LOS ANGELES -- Wade Phillips lost two seasons of high school eligibility because the rules of Texas stated that those who switch schools must sit the following year out. He was a coach's son, born into a life of constant movement and unstable employment.
From there, he became a coach himself. It began at the University of Houston as a graduate assistant in 1969. Then the carousel began: West Orange (Texas), Stillwater (Oklahoma), Lawrence (Kansas), Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Denver and, finally, Los Angeles.
"It sounds bad, but I think it’s like an Army brat," Phillips said about the nomadic life of an NFL coach. "You learn to adjust to new places, new people."
Phillips, now installed as the Los Angeles Rams' defensive coordinator under new coach Sean McVay, realized that with his first NFL job as defensive line coach for the then-Houston Oilers from 1976 to 1980. His father, the late Bum Phillips, was head coach, and over the last three years of that stretch, the Oilers went a combined 32-16 and were eliminated in the playoffs by eventual Super Bowl champions each time. Still, the entire coaching staff was let go.
"After that, I just said, ‘Hey, you just have to do the best that you can do,'" Phillips said. "'That’s what this life’s about.’"
Phillips is now with his 10th NFL franchise, employed in his 12th different city. In his last stop, the 69-year-old presided over a Denver Broncos defense that helped win a Super Bowl and was the NFL's best -- according to Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average -- each of the last two years. But then Gary Kubiak stepped down as head coach, Phillips' contract was left to expire and a defensive-minded guy -- former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph -- was brought in. So Phillips was on the move again.
Coaches life--unemployed to SB victory to unemployed in 3 years or less— Wade Phillips (@sonofbum) January 2, 2017
Phillips knew McVay through his son, Wes, who coached tight ends with the Washington Redskins while McVay was the offensive coordinator the last three years. When McVay began interviewing, he asked Phillips if he would join him as his defensive coordinator if he was chosen as head coach. Phillips eventually agreed, even though others asked the same. Wes talked up McVay.
"He just said so many good things about him, and he thought he was going to be really good whenever he got a head-coaching job," Phillips said. "That was part of what influenced me."
McVay is three days away from his 31st birthday. He is the youngest coach of the NFL's modern era, born 10 years after Phillips began coaching in the NFL. Phillips likes to joke that "we average 50," which makes the dynamic sound better.
"His age doesn’t bother me," Phillips said. "My age didn’t bother him, evidently."
Phillips has spent 25 years as an NFL defensive coordinator. He's been a head coach at three different stops, with the Broncos (1993-1994), Buffalo Bills (1998-2000) and Dallas Cowboys (2007-2010). He's been an interim coach in three other instances, with the New Orleans Saints (1985), Atlanta Falcons (2003) and Houston Texans (2013). He can offer McVay a wealth of knowledge, but he's conscious of overstepping his bounds.
"I can give him advice on what not to do; that’s about it," Phillips said. "I mean, there’s some big mistakes you can make. I would say something, try to guide him away from certain things that I’ve learned in the past. But it’s his job. And he’s sharp enough to handle the head-coaching job. They did a good job of hiring him, because I think he really is the best guy out there."
Phillips will focus mainly on the defense. He's in the process of putting together a staff -- linebackers coach Joe Barry and defensive line coach Bill Johnson have already agreed in principle -- and will soon watch film of the Rams' games from this past season. Phillips is taking over a defense that is used to having four down linemen and will convert it into a 3-4 system, which to him is nothing new.
"Four out of the last six teams I’ve gone to were running a 4-3, and we went to a 3-4 and went to the playoffs every year, and they hadn’t been to the playoffs the year before," Phillips said. "I think we can fit whatever we need to fit in. And if we couldn’t, we would change. But that’s the way we’ve done it. We’ve got our defense where we can utilize any kind of personnel in any way. It’s just what the players can do best. Same with coverages, and same with the linebackers, and same with the D-line. You try to get the best players on the field and don’t make many mistakes. That’s what we’re going to do. That’s what we plan on doing."
Phillips has been part of more than 20 top-10 defenses and has coached 30 Pro Bowlers. He runs what he calls "a hybrid 3-4 defense" that leans more toward the one-gap system of a 4-3, which is what the Rams were used to under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Someone like defensive end Robert Quinn may now stand, but, as Phillips said, "Guys who can rush are going to rush."
Phillips still keeps his permanent home -- if you want to call it that -- in Houston. He signed his contract in Washington and hopes to stop by the Rams' facility in Thousand Oaks, California, shortly after the Super Bowl. There, he'll get his defensive players' contact information and reach out, mainly to tell them how excited he is to get to work all over again. His daughter, Tracy, is an accomplished dancer and choreographer living in Los Angeles. Her dad is finally in the same city, and Phillips said, "She’s still crying, she’s so happy."
A new team, a new city, a new challenge.
"But I’ve been through it before," Phillips said, "and I think I can help."