interrupt if he's in a meeting," I said.
 
"Naw, he's just playing cards with the guys," the assistant said.
 
That's where I found him, playing poker with several coaches, players and a guy from the Mickey Gilley band.
 
Phillips related to his players in an almost fatherly way. When I was at NFL Films, I was going through old footage for a show on Phillips and found a locker room scene that spoke volumes. The Oilers had won a big game on the road and Phillips was moving around the room congratulating the players. Quarterback Gifford Nielsen asked Phillips if he could go home to see his family in Utah rather than take the team charter back to Houston.
 
Nielsen started to say, "My wife..."
 
Phillips raised his hand.
 
"Go do that," he said. He didn't ask for any explanation.
 
"I'll be back for the Tuesday meeting," Nielsen said.
 
"You take care of what you have to take care of," Phillips said. "Come back when you can. Take care of your family, son."
 
Phillips wasn't playing to the camera. I doubt he even knew the camera was there. He was just doing what came naturally -- that is, doing what he felt was best for his players.
 
Some critics felt Phillips was too soft on his players. In fact, that was the reason owner Bud Adams gave when he fired Phillips after the 1980 season. I never believed that. Phillips was nobody's pushover. He was a sergeant in the Marine Corps during World War II and fought the entire Pacific campaign. He was plenty tough and he could bring out the old drill sergeant discipline if needed. His players knew it and didn't push it. The few who did didn't last long.
 
In an NFL Films interview, Phillips answered the criticism that he was too soft on his players, saying: "That's just not true. I love my momma and she loves me, but she'd whoop me when she needed to and that's the way I feel about my players."
 
A classic example of how Phillips drew the line involved Campbell, the great fullback who carried the Oilers in those years. At the start of every training camp, the players took a conditioning test and it included a mile run. With his tank-like body and bad knees, Campbell wasn't built for running distances. He ran about half a mile and stopped. A reporter asked Phillips what he would do with Campbell since he didn't complete the test.
 
"When it's first and a mile, I won't give it to him," Phillips said.
 
In other words, Bum knew what Campbell could do and what he couldn't do, well, it didn't matter.
 
In 2002, as part of the NFL Films documentary, Phillips went to the Angola (La.) prison for its championship football game. Mike Barber, a former Oiler, worked in the prison ministry and invited Phillips as his guest. Our cameras followed. Phillips mingled with the prisoners, talking football and telling stories. Afterwards, talking about the experience, the old coach was almost moved to tears.
 
"That was the best game I've seen in I don't know how long," he said. "Seeing a bunch of guys that have absolutely nothing to play for except their own pride and their own desire to play football. They played their hearts out. There wasn't any people here. There wasn't any fans. But they played hard. I went over and talked to the kids that lost and, oh, they took it hard.
 
"They looked like football players ought to look. I don't mean their build. Just the way they looked, you know, in their faces. I've seen that look everywhere I've coached. That's why I coached to tell you the truth. It's that love of the game. It's a powerful thing."

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