LET'S START with the boots. He owns about 40 pairs, from caribou to ostrich to elephant ears, including powder-blue anteater hide, gray crocodile skin and tan, maroon and brown eelskin. They come from an El Paso company that used to be small until he endorsed their product. "The interest in our particular boot after that has been unbelievable," says Holmes Till, sales manager for Sanders Boots. "We've had requests from all over the country; even Fran Tarkenton wanted a pair. In the Houston area alone, our business quadrupled in a year and a half."
Then there are the hats. He buys about a dozen felts in the winter, twice that many straws in the summer, and all from Gary's in downtown Houston, sometimes known as The Best Little Hat House in Texas," where his RCA crease is handsteamed by Richard Wolf, Gary's president. "We sell more hats out of this location than any place in the United States," Wolf says, pointing to a wall where no less than 18 different styles of creases are on display. "In December, if the Oilers are in the playoffs, we sell 200 hats a day; people buy them to sit in front of the TV and watch the game. Our business has more than doubled in the past two years, and Bum Phillips is the single most important factor. It's been incredible."
And don't forget the records. At Don's Record Shop in nearby Bellaire some 20 Houston Oiler records are for sale, records shaped like helmets, records with titles like Bum's Promise, Bum Said It, The Ballad of Bum and the Boys, even The Houston Oiler Polka. "Two years ago, after the season ended, every day we thought we'd put them away, but every day people would come in and buy them, they sell fantasitcally well all year round," says Betty Janicek, Don's wife. "Listen," she adds needlessly, "this town is crazy. People here never get over football." Or, she might just as well have added, Bum Phillips.
The sacred union of the city of Houston with the Oiler football team, coach Oail Andrew "Bum" Phillips presiding, has been an astonishing success. Until he arrived, both town and team had their portion of image problems, self-esteem problems, all kind of problems. The Oilers, after early success in the renegade AFL, collapsed into an unsettling NFL mediocrity. Coaches, it was written, came and went like migrant fruit pickers, one gentleman learning of his firing when he walked in from practice and a secretary handed him his desk drawer. "We had no friends in the city," remembers defensive end Elvin Bethea, who's been an Oiler longer than anyone. "Even my dog would bite me when I'd go home."
For the city itself, the predicament was deeper and of longer standing. Houston was populous, powerful, wealthy; it was the home of space shots and heart transplants, of the Astrodome and the Rothko Chapel, but it lacked respect; people thought of it in terms of humidity, huge mosquitoes and nouveau riche excess. The closest thing the city had had to a culture hero was Glenn McCarthy, "King of the Wildcatters," credited with discovering 125 million barrels of Texas oil, the man whose story was one of the inspirations for James Dean's role in "Giant." The St. Patrick's Day 1949 opening of McCarthy's opulent $21 million Shamrock Hotel was an unsettling mixture of boorishness and extravagance, causing one guest to comment the morning after, "Last night Houston ate peas with its knife."
Bum Phillips changed all that. Not only have the Oilers achieved prominence during his tenure, but the city has looked to both the team in general and to his Western persona in particular for its identity. Dallas, the feeling seems to be, can keep Tom Landry and his citified Hart Schaffner & Marx suits; what we've got is the genuine article. Since Phillips became coach, individual tickets to key Oiler games have been scalped for $500 and more, 75,000 people filled the Astrodome to greet the team after they lost, the Houston media sent an unheard-of 40 representatives to this year's opener in Pittsburgh, and the number of souvenir items available in the Oilers' particular robin's-egg shade has risen to approximately 150, including back scratchers, fly swatters, even a "Yuv La Blue" tractor.
Bum Phillips' office is, ironically enough, only a block or so from Glenn McCarthy's old Shamrock Hotel. His desk is very large and very cluttered, but even with a carton of his favorite White Natural Tinsley chewing tobacco ("Thick Natural Leaf, Chew Fresher, Tastier") within easy reach, Phillips does not look especially comfortable behind it. Desks, obviously, are not for him. Neither, for that matter, are highly structured interviews. Off-the-cuff, off-the-record informality is much more his style. But seeing him on a football field, arms folded or hands on his hips, peering at the action through metal-rimmed glasses, is to find him classically in tune with his environment. More than most coaches, Phillips' presence radiates an almost mythic sense of the timeless traditions of a sport that too often seems totally a creature of the media age. "I'm never surprised by anything," he said after the Oilers' topsy-turvy loss to Pittsburgh in September. "Disappointed, but not surprised."
Bum Phillips had done more than restore the spirit of the city of Houston. Through a singular melding of coaching methods and personal style, he has brought a level of sanity to his small corner of professional football. He has done things that may seem minor to the universe at large but that in his world are close to revolutionary. "Football here isn't a high-pressure, live-or-die situation like it is in other organizations," says free safety Mike Reinfeldt. "Bum does a lot of things to make football fun." Says Phillips himself, "Winning is not the only thing, and if you don't believe that, you ought not to be in coaching. If I had to coach and lose all the friends I have to win, well I wouldn't want to win."
To understand this man it is necessary to take a step back, to forget the folksy caricature, to put the boots and the hats the chewing tobacco totally out of mind. For one thing, Phillips dresses the way he does because he's a third-generation Texan: His paternal grandfather, Joseph Madison Phillips, rode the Chisholm Trail at age 13 and worked as a ranch hand for legendary Western Texas cattle king Capt. Charles Goodnight. So asking him about his clothes is the equivalent of asking a Wall Street broker why he wears those funny three-piece suits. For another thing, concentrating on the caricature makes it easy to forget that an extraordinarily shrewd, thoughtful man lives behind it.
That man also lives behind an uncompromisingly pugnacious face, square-jawed and rough-hewn almost to the point of caricature, that is totally at odds with his temperament. Thoroughly good-humored, Phillips can invariably be seduced into seeing the humor in a situation, no matter how serious he may start out. Typical is the story of what happened when a punter let loose a prodigious 80-yard kick that caught Phillips right on the nose, breaking his glasses. "Who did that," was his first angry reaction, followed almost at once by a bemused "Just glad it wasn't a 30-yard kick that broke my glasses."
Phillips can be verbally quick if he chooses. Dale Robertson, who covers the Oilers for The Houston Post, remembers that when ex-Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini shoved him through a door, Phillips, who was in the process of telling some out-of-town writers that the team never had any problems with the press, merely looked down at the reporter at his feet and added with impeccable timing, "until now." But his best quotes -- like saying of Earl Campbell, "He may not be in a class by himself but whatever one he's in, it doesn't take long to call the roll," and of Don Shula, "He can take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n" -- are not snappy one-liners. Rather they are the product of a Will Rogers sensibility, of a man who enjoys, understands and sympathizes with the human condition in all its perplexing variety.
In football circles, Bum Phillips had been known for decades not as a colorful character but as a superb defensive strategist, the man who while still coaching in high school pioneered a system widely used on all levels that employs numbers to tell each defensive player where he lines up and what his responsibilities are. "He has always been renowned, he's been a legend in Texas for a long time, he's got a tremendous following of people," says his son Wade, an assistant coach with the Oilers. "When he was at Port Neches High School, a hundred coaches would come down to watch spring football." When he'd take a room at a coaching clinic, remembers Oiler assistant John Paul Young, "the place would be jammed, it would be full of big-name coaches like Frank Broyles and Darrel Royal." Adds Don Haskins, basketball coach at Texas-El Paso and a friend for nearly 20 years, "Bum Phillips was known as a great football coach before he ever saw a pro football team. When he was down here he coached what I consider the greatest athletic achievement I've ever watched. We played a New Mexico team, they were 8-1 and we didn't have anything. They were on our goal line all night long and we didn't make a first down. But we blocked a punt for a touchdown, ran back an intercepted pass 105 yards, kicked a field goal and won 16-14. That's great defense."
K.S. "Bud Adams remembers with fondness exactly when he found out just how smart Phillips was, when, as he puts it with a brief smile, "i had my first indications that Bum really had some management qualities." The head of KSA Industries, ADA Resources & Energy, Bud Adams Ranches and the owner-president of the Houston Oilers has the impressive, brick-walled, office with recessed lighting to go with his sizable holdings. A hefty man, Adams speaks in a low, gravelly Edgar Buchanan voice, the voice of someone who has no trouble getting people to pay close attention to what he has to say. w
Phillips was brought to the Oilers as defensive coordinator by then-head coach and general manager Sid Gilman in 1974. Gilman, an NFL coach for 25 years and a brilliant tactical innovator who, his successor still marvels, "could think up in five minutes stuff you couldn't do in a month," elevated Phillips to head coach in January of 1975, remaining as general manager. "I got a call from Bum and he had his contract but he couldn't sign it," Adams recalls. "He said, 'I'll be head coach in name only, Sid'll be calling the shots, he'll have the final say-so in all football matters.' I told him if he wanted to be the head coach I'd change the contracts, but then as general manager Sid would have to sign it. Four or five days later, the contract was signed. I could hardly believe my eyes. I told Bum, 'You must have done a hell of a selling job,' and Bum said, 'I don't think Sid even read it.' Within two weeks, realizing that his wings had been clipped, Gilman turned the general manager's job over to Phillips as well.
The next unlooked-for revelation to come Adams' way concerned Phillips' coaching philosophy. "He doesn't go for those iron-clad rules," the owner says softly, as if still not believing it. "I remember three years ago, we were out of the running in our division, our last game was against Cincinnati and they needed to beat us to get the wild-card spot. We're usually off on Monday, but Bum told the team to take Tuesday and Wednesday off as well.
"I called Bum up and I said, 'I know we're out of the running, but this is a business we're in.' And he said to me 'If they don't know it by now, they'll never know it. Those two extra days off will help them more than anything they could learn.' Well, I'm still a little teed off, but Cincinnati comes into town and well, we waxed 'em." Adams pauses here, reflecting on the glory of it all. "We knocked their brains out."
If anything really sets Bum Phillips apart from his confreres in the National Football League it is this knowledge of and ability to work with people. "He knows just how far to drive a guy, when to pull back, it's an uncanny thing, " says Joe Bugel, the Oilers' defensive line coach. Last season, for instance, when the Oilers had to meet San Diego in the playoffs without both Pastorini and Campbell, "he could have been a bear in practice and made a tough week of it, but he didn't," says center Carl Mauch. "He never panicked, he felt we could do it and he convinced everybody. I don't think any other coach in the league could have done what he did in that week."
Phillips credits a good deal of his philosophy and his touch with people to the 12 years (1951-64 with two years at college positions) he spent coaching Texas high school football in glamorless, hard-scrabble places like Nederland, Port Neches and Amarillo. During one stretch he had six jobs in eight years and friends remember his wife, Helen, automatically packing every spring, not knowing where the family was going, only that a change was in the offing. "I wanted as good a coaching job as I could get," Phillips says of her near-pertetual motion, and while he was searching his point of view of the game of football matured.
"Most people in coaching have a tendency to have a system," he explains, "but I can't think football is a system game. It's a people game, it's taking the people you have and fitting your system to them. One year you've got a quarterback who can pass, so you go with the passing game, the next year you've got a kid who can't throw at all, so you get plumb away from that. Coaching in high school forces you to adapt."
Phillips likes to tell wry stories about his high school coaching days, about his $2,800 starting salary and how he doesn't miss "the history teacher fussing at me because my football player is looking out the window, or the daddy who says his boy ought to be playing quarterback instead of left defensive tackle. Once at Nederland, it was sprinkling rain and someone's momma came right up to the cyclone fence around the field and yelled at her boy, 'you come on home this minute.' The boy said, 'momma, we're practicing,' and she told him, 'If them coaches don't have sense enough to come out of the rain, you do. Come on home this minute.'"
Yet the remarkable thing about those high school years is the transformation Phillips underwent from a conventional coach to a progressive one, his change from the hard charger his son Wade remembers as "sleeping at the field house and feeling that if you didn't stay up to 4 or 5 a.m. you weren't doing the job" to a coach who runs Saturday practices so relaxed he allows the Oilers' wives to show up and watch.
Making that transformation all the more intriguing is that on a personal level Phillips remains very much what he's always been, a traditionalist, a gentleman of the old school. He opened the Oiler locker room to women because he felt it was the only fair thing to do, but it was not a decision he was happy making. He believes the team's welfare is paramount and he lied to the Houston press about the peding Ken Stabler-Pastonini trade when he felt publicity would jeopardize the deal because "if it comes to hurting the team or hurting the press, it's going to be the press every time." His cowboy boots are of the historic needle-toe variety -- "You know you're wearing the right boots if you can squash a roach in a corner" -- and when he saw a friend in a pair of modified square toes, he commented dryly, "I see you've got a pair both you and your wife can wear."
And then there was his behavior surrounding the massive Astrodome rally that followed last season's playoff loss to Pittsburgh. Overcome by the emotion of the moment, he made a marvelous speech to the crowd ending with a promise, "One year ago we knocked on the door, this year we beat on the door, next year we're going to kick the son of a bitch in." A number of people wrote to Phillips afterward complaining about his using language like that in public -- this is Texas, after all -- and he wrote a personal letter of apology to each of them. "There was no excuse for that, that's not the right thing to say when 8-9-10-year-old kids who think you're a hero are listening," he says now, still chagrined. "I was raised different than that, raised that you don't curse in front of womenfolk or in public. It seemed at the time like everyone needed something to go on for next year, but it was still wrong." l
In essence, what Phillips has done for his players is eliminate the nitpicking, million-rules-a-minute approach that drives the overgrown men who play professional football wild. "I've been on so many staffs where all we talked about was rules; we worried about guys with mustaches, we worried about bad checks, we worried so much we forgot to coach football," says Oiler coach Joe Bugel. "These guys want to be taught and turned loose on the field, not pressured."
Of all the words spoken by all the Oilers about Bum Phillips, circumstances added a special keenness and penetration to those of Mike Barber. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a classic tight end's physique, Barber's red beard, Texas accent and straight-up bearing give him the look of an intrepid Confederate cavalry officer. When he sat in front of his locker last spring, he was in the middle of a protracted contract dispute with Phillips in his role as general manager (since settled) and it looked as if he might never play for Houston again.
"So many coaches in the NFL, all they are are coaches; they're so wrapped up in being in the NFL they can't relate to the players," Barber said slowly, picking his words carefully. "But Bum, he gets into it as a person, not just with a few players but with every one of them. It's very relaxing to play for him; he adds no unncessary pressures. I've played for coaches who when I did bad I was scared to walk off the football field, but with Bum when you did bad he'll be the first one to come over and say it's okay. He's as much of a father figure as you could want. When you talk to him you don't have to figure 'What should I say?' If it comes from the heart you can just step back and spit it out."
Barber stopped for a few beats, watching his black lab, Colonel, roam around the locker room retrieving various discarded objects. "Bum walks when he talks," he said finally, "and that tells you right there the man that he is."