Rich Mauti and his New Orleans Saints teammates were preparing to kick off a home game when their coach, Bum Phillips, approached and offered a few soothing words.
“If you do what I ask, you’ll be good,” Phillips said, according to Mauti.
Then Phillips switched on the gallows humor and remarked, “But if you do only what I ask, you’ll be cut. Now go get them!”
Mauti shared the humorous anecdote about his ex-coach Saturday, the day after Phillips, 90, died at his ranch in Goliad, Texas. The former Saints wide receiver thought it perfectly illustrated the laid-back yet ambitious personality with which Phillips brought a measure of respectability to a franchise that had mostly been inept until he took charge of it from 1981 until his retirement in 1985.
“Bum tried to keep you light to a certain degree, but he wanted you to give 100 percent all of the time and then some,” said Mauti, a receiver for the Saints from 1977-83.
Phillips was the tobacco-chewing, cowboy hat-wearing coach who fired off memorable quotes to the press and had New Orleans on the brink of an unprecedented postseason appearance. But past and present members of the organization paid tribute to a coach who they said had a keen eye for talent and cared about his players’ well-being.
“We are saddened by the passing of Bum Phillips,” Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement.
Benson said he became friends with Phillips upon purchasing the team in 1985 and expressed his condolences to the late coach’s wife, Debbie, and his son, Wade, defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans.
Phillips, who had been coach of the Houston Oilers from 1975-80, arrived in New Orleans one season after the Saints finished 1-15. The team Phillips inherited had a number of problems, the worst of which was rampant drug use.
Phillips, who also handled general manager duties for much of his time in New Orleans, in large part used the draft to rebuild the Saints. Picks in his first year included Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers (first round), Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson (second), defensive end Frank Warren (third), tight end Hoby Brenner (third) and defensive lineman Jim Wilks (12th).
Phillips picked Morten Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time Pro Bowler, in the fourth round of the 1982 draft and productive receiver Eric Martin in the seventh round in 1985.
Those players helped Phillips post a 27-42 record during his time with the Saints, who almost gave New Orleans its first winning season with a 4-5 mark in the strike-shortened 1982 season and came even closer the following year by going 8-8, leaving the team on the cusp of its first playoff berth.
More importantly, Andersen, Brenner, Jackson, Martin, Warren and Wilks were all key contributors on Saints teams that, under the command of coach Jim Mora, secured New Orleans’ first winning season and playoff bid in 1987 and its first division title in 1991.
“He was the right guy at the right time for us,” Mauti said. “He brought on players that he wanted to be around.”
While he established a foundation for future Saints success, Phillips always set aside time to urge his players to think beyond their days in the NFL, Andersen said.
Andersen said he often walked into team meetings expecting intense X’s and O’s sessions with Phillips and his staff, but instead the team was treated to presentations by professionals about banking. Phillips on occasion invited speakers to counsel players on sound investments and setting up trust funds. At other times, players learned about involving themselves with meaningful charity work.
“He did so many things outside of the realm of football that would help you in life,” Andersen said. “He had so much wisdom.”
But it wasn’t always about solid football and smart life decisions with Phillips. Sometimes, he just wanted to have fun with his players.
Phillips was famous for arranging pizza and beer parties for his team. Mauti and Andersen spoke about how the team would dine with renowned country musicians Phillips was pals with, such as Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers.
“Playing for Bum was like being part of a family,” Andersen said. “He was like a father figure to a lot of us.”