When one thinks of legendary Houston Oilers’ head coaches, chances are Bum Phillips comes to mind first.
Phillips, who wore his trademark cowboy hat and boots on the sidelines, was a players’ coach who helped turn the Oilers’ fortunes around in the middle to late 1970s.
With Phillips at the helm, the Oilers won 58 of 93 games and made three consecutive postseason appearances. He eventually passed down his coaching genius to his son and fellow defensive mastermind, Wade.
Bum Phillips was never one to yell or criticize his players. Instead, he treated them like grown men. In turn, they played hard for him on every down on the gridiron.
There’s no question Phillips set the bar high for his predecessors in the NFL coaching ranks.
That was Bum Phillips in a nutshell.
Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips, Jr. was born in Orange, TX on September 29, 1923.
Bum Phillips’s son Wade, one of the greatest defensive minds in pro football history, traced the origin of his father’s nickname in his 2020 book, Son of Bum.
According to Wade Phillips, nobody could pronounce his dad’s real name “Oail” (pronounced “Uhl”) properly.
Bum’s version involved his three-year-old sister Edrina. She couldn’t say “brother” correctly. Instead, she uttered “Bum” while stammering.
However, according to Wade, the real origin of the nickname came from Bum’s mother. She claimed Bum stumbled upon a nest of bumblebees when he was a kid growing up in Orange, TX.
From that point onward, his parents (who pronounced “bumblebees” as “bummel bees”) tried to scare him by saying “bummel.” However, one of his relatives couldn’t pronounce the word. She could only utter “Bum.”
Before long, Bum Phillips would become a household name in Houston, TX, and its surrounding areas.
Oail “Flop” Phillips, Sr. worked as a rancher to support his family. He passed on his cowboy genes to his son, Bum, who always wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots He also loved riding horses and chewing tobacco.
Bum Phillips was such a genuine cowboy that Wade’s mom claimed the only time she saw her husband wear dress shoes was on the day they got married.
Flop Phillips was against the idea of his son playing football. He wanted Bum to come home right away after school so he could finish his chores. He also didn’t want his son to break his leg while playing football.
Ding ding ding! Time's up! I can't believe I was able to stump y'all for an hour. The mystery Texan is Bum Phillips and he's 5th from the left. TOT reader Monte Osburn shared this photo, taken in Orange, Texas in about 1933 when Bum was 10 years old. pic.twitter.com/n5yobA5Dqs
— Traces of Texas (@TracesofTexas) July 23, 2021
Bum went against his father’s wishes and played football, anyway. Flop Phillips whipped him when he got home late from practice. The trend continued for a week before Flop finally relented to Bum’s wish. His only condition was he finished his chores after football practice.
Bum spent his formative years near his grandfather Flip’s ranch. Whenever he went to town, he rode a horse-drawn wagon with his mother, per the Victoria Advocate‘s Gabe Semenza.
Although Phillips’s mother pored over Biblical scripture every night, his family never talked about the book.
Bum Phillips was a committed Christian. When he was 18 years old during World War II, he knew God was directing his steps in the winter of 1941.
“I found God plants people and events in your life that draw you to Him, even if you aren’t ready at the time to comprehend the signs,” Phillips wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian (via the Victoria Advocate).
A key turning point in Phillips’s life occurred on December 7, 1941. On that day, the Imperial Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Phillips couldn’t believe the trail of destruction the Japanese left behind. He felt incensed at the sight of 2,400 Americans losing their lives on that day of infamy.
Bum Phillips wanted to serve his country and enlist in the armed forces. However, his mother disapproved of his ambition.
Joining the Marines
Phillips remained undaunted and undeterred. He drove to San Antonio, TX, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps one day after he turned 19 years old in the fall of 1942.
Prior to enlisting with the Marines, Phillips was in his freshman year at Lamar University. He put his studies on hold and went to war. Phillips left his home state of Texas and traveled west to Camp Pendleton in California, the biggest Marine Corps base in the nation, for a six-week boot camp.
As soon as Phillips set foot on Camp Pendleton, he began taking orders from hostile drill sergeants. During his time in boot camp, Phillips learned the best way to persuade someone to do a particular task is by explaining why it had to be done. It was a valuable lesson he applied in his legendary four-decade coaching career.
Once the six-week boot camp wrapped up, the Marines required their cadets to choose their field of specialization. Bum Phillips initially wanted to become a paratrooper. However, he promptly changed his mind when he saw the long lines.
Today in TX sports history: September 29, 1941-TSHOF inductee Bum Phillips was born! Happy Birthday Bum! The native of Orange, Texas coached a total of 13 years at the HS level, 6 years in college, and 17 years in the NFL 11 years as head coach and general manager #TexasFootball pic.twitter.com/s2X1ve4GPm
— Texas Sports Hall of Fame (@TXSportsHOF) September 29, 2020
Phillips headed over to the queue for the U.S. Marine Raiders. Since they required cadets to stand at least six feet tall, the line was much shorter.
Bum Phillips had a dilemma. He was an inch short of the Raiders’ height requirement. For some reason, he eventually made the cut and became a U.S. Marine Raider.
Back to School
Phillips then returned to Lamar University to finish the last year of his degree after the war. He then attended Stephen F. Austin State University where he lettered in football in 1948 and earned his bachelor’s degree in education in 1949.
During that time, Bum got a job at the Edgar Brown Ranch in Orange, TX. One day, he brought one of the Brown family’s champion horses to a match race in Louisiana.
Bum and his friend painted the horse’s white marking on his forehead with brown shoe polish so people wouldn’t recognize the thoroughbred. As expected, the horse emerged as the champion.
However, his brown polish cover-up began to wear off as soon as he crossed the finish line. Bum and his buddy collected their winnings and left as fast as they could.
Bum’s share was approximately $150—an amount that covered the birth of his son Wade in 1947, per Wade’s 2020 book, Son of Bum.
When Phillips returned to the U.S. mainland, he loved competing in rodeos and drinking beer during his downtime. He also received a second lease on life when he nearly drowned during a fishing expedition in the Gulf of Mexico, per the Victoria Advocate.
After surviving that ordeal, Phillips soon became one of the biggest names in the high school, college, and pro football coaching ranks.
Football Coaching Career
Bum Phillips first broke into the football coaching ranks in 1951 when he became the head football coach of the Nederland High School Bulldogs in Texas. Phillips was 28 years old when he accepted the job.
Phillips coached the Bulldogs for the next six seasons. During that time frame when Bum helped the Bulldogs go on a 50-game unbeaten streak, the Odessa Broncos wanted to interview him for their head football coaching job, but he refused
Phillips turned it down because he felt the Broncos’ large staff was more than he could handle. He thought he wasn’t ready for the opportunity, per Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick.
A more significant door eventually opened for Bum Phillips. One day in 1956, he drove to College Station, TX for lunch and watched the Texas A&M Aggies beat the Southern Methodist University Mustangs.
Before long, Bum Phillips became one of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Aggies’ staff. Phillips helped Texas A&M win eight of eleven games in Bryant’s final season in College Station, TX.
Unfortunately, the 18th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers upset the fourth-ranked Aggies in a low-scoring affair in the 1957 Gator Bowl, 3-0.
As disappointing as that loss was, it paled in comparison to the 7-6 loss to the Rice Owls on November 16, 1957.
Bum wanted to run a fake-punt play called the “Bumerooski.” Bryant, who was never much of a trick-play tactician, gave Phillips permission to run it.
Regrettably, Rice’s Buddy Dial forced Aggies’ halfback, Loyd Taylor, out of bounds after Texas A&M’s Bobby Marks missed a key block. The botched play preserved Rice’s stunning victory. An incensed Bum Phillips could only watch helplessly from the sidelines.
When the Alabama Crimson Tide made Bear Bryant their head football coach in 1958, he wanted Phillips to join him on his staff. According to Kirkpatrick, Phillips politely declined Bryant’s offer because he preferred to remain in his home state of Texas.
True to his word, Phillips returned to the Texas high school football coaching ranks. He coached the Jacksonville Fightin’ Indians in 1958 and the Amarillo Sandies from 1959 to 1961.
Bum Phillips returned to the college coaching scene in 1962. Unfortunately, the Texas Western Miners (now known as the UTEP Miners) struggled in his lone year at the helm with a sub-par 4-5 win-loss record. The Miners extended their postseason bowl drought to six years.
When Phillips stepped down following the 1962 NCAA season, his players cried, per Sports Illustrated.
I'm lucky to know this guy. My Granddad coached Wade at Port Neches Groves(PNG) high school, under a man named Bum Phillips.I was privileged to coach along his grandson Wes Phillips at Baylor. #PhillpsFamKnowFb#GreatCoach pic.twitter.com/M0zFXSbNWU
— John Jennings (@CoachJJennings1) August 5, 2019
Going Home Again
According to Wade Phillips’s 2020 book, Bum received a pay raise when he became the head football coach of the Port Neches-Groves Indians in 1962. He brought three of his assistants and a trainer from Texas Western. They also received higher salaries from the Indians.
Since Port Neches was just a stone’s throw away from Bum’s birthplace of Orange, TX, he got to spend more time with his family. The 40-year-old Phillips told them this was his last coaching job. He planned to become an athletic director afterward.
Prior to accepting the Indians’ head coaching job, Phillips had uprooted his family five times in a span of six seasons, per Kirkpatrick.
However, fate had other plans for Bum Phillips.
As soon as he finished his two-year coaching tenure at Port Neches, the Houston Cougars offered him their defensive coordinator position in 1965. The job reinvigorated his passion for the football coaching ranks. He even told Wade he would attend the University of Houston
Bum eventually coached his son in the 1966 NCAA season. Wade became the Cougars’ starting sophomore linebacker that year.
The younger Phillips wrote in his book some fifty-four years later that his dad reminded the Cougars’ defensive players to improve certain aspects of their game in practice. Wade knew all along the message was for him and not the team.
Wade, whose football coaching career has spanned five decades, credited his dad with expanding his knowledge of the gridiron. Bum allowed him to sit in on meetings with Houston’s defensive coaches in the mid-1960s. Bum told Wade in no uncertain terms none of the confidential information they discussed should leak out of the room.
Phillips broke into the pro football coaching ranks with the AFL’s San Diego Chargers in 1967. Chargers head coach Sid Gillman was on the lookout for a top-notch college coach prior to that season.
Gillman promptly reached out to the Texas Longhorns’ Darrell Royal and the Arkansas Razorbacks’ Frank Broyles. Both Royal and Broyles recommended Bum Phillips to Gillman, per Wade Phillips’s book, Son of Bum.
Apparently, Phillips’s visits to Texas and Arkansas’s spring training camps as a Texas high school football coach help him secure a job in the American Football League.
When Phillips became Gillman’s assistant in 1967, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Long hair was the trend among young men in the late 1960s. It wasn’t uncommon for some of the Chargers’ players’ hair to flow out of their helmets back then.
Many years later, Wade Phillips asked his dad, an ex-Marine who always sported a crew cut, what he thought about the trend.
“I don’t worry about all that,” Bum Phillips said in his son’s book, Son of Bum. “They’re the same person whether their hair is long or not.”
Bum also gave Wade an example of four men staying in a fox hole. If one of them had to serve as their lookout while the other three slept, it didn’t matter what his skin color was. He had to perform his role, regardless.
Future Houston Oilers coaching legend Bum Phillips when he was a coach on the staff of the San Diego Chargers, 1967. Bum's first name was Oail. I am not sure I even know how to pronounce it. Bum was a Texan, of course, having been born in Orange, Texas in 1923. pic.twitter.com/Xn3Syr4j4M
— Traces of Texas (@TracesofTexas) May 27, 2021
It was a lesson that resonated deeply with Wade Phillips, who became a successful NFL head coach himself.
Bum Phillips served as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator for five seasons from 1967 to 1971. San Diego averaged seven wins per year and never made the postseason during that five-year time frame.
Return to Texas
After the Chargers fired Gillman, Phillips became the SMU Mustangs’ defensive coordinator under head football coach Hayden Fry in the 1972 NCAA season.
Although the Mustangs had a top-rated defense and a respectable 7-4 win-loss record, they still missed a postseason bowl game for the fourth straight year. Consequently, the school fired Phillips and the other coaches at the season’s end.
Phillips then spent one year with the Oklahoma State Cowboys as their defensive coordinator in the 1973 NCAA season. The Cowboys went 5-4-2 in Bum’s lone year in Stillwater, OK. Sadly, Oklahoma State extended its postseason bowl drought to fifteen years.
Working with an Old Friend
Sid Gillman entered his second year as the NFL’s Houston Oilers head coach in 1974. He also served as the Oilers’ general manager.
Gillman, who was Bum’s boss with the San Diego Chargers for five seasons from 1967 to 1971, made him his defensive coordinator with the Oilers in 1974. The Oilers won seven games that year and missed the postseason for the fifth straight time.
When Gillman drew up a contract for Phillips to become the Oilers’ head coach in 1975, he wrote a clause that gave Phillips powers on policy-making and personnel issues subject to the approval of the general manager.
Phillips was wise to Gillman’s tactic. He saw him do this to San Diego Chargers’ head coach Charlie Waller in 1970. After previously stepping down as Chargers head coach due to poor health, Gillman reclaimed the position from Waller that year. He demoted Waller to offensive coach in December 1970.
Bum Phillips didn’t sign Gillman’s contract. When the latter went out of town, Phillips reached out to Oilers owner, Bud Adams. He told Adams that he would only coach the Oilers if he deleted Gillman’s clause. Furthermore, he implored the team’s owner to ban Gillman from the locker room and team practices, per Sports Illustrated.
Moving Up the Ranks
Gillman left the Oilers organization less than a month later. Before long, Bum Phillips became both the Oilers’ head coach and general manager.
Bum Phillips #Oilers pic.twitter.com/wfRf8Y262E
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 2, 2022
Although Bum Phillips cut an imposing figure on the NFL sidelines, he had a great sense of humor. In his son’s 2020 book, the younger Phillips recalled his dad always came up with spontaneous one-liners that made his players crack up.
Although Phillips had a humorous side, he wasn’t very patient in some aspects of life. It was a throwback to his days as a 19-year-old Marine cadet who couldn’t wait in line to become a paratrooper.
In Phillips’s 2010 autobiography, he wrote that he added a 90-gallon gasoline tank to his truck and kept 500 gallons of diesel close to his horse stables when he coached the Houston Oilers. Those contingency plans ensured he didn’t have to wait in line at gas stations.
Bum Phillips couldn’t also stand waiting in line at a barber shop or a restaurant. If another customer beat him to the barber’s chair, he’d look for another barbershop.
“Therefore, I get real hungry and my hair gets long sometimes,” Phillips wrote in his 2010 book.
Phillips continued acting like the cowboy he was on and off the gridiron when he coached the Oilers. He and some of his players sat at the back of the plane, drank beer, dipped tobacco, and played “Name That Tune.”
“He was like the people I grew up around. He was like those farmers back home,” former Houston Oilers center Carl Mauck told the Victoria Advocate in 2009.
An Open Door Policy
According to Wade Phillips, his father had no issues becoming friends with his players. Unlike some head coaches who kept a certain distance from their players, Bum Phillips wasn’t afraid to mingle with his.
“Dad was approachable to all his players, and I think that’s a big reason why they played hard for him,” Wade Phillips wrote in his 2020 book, Son of Bum.
Bum never expected all of his players to sing his praises. As long as he respected them equally, even some of his most hard-nosed players learned how to reciprocate.
Phillips kept it loose during team practices, which were neither long nor arduous. In fact, he allowed the Oilers to consume banana pudding, play volleyball, and wear amusing hats to practice.
According to Kirkpatrick, the Oilers even had beer kegs on the practice field every Thursday with Bum Phillips as their head coach. He also allowed his players to bring their families and pets on Saturdays. He even had his friend, country singer, Willie Nelson, perform during practice while wearing an Oilers t-shirt once.
Bum Phillips also never imposed a curfew. He also imposed few rules and rarely fined his players. Phillips, who never criticized his players in front of others, had to delay a team flight for an hour-and-a-half in his final season as Oilers head coach in 1979 because one of his players got stuck in notorious Houston traffic.
Cutting Ties with Houston
During Bum Phillips’s six-year tenure as Houston Oilers head coach from 1975 to 1980, he had always believed coaching was all about making his players better. If the head coach rants after his players mess up on the gridiron, he’s bitching and not coaching. That wasn’t Bum Phillips’s approach to coaching his players.
“Bum would rather release a player than yell at him,” Oilers defensive coordinator Ed Biles told Sports Illustrated in the fall of 1980.
The Houston Oilers had a combined 22-58-2 record from 1969 to 1974. When Bum Phillips took over in 1975, he guided Houston to a respectable 58-35 win-loss record from 1975 to 1980.
The Oilers made the postseason three times during that six-year stretch. They made back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1978 and 1979. Houston lost both games by a combined 43 points.
The 27-13 loss to the Steelers in 1979 hurt more—much more. In fact. Bum Phillips cried like a baby in the locker room after the game. It was the most emotionally distraught he had ever been in front of his players.
After the Oilers’ third consecutive postseason defeat in 1980, Oilers owner Bud Adams fired Bum Phillips on New Year’s Day, 1981.
Phillips was expecting to receive a contract extension from the Houston franchise. Adams gave him a pink slip instead.
“The last time I talked to Bud Adams about this was concerning extending contract,” Phillips told The Washington Post’s Mark Asher. “Then they fire me.”
The Big Easy
New Orleans Saints owner John Mecom, Jr. hired Phillips as his head coach and general manager several weeks later.
In five seasons as the Saints’ head coach from 1981 to 1985, Phillips went 27-42. Since New Orleans’ inaugural NFL season in 1967, the team had never made the postseason.
Bum Phillips resigned as Saints head coach in Week 12 of the 1985 NFL season. His son, Wade, became New Orleans’ interim head coach for its final four games.
Post-Coaching Life and Death
After Bum Phillips resigned as head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1985, he became a football television and radio color analyst.
Phillips lived on his horse ranch in Goliad, TX after he left the sports media industry.
Phillips’s son Wade recalled his father’s health had taken a turn for the worse in the fall of 2013. Wade recalled his dad had dealt with asthma and lung issues for quite some time, per his book, Son of Bum.
Bum Phillips summoned Wade, his wife Laurie, and his two daughters as he lay dying in his home in hospice care. He told them he had lived a full life just as he had reached his ninth decade of existence.
“I have a great family,” Bum Phillips told his loved ones. “I’m not giving up, but I know I’m in bad health.”
Wade, who remembered his dad looking peaceful when he uttered those words, cried along with his other family members.
The game between the Port Neches-Groves Indians and the Nederland Bulldogs, the two high school teams Phillips coached, is now known as the Bum Phillips Bowl.
Wade Phillips was listening to a game between the Indians and Bulldogs on the Internet when his stepmom Debbie called him on October 18, 2013. She told him his dad had passed away. He was 90 years old.
Bum Phillips is survived by his second spouse, Debbie. He had six children with his first wife, Helen. He has an estimated two dozen grandkids, per ESPN.
Phillips is a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Titans Ring of Honor.
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