It's been a rough three months. First Elmore Leonard, then Dean Meminger, now Bum Phillips. He passes away Friday at his ranch in Goliad, Texas. He was 90. Bum Philips was an original. Not a contrived original for marketing purposes like you see nowadays, but pure spirit who knew little else but how to be himself. And what he was, was nothing short of an enduring work of art on the canvas of sports culture. Below is my 2003 conversation with him, which I included in my book; a book for which Bum generously provided a cover quote. I will miss him.
Born Oail Andrew but known far and wide as "Bum," the one-of a kind, charismatic former NFL Head Coach says Bear Bryant only pretended to be tough, places the Bush father-son team high up on his personal depth chart and insists he never choreographed Billy "White Shoes" Johnson.
Bill Parcells is 63, Joe Gibbs 64 and Dick Vermeil 69. The NFL trend is for older coaches. Now at 80, you might have an edge.
(chuckles) I'd like to think so, but that's not right. But you know, some people like to coach past 60. I didn't. When I got 62, wanted to do somethin' else. But these guys are all good coaches. Man, I don't care if they've laid off a while or not. Bill Parcells is a great coach. Joe Gibbs is a great coach. Shula coached for a long time and he never did stop being a great. He just ran out of material.
The NFL is definitely a coach's game now. With salary cap restrictions star players move every year. So, talent-wise the teams stay pretty even. Now, each new season, NFL coaches are in position to actually do what you once theorized Don Shula could do " take his'n and beat your'n, and then take your'n and beat his'n."
Has this parity made head coaches the new superstars of the NFL?
With parity, the ones that really get hurt are your fans. They get used to seein' a football team take the field, they buy the jersey of their favorite player and next year that player may not be on the team. He may be playin' against 'em. The only thing I don't like about the new system of free agency is that you can never tell who who's gonna be playin' for ya or against ya. The fans suffer.
You knew how to put a team together. In 1978 you took the Houston Oilers to their first AFC Championship with 21 free agents and you went back there again in 1979. Both times you just couldn't get past the Pittsburgh Steelers.
We could beat 'em one out of two but we couldn't beat 'em two out of three. They were the better football team.
The Steelers were what one would call an NFL "dynasty." With new NFL free agency, dynasties are a thing of the past. Were dynasties good for the NFL?
A dynasty is a good thing if you're the one that's got it. But if you don't have it you're in trouble. I think the way they've got parity is good. I just don't like the way they're going about it with free agency. Go about it some other way -- give a team a few extra draft choices or something like that. But, it doesn't make a difference what I think anyhow.
I wouldn't say that.
Washington Redskins linebacker Neil Olkiweicz did said this of your Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell: "Every time you try to tackle him it knocks few points off your IQ."
(chuckle) Everybody always says that but, you know, Earl was also very adept at getting by people. He only ran into people when he was forced to. You go back and look at his film. Before those four or five are hanging on him to get him down he'd dodged four five already.
He had moves.
He had great moves! And he used 'em.
Earl was tough in a stoic way. I liked the way he got up slow --
-- He went down slow too.
He was so cool after he scored a touchdown: He just handed it to the referee. No big deal.
Like he'd been there before. I tell you the other thing he's done since he played football: He has really organized his life. He's got a business that he runs. He goes to the office every single day. Makes every decision for that company. It ain't one of those you take my name and give me part of the check. He runs it, buddy. And he does a great job with it.
Elvin Bethea, another Hall of Famer who played defensive tackle for you, said of today's NFL, "The game is like pro wrestling. I guess that' why I don't watch it. All show, so little substance."
Well, ya know, I don't think you're supposed to get up and celebrate after you make a sack. That's what they're payin' you to do. Same thing with a touchdown. If you score touchdown, you didn't score that touchdown. You just carried the ball across the goal line. Somebody had to pass protect to get you the ball and a quarterback had to throw it. Or if it's a running play, somebody had to block that hole or you couldn't go through it. I don't believe scoring deserves a celebration. That's a team thing. It doesn't belong to an individual. Even with a kick-off returner you say "Well, he does it all on his own." Bull! You go back and look. He had some good blocks along the way. He may have made some great moves, like Billy Johnson would make, but try to take those other ten off the field then see how many he'll return for a touchdown.
I guess you weren't choreographing the first end zone dance made famous by Billy "White Shoes" Johnson?
No, (laughing) that was the first time I'd ever seen it when Billy did it. And he did it as just a spur of the moment thing. But it kinda let on to a whole lot of other stuff that carries it maybe a little too far. I like a guy to have energy and celebrate when the team does something good. But all those choreographed things when they get in the end zone and all hold hands -- that's planned. That's not emotion. It's just show off.
You coached under Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, but I hear you didn't have a high opinion of the ESPN movie, The Junction Boys.
No, I didn't because it was completely out of character. Paul Bryant was really a softy. He wasn't a tough guy. He talked tough but he didn't do tough. He wanted everybody to think that he was really tough, but he was really softhearted. He'd give them kids anything, do anything for 'em, help 'em anyway he could. Now, he did expect you to work hard, sure. But he wouldn't kick a guy when he's on the ground on the practice field and all that junk.
Bear Bryant never called you Bum.
No he called me Bun.
BP: Yeah, he would just say "Bun."
I really enjoyed working for him. What little I learned from others, Paul Bryant was the one that taught me how judge people and how to get people to do things. He was a great motivator. He would tell you in staff meeting, "I don't care if you get your plays off a Wheaties box. It's the way you run 'em that counts." He didn't believe that you outsmarted people. He believed that you outworked them, outplayed them and out hustled them.
Well, you must've taken a lot with you because the first year Sid Gillman gave you the head coaching-GM reins 1975, you went 10-4 transforming the Houston Oilers in from a perennial last place team to consistent Super Bowl contenders.
Well now, I had some good help -- some good assistant coaches.
Then you went to New Orleans (1981-85), another perennial last place team, but it was a little different. Is New Orleans a cursed football city?
It's a great place to live. It's great bunch of people over there. Unfortunately there's more things that guys get in trouble over. That's the way it's always been. It's been hard for anybody to win there.
Ken Stabler, a great clutch quarterback, joined you in New Orleans in New Orleans in 1982-84 after he'd been with you in 1980 for a playoff season in Houston. You and "The Snake" must've had a pretty good relationship.
I enjoyed coaching Kenny. He was the kind of guy that would go out there and give you what he had. He knew his own limitations and he didn't try to snow anybody. He just went out there and ran the same patterns he knew he could throw.
You knew how to get the best of your players. But you also chose players with a lot of character. I remember Dan Pastorini playing the 1978 AFC Championship game with broken ribs and wearing a flack jacket. There's lot of emphasis in today's NFL on a quarterback's athletic ability. When choosing a quarterback, how did you weigh athletic ability against guts and leadership?
That's a tough question. I think the guts and leadership gotta come first. Obviously you got to have some ability too -- you're not gonna get that high up unless you got ability. But I don't care how much ability you got if you don't have any leadership about you or character about you, you can't lead the team. That's what the quarterback's gotta do, number one, is go in that huddle and lead that football team -- make that football team have enough belief in him to know that whatever he says, that's what they're gonna do.
Does a quarterback need a certain type of mind?
Anybody that graduated from high school or college can run a quarterback position. If they've got it inside them to be good leader they'll find out enough about it to call the plays. Today they get a lot signals from sidelines for plays. In the old days you told 'em generally what to do and they went out there and called the game. It's not that way anymore. Although it was with Dan (Pastorini.) Dan would go to the huddle 85 percent percent of time, change the play and didn't check with me. He'd go to the line of scrimmage and call the plays. And he was really good at it. That's what people don't know: He was one of the few guys who could go to the line of scrimmage, look at the line of scrimmage and call the play that fit the situation. A coach can't do that from the sideline. You can call a play from the sideline, send it in the huddle, the quarterback calls it, they go to the line of scrimmage and if ya get up there and that plays no good then you go to an audible. But then you go to an audible there's chance of somebody missing it. When Dan would go to the huddle he'd go around and say "Check with me at the line." Well, everybody went up there listening. And Dan had the experience to make the right call. Do you know what he's doing now?
He's racing race cars -- Porsche club. He's been doing it for a while, first with drag racing and now he's into this. With different race cars it's like a woman: You gotta know something about 'em before you mess with 'em.
When recently asked what you're doing in retirement, you replied, "Nothin'. And I don't start doing that until noon." --
-- That ain't quite right but it's a good answer.
No it's not true. You're out on the ranch in Goliad, Texas, raising and showing cutting horses with your wife Debbie
That's exactly what we do. They now have a sport for cutting. Cutting is a way to teach 'em to separate cattle from the herd. In competition you got to keep your cow out while there's two guys trying to put 'em back. And you can't guide your horse -- you can't rein him. He's gotta be trained good enough. Once you get your cow separated, you drop your hand to his (the horse) neck and hold on to the saddle horn with another one. And you don't touch him. If you touch him it cost you five points. If you lose a cow it costs you five. If you brain him it costs you three. And you can't win if you do that. It's all strictly on the horse. They gotta be trained so well that they don't need you to be guiding 'em.
Do you still have time to get up to Beeville for a chicken-fried steak at Shorty's?
(chuckles). Oh yeah. We do it quite regular. It's not but nineteen miles from here. It's twelve miles to Goliad, nineteen to Beeville, ninety to San Antone and seventy to Corpus. We have to go little ways to get anywhere.
George Herbert Walker and George W. Bush might be the most famous Texas father and son team, but I bet there are many parts in the state, including Beeville, where the father son team of Bum and Wade Phillips hold a lot more clout.
(Laughs) Hey, no. (laughing). The Bush team is way, way ahead. And, we ain't gonna catch up. But I don't want to catch up. You know, they're important to my life. I ain't important to theirs but they're damn sure important to mine. And, I do know the father real well. The young one, he came along, but I just didn't get a chance to be around him. But I've been around the father and he is, believe me, he's like Coach Brown was. He's and individual that's different. They're ain't many people like them two.