The man everyone called “Bum” was the head coach of the NFL Houston Oilers, when I stepped off a Trailways Bus in the Houston suburb of Conroe, in June, 1976, and my first real contact with pro sports as I began my new career. He was, aside from Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, the most unique character in that role of the many I would encounter in more than 30 years of reporting on sports in Texas.
For me, it would be one of my initial contacts with a major Houston sports franchise during a time when none of that city’s teams were worth much of anything; the Astros were mediocre wearing orange softball-like uniforms, the Rockets had yet to trade for Moses Malone (two months after that 1976 Oilers camp) and the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association were all about the (Gordie) Howe family and that was about it.
After all, Texas was a football-crazed state, dominated by high schools on Friday night (crowds in excess of 15,000 were considered the norm), the University of Texas and Texas A&M on Saturdays and the Cowboys on Sundays. Houston was a rapidly-growing city in the middle of what Newsweek labeled “The Super State” but without a reciprocal standing in pro sports.
In 1976, the Oilers were still trying to find an identity, other than less-than-successful and also-ran. That season’s training camp was just up the road (30 miles away) at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
To say it was fairly informal would be a classic understatement. With a handful of reporters (print, radio, TV) attending, it was not unusual to hold an impromptu press conference under a shady tree (when it was more than 100 degrees and ridiculously high humidity during practices), as the coach held a cold can of Lone Star beer in one hand and a giant Stetson in the other.
When I attended that Oilers camp, the big news was the consternation among the hierarchy and coaching staff about cutting a fourth-string wide receiver out of Tulsa named … Steve Largent, who would only have a subsequent Hall of Fame career with the Seattle Seahawks.
Bum liked Largent as a player, but the team was built around the big play quarterbacking of Dan Pastorini and wide receivers like Kenny “00” Burrough. Like a good former American Football League team, the big play was more than a single play; it was a team’s identity.
Even in Houston in the mid-1970s, the Oilers played second banana to the Cowboys some 225 miles to the north. When the teams would meet in the fictional Texas Super Bowl in 1976 (played in the Astrodome), more than half the crowd cheered openly for Dallas, infuriating many Oiler starters like center Carl Mauck, whose R-rated statements on the subject could never be aired except on pay cable stations that didn’t yet exist.
Many things were different back then, notably how the press covered sports. First, it was called the “press” – not the media. A small daily sports editor, such as myself (for the Montgomery County Daily Courier), was granted equal access to any press box and locker room as the beat reporters for the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post (when every major city in America had at least two daily newspapers in firm competition).
There were only three major television stations in town and no one was watching cable television. Sports were confined to AM radio but only at night; the concept of 24/7 talk radio was simply … unthinkable.
So in-town press conferences were usually held at local restaurants (not practice facilities) to entice the press to attend, players openly fraternized with reporters and coaches blended into the community’s identity than today (where all too often they are just managers reporting to a major corporate entity).
When Phillips arrived in 1975, he began to alter the attitude in the locker room and on the field, through shrewd trading, decent draft choices and proving to the fan base that he could turn the team into a competitive unit.
And then things started to change. A small but speedy wideout named Billy Johnson began to dance the Funky Chicken as his touchdown celebration in the team’s white shoes, a future Hall of Fame defensive tackle named Curley Culp was acquired from Kansas City to bolster Bum’s new 3-4 defense (joining Elvin Bethea) and a linebacker, who compared favorably to Adonis, named Robert Brazile (out of Jackson State), was Phillips’ initial first-round draft choice in 1975.
The offense still had colorful Pastorini (whose interesting late night adventures in bachelorhood were chronicled daily in the Chronicle), Burrough and All-Pros Mike Barber, Mauck and rookie offensive guard Bruce Matthews (another future Hall of Fame choice). Pastorini also had a long-standing feud with a Chronicle reporter named Dale Robertson and on more than one occasion, the two were seen tumbling out of the locker room in a wild flight over some item Robertson had written.
The team’s reliable placekicker, Austrian Toni Fritsch, would wait for his services to be required, and sit at the end of the bench, far away from his teammates, smoking a pack of Marlboros ... during the game.
After stumbling to 5-9 in 1976, the Oilers’ first overall choice of the 1978 draft was a game changer – Texas’ Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell. Suddenly, Houston had a legitimate running game and instant credibility. The fan base was sparked like a Roman candle and overnight, a new identity emerged “Luv Ya Blue!”
The Oilers became the darlings of the Bayou City (it wasn’t hard with the Rockets stumbling and the Astros still trying to make something of themselves). The ‘Dome was packed for every game; fans waived blue and white pom-poms, trying to raise the roof off the facility. The crowd gladly sang the words to possibly the worst, corniest fight song ever record, “We Are The Houston Oilers!”
In 1978, Campbell won the Offensive Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year, rushing for 1,450 yards, most of them directly through and literally over defenders, sending many of them crashing to the turf as a “34” blur ran past them.
It WAS the best of times, with the worst of times on the horizon. The Oilers made the playoffs with a 10-6 record, qualifying for the newly-created fifth Wild Card spot. In that game, Houston the Oilers stunned the Dolphins in Miami 17-9 to advance to the Divisional Playoffs.
At New England, in front of 61,297 Patriot fans, Campbell and Company stomped their way to a 31-14 victory, setting up a clash with the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers in Steel City, USA. This encounter would end with Pittsburgh ripping the Oilers 34-5.
After the loss, the Oilers were greeted by 50,000 loyal fans at the Astrodome holding signs saying “Luv Ya Blue.”
In 1979, Houston posted an 11-5 record, again qualifying for the playoffs as a Wild Card. In the first playoff game ever held at the Astrodome, the Oilers beat Denver 13-7, but lost several key players, including Campbell and Pastorini to injuries.
Without that heart of the Houston offense, the Oilers still defeated the Chargers in San Diego 17-13 in the Divisional Playoffs, as safety Vernon Perry intercepted future Hall of Famer passer Dan Fouts four times – a playoff record.
Next up would be the bane of the Oilers’ existence – the Steelers again in Pittsburgh.
The Oilers were one play from the Super Bowl when officials rule an apparent touchdown catch by former TCU star Mike Renfro as out-of-bounds in the third quarter as Houston tried to tie the game. Replays and every Houston fans alive clearly showed the error of the call, but instant replay (in the NFL) was only a figment of some reporter’s imagination.
It would prove to be a backbreaking play and decision as Houston crumbled in the fourth quarter, losing 27-13. And again, the Oilers returned to the Astrodome, only to see 70,000 appreciative fans show up early in the morning to greet them in another “Luv Ya Blue” rally.
In 1980, Campbell continued to dominate with an amazing1,934-yard season, including by consecutive 200-yard games as he narrowly missed a 2,000-yard season.
The Oilers would finish with an 11-5 record, but were forced to settle again for the Wild Card berth after losing the division title to a tiebreaker. In the Wild Card Game, played at Oakland, Houston stymied by the Raiders’ defense (with a fistful of future Hall of Fame players), losing 27-7, to the eventual Super Bowl Champion for the third consecutive year.
However, Oiler owner Bud Adams was not satisfied with the outcome, and Phillips was unceremoniously fired, replaced by assistant coach Ed Biles.
Adams, a rich oilman who was a totally unlikeable person, became the type of symbol burned in effigy by Oiler fans on a weekly basis. So when Adams moved the franchise to Tennessee in 1997 (Memphis the first season and then Nashville), the entire city felt betrayed to the highest degree. Memories are long like elephants in Houston and every time the Titans play in Houston, the booing from the home side was directed more at Adams then the Titan roster.
So it was beyond ironic to read of Adams’ passing Monday, at the same age of Phillips.
It took until 2002 after Houston voters approved higher taxes to build Reliant Stadium (on the same grounds as the Astrodome) to garner an expansion team named the Texans. And to this day, no Houston pro football team has played in a Super Bowl.
Phillips continued (and concluded) his coaching career with almost five seasons in New Orleans, leading the Saints. Yet he could not produce that franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth. On Nov. 25, 1985, 12 games into the season, he announced his retirement, one day after the Saints beat Minnesota 30-24.
Bum returned to his ranch in Goliad, hawked his own line of Blue Ribbon sausage and thoroughly supported the coaching career of his son, Wade, including a stint as head coach of the Cowboys. Wade Phillips is currently the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, and Bum was pictured at every turn wearing the Texan logo.
So when games were played two days after his death, people, especially in Texas and the vast Houston area, paused to remember the jovial, affable man called “Bum.”
And every football fan should.