Bum Phillips: Famous Football Name, Underappreciated Figure

Dec 29, 2013
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ARUN RATH, HOST:

We'll stay in Texas for our next character. This time, it's a famous name, a pro football coach, but an underappreciated figure. Maybe that's because his team came close to immortality but never quite made it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) We're the Houston Oilers, Houston Oilers...

RATH: In the late 1970s, the Houston Oilers were one of the most dominant teams in the NFL. One problem, maybe the best team ever kept them out of the Super Bowl two years in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Oilers' head coach during that run was Bum Phillips. He died back in October.

JOHN MCCLAIN: I met Bum Phillips in 1977, and I knew him right up until the day he died.

RATH: John McClain has covered the NFL from Houston for 37 years. He says Bum Phillips fit the city of Houston like a glove, always strolling the sidelines in his cowboy hat and boots.

MCCLAIN: Bum Phillips was a country cowboy, never met a stranger, was a great player's coach. He would stop practice, and he would have an ice cream truck come on the field. At training camp, he would have pizza and beer parties.

RATH: Phillips stood out from other hardnosed NFL coaches in that way. And it drew some criticism that he was too soft on his players. In a 2003 interview with NFL Films, Bum Phillips explained in his own folksy way.

BUM PHILLIPS: I love my mama. I knew she loved me, but she whipped me when she needed to. And that's the way I felt about players.

RATH: Beyond the football field, Bum Phillips became well known for his colorful turns of phrase. Perhaps the most famous Bumism came in 1980 after his Oilers came up one game short of the Super Bowl, again at the hands of the Steelers. When they returned to Houston defeated, a huge crowd filled the Astrodome to show their support and admiration. Bum Phillips addressed the crowd with this: One year ago, we knocked on the door. This year, we beat on the door.

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PHILLIPS: Next year, we're going to kick the son of (bleep) in.

RATH: Bum Phillips never got that chance. The Oilers lost in the playoffs the next season, and he was fired. He spent five fruitless years coaching the New Orleans Saints then retired to his ranch in 1985.

MCCLAIN: He might be in the Hall of Fame if it hadn't been for the Steelers because most people thought the Oilers were the second best team in football during that era.

RATH: That's John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Bum Phillips died this year at the age of 90. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.