Former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips dies at age 90

Bob Slovak takes a look back at the life and legacy of the Houston coaching icon
October 21, 2013 2:40:13 PM PDT
Bum Phillips will be buried in a private ceremony on his ranch in Goliad, but two ceremonies are being planned to honor the Houston coaching legend. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday at 1:30pm at Goliad High School. A second memorial will be held at Lakewood Church on October 29. The Houston service will begin at 7:30pm and feature former Oilers and coaches from the "Luv Ya Blue" era.

Phillips, who guided the Houston Oilers to back to back AFC title games in the late 70s, died Friday. He was 90.

In a tweet, his son, Wade Phillips wrote, "Bum is gone to Heaven-loved and will be missed by all -great Dad,Coach, and Christian."

Phillips was a legend in Houston, having coached the Oilers from 1975 through 1980, guiding the team to the AFC Championship game in 1978 and 1979. Both years, Houston fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Phillips compiled a 55-35 record as coach of the Oilers before moving on to coach the New Orleans Saints.

Born Oail Andrew Phillips, he got his famous nickname from his older sister, who couldn't say 'brother,' instead calling him 'bum,' a nickname that stuck.

Phillips loved the Oilers and when coaching the team in the 1970s, he famously said of the Cowboys: "They may be 'America's Team,' but we're Texas' team."

Phillips was responsible for drafting Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, the player who was largely credited with the success of the franchise.

It was a time marked by a frenzied fan base that filled the Astrodome to root for the Oilers and wave their blue and white pompons during games.

Houston lost to Pittsburgh 34-5 in the AFC Championship game in Campbell's rookie year. The Oilers returned to the game the following season only to be beaten again by the Steelers, this time 27-13.

The Oilers went 11-5 in 1980 but lost to Oakland in the AFC wild-card round and Phillips was fired.

Fans loved his no-nonsense demeanor and were entertained by his often blunt comments, dubbed "Bumisms."

"Football is a game of failure," Phillips was quoted as saying. "You fail all the time, but you aren't a failure until you start blaming someone else."

He left Texas to coach the Saints in 1981 and didn't have a winning record in his time there and retired in 1985.

"We are saddened by the passing of Bum Phillips," Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement released by the team. "I had the opportunity to work with him when I first purchased the team in 1985 and also enjoyed our friendship following his coaching career. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Debbie, Wade and the rest of his family."

Phillips played football at Lamar Junior College before joining the Marines during World War II. After the war he went to Stephen F. Austin where he played two more football seasons before graduating with a degree in education in 1949.

He spent about two decades coaching in high schools and colleges mostly in Texas. He assisted the likes of Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, Bill Yeoman at Houston, and Hayden Fry at SMU before making the jump to the AFL in 1967 as an assistant under Sid Gillman with the San Diego Chargers. Phillips came to Houston in 1974 as Gillman's defensive coordinator and became coach and general manager when Gillman resigned after that season.

Phillips did some work as an analyst on television and radio football broadcasts for a bit before retiring to his ranch in Goliad. He experienced some health problems in recent years and underwent a triple bypass in 2005.

Although he left Houston, he always remained fond of the city. The Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Titans in 1997.

Titans owner K.S. "Bud" Adams Jr. and the Titans organization also responded to Phillips' passing on their Twitter account, stating, in part: "He meant a great deal to this franchise, the NFL and the city of Houston, and he was instrumental to the Oilers during the 'Luv Ya Blue' era. Growing up in Texas and working his way up through the Texas football ranks, he was a natural match for our team. Those were such magical years, and his leadership and personality helped our team rise to the top. He became an iconic figure on our sideline."

Houston returned to the NFL in 2002 when the Texans began play.

Phillips was asked how he feels about the two teams in Texas in 2007 when son Wade was named coach of the Cowboys.

"Your son is coaching one team and the other team is the town you love more than any other," he said. "It's kind of hard to pull. They're not on the schedule, so I don't have to make that decision this year."

Phillips is survived by his second wife, Debbie, and six children from his first marriage along with almost two dozen grandchildren.

In a post on Phillips' Facebook page, Debbie wrote: "Beloved, Bum has been ill a long, long time. We were praying for God to take him home and perform the greatest healing of all. He answered our prayers last night and took Bum to the greenest pastures where he is riding a handsome grey horse and laughing joyfully with all of his loved ones who have gone on before him. Bum would want you to know that he loved you and always told everyone that anyone you love never dies because you have them in your heart always. May God bless you all."

Phillips owned a ranch in Goliad, southwest of Victoria. That's where he passed away, surrounded by his family and closest friends. One of those friends was Mike Barber, a former Houston Oilers tight end who remained close with the coach since his football-playing days.

"Wherever Coach went, Bum made everybody feel special, and that was just a gift that he had. And that's why he was so loved in Houston, Texas," Barner said. "And not only that, there were a lot of players that would rather play for him than against him. They just loved him, and that was Bum Phillips."

All of his former players we have interviewed would agree. No team loved their coach more than they did, and it was because he had a way of making everyone feel special.

"I always say nothing is ever lost if you know where it is," Barber said.

Barber said Phillips rescued him from his troubled and abusive teen years and refocused him on the game.

"I owe him the world," he said. "That's why I've been here by his bedside the last couple of weeks, representing all of us kids -- the players."

Players like four-year defensive back Willie Alexander, who remembers Phillips as a master motivator.

"He treated me as if I was a great player, and that's the way he treated everybody on our team," Alexander said.

And he certainly did the same for the fans.

"Bum Phillips was dear to every Houstonian," Houstonian Milt McLeod said. "We loved the good years and we always Bum for the bad ones. He was our guy."

Barber told us the Phillips family is doing well, but they're asking for privacy as they mourn their loss.

Rather than sending flowers, the Phillips family is asking fans to send donations to Bum Phillips Charities so they can finish the home for deaf children that he wanted to build before he died.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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