If Hollywood were to cast an ideal NFL coach for the Houston Oilers in the 1970s, Bum Phillips would have been the man.
From his Stetson hat to his Southern drawl to the boots he wore, Phillips was all cowboy. He was also a great builder of a football franchise. His death Friday night at age 90 was sad.
He coached in an era of characters who helped to build the NFL. Oakland had Al Davis, a rebel who would do anything to win, including fighting the league. Pittsburgh had the Steel Curtain, one of the greatest collections of talent and characters ever assembled in sports. Minnesota had the Purple People Eaters, a great group of defensive linemen.
The Steelers-Raiders rivalry was one of the most intense in football history, but Houston-Pittsburgh was pretty close. I liken it to those Ali-Frazier heavyweight fights. Phillips was a master at finding physical players who could challenge the Steelers. I remember going to games at the Astrodome in which players from both sides were carted off because of the hard hits. Phillips found powerful defensive linemen such as Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp. To challenge the Steelers' defense, he drafted Earl Campbell, who could hit defenders as hard as they could hit him. Campbell's collisions against Steelers Donnie Shell and Jack Lambert were some of the most brutal ever.
For the players, Phillips made it simple. For the media, it was the same way. He was one of the few coaches in sports who would often answer the phone in his office. He was open, available and always quotable.
Perhaps his best quote came out of the frustrations of his battles against the Steelers. In 1978 and 1979, the Oilers faced the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers won those games, helping to cement a dynasty that won four Super Bowl rings in the 1970s. In the late hours after the second loss, Phillips showed up for a fan function at the Astrodome and said, "Last year, we knocked on the door. This year, we banged on it. Next year, we're going to kick the door down."
I will never forget an incident that happened while I was covering one of those championship games for The Pittsburgh Press. In an unusual move in the preparation weeks for one of the games, Phillips wouldn't allow out-of-town media access to players for interviews. This affected only a reporter from The Washington Post and me. I called the NFL and complained about the lack of access. The league ordered Bum to provide it. Standing on the top step of a trailer, Phillips later apologized, saying he had never had a problem with the media. He shouted over to an employee asking whether he had any problems with the media. Just as the words came out of his mouth, Dale Robertson, beat reporter for the Houston Chronicle, was thrown through a door by quarterback Dan Pastorini. Robertson landed at my feet. They had a disagreement about a story in the paper quoting the QB about a leg injury.
Phillips didn't blink and muttered, "Except for this."
Whether it was his days with the Oilers or his efforts to rebuild the New Orleans Saints, few coaches pounded on the door of success better than Bum Phillips. He will be missed.