In the middle of the Houston Oiler's most important practice of the week, Coach Bum Phillips stopped everything with a short blow on his whistle.

"Got to talk to Willie," he explained, as he ambled over to where country singing star Willie Nelson was standing.

"Willie might be the only reason I'd ever halt practice," Phillips said later while modeling a Willie Nelson T-shirt. "And I wear anything that Willie and Earl Campbell give me. That's a priority."

And that's Bum. So what if the Oilers were preparing for the AFC title game in Pittsburgh Sunday? As Phillips might say, "It doesn't mean you still can't be human."

Phillips is a one-of-a-kind NFL character. With his ten-gallon hats and alligator cowboy boots and country wumor, he is the Will Rogers of Xs and Os. He also easily could be a laughingstock, except that he wins a lot more games than he loses.

He may come off as some ranch hand who took the wrong turn at the pass and wound up on the sidelines during a game, but don't let images fool you. Phillips possesses a sound football mind, a bunch of well-developed principles and the kind of independent spirit that separates him from many of his peers.

In many ways, he puts folks in mind of Bear Bryant. Like the Alabama coach, he speaks in a slow, deep voice, his speech sprinkled with down-home sayings and humble-pie disclaimers ("Thank God my players and staff can overcome my coaching.").And, like Bryant, he is willing to let everyone believe that he wins by luck and is in coaching only because he had fooled a lot of people for a lot of years.

But Phillips has taken the Oilers from the depths of the second division to the brink of the Super Bowl the last twe seasons. As the team's general manager -- "Gives me the right to say 'no' to everything" -- he has acquired 38 of the 45 players on the active roster while turning this city into a caldron of Oiler madness.

Win or lose Sunday, the club expects 50,000 people to jam the Astrodome later that night to welcome home the Oilers. Last year, Phillips cried when he saw a similar crowd cheer his players despite a thorough whipping by the Steelers.

This probably is the only NFL team Phillips could coach in his current style. Where else would his garb be considered just right? And where else could he slip away late in the afternoon in his pickup truck and ride one of his beloved horses without fear of being criticized for not laboring long enough?

Even his name is perfect. No way a "Bum" would work as coach of the Minnesota Vikings. But here, it fits nicely.

He should be happy that his younger sister couldn't pronounce "brother" and settled on "bumble," then finally "bum," which is better than his given name, Oail (pronounced O-L).

"If Bum was running a beauty parlor, he'd still wear boots and a hat and spit tobacco," Sid Gillman once said about Phillips. There is no pretense to the man. He isn't trying to be unique. He's just trying to be Bum.

"There are a lot of ways to go about things," Phillips said."Doesn't mean my way is right. I just like doing things a certain way. That's why there is chocolate and vanilla."

That's why Phillips believes in loving his players, not booting them around. That's why Phillips believes in reasonable work hours (I don't have a cot in my office") and letting families into Saturday practices and holding small parties for his athletes during the season.

And that's why Phillips says there are only four things in life he really knows something about: pickup trucks, gumbo, cold beer and barbecue ribs. He says he is still learning about football, although many in the game consider him one of its reigning defensive geniuses.

"Funny" he said, "I always felt I was a better offensive coach. But once you work for Bear Bryant, like I did, you automatically become known as a defensive specialist."

Phillips was a high school coach until he was 34 ("When I finished college, I thought about being a roughneck in the oil fields, but I didn't get a degree in roughnecking") and still wonders if he should be teaching first grade ("When you say boo to them, they jump and you don't have to fine them").

He chews a plug and a half of White Natural Tinsley tobacco a day, hates to wait in lines for anything, especially a haricut, and keeps a 50-gallon gasoline tank in his truck so he doesn't have to stop at gas stations so often.

He could be the new Marlboro man. That wonderful face, with its weathered lines and broad cheeks, looks like a rawhide etching. He was raised as a cowboy, rides horses like he was born on one and has a Western wardrobe that would turn Gene Autry green with envy.

He can fill two closets with his special-order boots made from such exotic materials as kangaroo, beaver and alligator. He buys 16 to 20 hats a year, each with a four-inch brim and the official Rodeo Cowboy Association-crease.

"The hat comes in handy on game days," he claims. "Ever notice they put you on the visiting benches so you look into the sun?"

Strip away those fancy trappings, however, and his players say you'll find a football coach's football coach. He actually believes the game should be fun for both him and his athletes, a change from his early-career philosophy.

"I once was like everyone else," he said. "In the '50s, you weren't supposed to be nice to your players. But then I coached my son (now an Oiler assistant) and I certainly liked him. I loved him.

"He'd bring teammates over to the house and I liked them, too. So I decided why shouldn't I put an arm around their shoulders if I felt like it? I started doing what I wanted to do."

By some NFL standards, Phillips is far too easy, far too broad-minded in dealing with his players. He runs a relatively mild training camp and practices are hardly of the Marine variety. Yet he preaches discipline and repetition, just like any other coach.

"He just gets things done different," said quarterback Dan Pastorini, the Houston playboy. Pastorini, reared in California and a lover of bright lights, seems an unlikely Phillips worshiper. But he leads the praise for his coach.

"We may yell at each other but he's the finest man I've ever worked with," Pastorini said. "He's honest. There's no bull about him. We know if we do what he wants, he'll be fair with us. What else can a player ask?"

At times, Phillips seems too good to be true. If he has an avowed enemy, no one can identify him. Even rival players say they admire him. But how can you dislike someone who will talk over a game plan with his quarterback while drinking beer in a bar?

"Coach Bryant once told me that if your lights are on in the office after seven, you aren't getting the job done," Phillips said. "That's not always true, but we've tried to eliminate a whole lot of the busy work. You need to be with your family some. You donht have to work 14 hours a day to prove you're a hard worker.

"Hell, when you get down to it, Im no different than any other coach.

"I believe in repeating things and repeating things in practice until they become instinct. An athlete is like a boxer. He doesn't develop new punches and strategy all the time. He relies on what got him there.

"You analyze your team's strenghts and weaknesses and you play up one and disguise the other. You coach with what you got; you don't force them to do what they can't. If I haven't got a long passer, I don't go deep. It's that simple.

"I believe in rules, but if the player is good enough, you bend them a little if you have to, until you can get someone better."

Phillips won with the Oilers before he had Campbell and he has won since the splendid runner joined the team last season. He has won within an organization not known for its benevolence and with a practice facility whose most remarkable featgure is a 50-foot oil derrick at one end.

But he expects to get fired one day ("I've been fired before") and he just hopes owner Bud Adams speaks honestly when he lets him go.

"I want them to say the you're fired because you didn't win. Nothing else. They never say that, but if you're a pro coach, that's the only thing that counts."

Until that day arrives, Phillips will continue to enjoy his job immensely. He says he even looks forward to visiting Pittsburgh this weekend.

"When the hay is in the barn and all you can do is watch from the sidelines, it's great," he said. "I even like to see Lynn Swann catch the ball -- as long as he doesn't make a hab it of it against us."