Beneath a crusty exterior, Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips was more than just a football coach.
He was a Marine who served his country in World War II, a Christian, a devoted family man who tried to instill that virtue in his teams, a cowboy and, last but not least, a humanitarian who tried to help disabled people right up until his death late Friday night at the age of 90.
The last part of that sentence is no exaggeration. On Wednesday, just two days before he died, Phillips taped a 40-minute television show to help raise funds for a retreat for deaf children he was planning to build on the 400-acre ranch in Goliad, Texas, where he died.
Of course, we all know Phillips more as an NFL head coach — first with the Houston Oilers from 1975-80 and then the Saints from 1981-85.
A native of Orange, Texas, Phillips the coach was a defensive guru who helped bring the 3-4 scheme to the NFL in the late 1960s with the San Diego Chargers, then returned a few years later to the Lone Star State as the Oilers defensive coordinator before becoming head coach.
Along the way, his homespun humor, belied by the nickname he gained when his younger sister couldn’t say the word “brother,” served him well.
In addition to solid, aggressive defenses that specialized in stopping the run, the tobacco-chewing Phillips loved country music, bourre, dominoes and horse racing.
And, for those of us in the sportswriting business, he didn’t mind providing folksy quotes and interesting sound bites — including some that were a little self-deprecating.
Two of his most famous lines were about coaches who get fired and NFL coaching legend Don Shula.
Phillips once said in his Texas twang, “There’s two kinds of coaches … them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.” And of trying to beat Shula, who would go on to become the league’s all-time leader with 347 victories, Phillips noted, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Longtime Houston Chronicle beat writer and columnist John McClain remembered the time Phillips was asked about not having a walkthrough practice on a cold and dreary day before a game at old Cleveland Stadium.
“It was in December, and the weather was just terrible,” recalled McClain, who met Phillips in 1977 and remained a close friend over the years. “Somebody asked him why they didn’t work out, and Bum just said, ‘Because you can’t practice being miserable.’ ”
Phillips’ late-blooming career as an NFL coach took off when he guided the Oilers to the AFC Championship game in back-to-back years in 1978 and ’79 — only to have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Three Rivers Stadium.
The Steelers won both games and went on to win the Super Bowl each time. A year later, Oilers owner Bud Adams fired Phillips and his coaching staff, which included son Wade, after a first-round playoff loss.
“I was with him in his office that day, and I listened to him call every one of his coaches,” McClain said. “He called Wade and said, ‘Son, we’ve been fired. … But it’s OK, we’ll land somewhere else.’ ”
The only problem with being fired, Phillips quipped later, was that most of his clothes included the Oilers’ powder blue color.
Houston native John Mecom Jr., then owner of the Saints, quickly hired Phillips to run a franchise that never had a winning record in 14 seasons and was coming off a 1-15 debacle in 1980.
“After Bum was fired, I talked to John the next day, and he said, ‘Bum’s firing could be the best thing that ever happened to me,’ ” McClain said.
Much to the chagrin of Saints fans, it didn’t turn out that way.
Phillips, who brought guitar players to training camp and had pizza, beer and ice cream delivered to the players’ dorms, never enjoyed the same success he had with the Oilers, going 27-42 in four-plus seasons with the Saints.
On Nov. 25, 1985, one day after a 30-23 win against the Minnesota Vikings, he turned the reins over to Wade and rode off into the sunset.
Wade Phillips, a head coach for five NFL teams who’s now the Houston Texans defensive coordinator, visited his father for the last time after Friday’s practice.
“I’m so glad I got to see him,” Wade Phillips told McClain. “Dad was such a humble man. I think he’d want to be remembered as someone who treated people well.”