During the week, Bum Phillips routinely drives the 12 miles back into town from his 250-acre ranch to help the Goliad High School coaches break down game film.GOLIAD — It’s been years since he last quaffed a cold Lone Star. The ever-present bulge of tobacco chaw in his cheek finally disappeared in June. He pads around the house in running shoes these days, not boots. He has hearing aids in both ears and a pacemaker in his chest, a reminder of triple bypass surgery in 2005.
He won’t play golf anymore because he can’t hit the ball far enough or straight enough to satisfy his competitive nature. Worst of all, he had to give up riding horses about a year ago because he no longer trusts his balance.
“I don’t want to do something halfway,” Bum Phillips said. “That ain’t fun.”
But, rest assured, Bum’s still Bum. There’s nothing frail about him. Although he’ll turn 87 Wednesday, his eyes are clear, his mind is sharp and his handshake is firm. Life is treating him just fine out here in the country. And what remains as fun as it has ever been for him — besides tooling around on his tractor — is watching football.
If either a Cowboys or a Texans game is on the big TV in the den, the phone goes unanswered and you ring the door at your own peril. Although he hasn’t coached in a quarter of a century, Phillips is no casual fan. You won’t catch him nodding off in the recliner.
When it comes to either the Cowboys or the Texans, he’s 100 percent emotionally vested. The former are coached by the oldest of his six offspring, Wade, whose own son and Bum’s grandson, Wes, is a Cowboys assistant. The latter? They’re Gary Kubiak’s team, and he calls Kubiak “damn near family.”
No way he’ll pick sides
Fact is, Phillips is so fond of his onetime Oilers training camp ball boy — not to mention Houston’s long-suffering fans — that you can’t make him admit for publication in a Houston newspaper that he’ll be rooting for Dallas against the Texans at Reliant Stadium on Sunday.
Bum loves Wade as much as any father can love a son, and he knows full well how much this game means to Wade’s team, which has its back to the wall after an 0-2 start. But what Bum swears he wants to have happen is “for both teams to play good and the one that deserves to win wins. This will be an easy game for me to watch. I can’t lose. I got my son and grandson on one side and my favorite city on the other.
“How the hell you going to pull (against) either one?”
Does he really mean that?
“I respect Gary so much as a coach,” he said. “Besides, you’ve got to understand something. I live in Goliad, but my heart’s in Houston.”
“Here’s how we watch,” explained Debbie Phillips, his wife of 20 years, aiming the remote at the giant screen and repeatedly punching the replay function. “He’ll say, ‘Go back again. Run that play again. See, look at that. They’re doing that … blah, blah, blah.’ ”
During the week, Phillips routinely drives the 12 miles into town from his 250-acre ranch to help the Goliad High School coaches break down game film. And he frequents the sideline at the Tigers’ practices. Fall is Phillips’ favorite time of the year. No other season need apply.
“Football’s never not been fun for me,” he said. “Even when I quit, it wasn’t because I didn’t like coaching anymore. I just wanted to do some other things, things I’d wanted to do since I was a kid, before I got too old to do them. When you coach, you don’t have time to do nothing else.”
Time in the saddle
After Phillips walked off the job in New Orleans in 1985 — handing back more than a million of Saints owner John Mecom’s dollars when he’d decided he’d had enough — he went on to scratch a big itch, spending the next couple of decades as a for-real working cowboy.
Bum and Debbie bought their spread in 1995, built a modern barn for their five horses and also a covered show arena for Debbie, an accomplished horsewoman back in the day. (It’s called the “Debbie Dome,” of course.) They share their home, a modern ranch-style with a façade of golden Texas limestone, with Gracie, their “grande dame” terrier, and Amos IV, a playful Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy. Just this summer the youngest of Phillips’ five daughters, Kim, her husband, Mark, and their six children moved in across the driveway, having constructed a house of their own.
Kim and Mark teach deaf children at Goliad High and also work with deaf adults from the area, a cause Bum and Debbie have come to embrace through their charity foundation. Instead of burying themselves in a clutter of memorabilia, they’ve given most of it away to support myriad charitable causes.
Phillips explained he didn’t need to spend time “sitting around looking at stuff.” He tapped his temple.
“I’ve got it all up here,” he said.
There isn’t enough time in the day for him to recount all “the good things and the good people I met” during his seven seasons with the Oilers, the last six spent becoming the most beloved head coach in Houston’s history. One event, however, stands out. It’s why he’ll never be able to completely wrap his arms around the Cowboys, no matter who’s calling the shots for Jerry Jones.
Texans fans old enough to have been Oilers fans during their “Luv Ya Blue” heyday can guess where this story is going, back to an extraordinary January night in 1979. The Oilers had been beaten badly by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game that afternoon, but a pep rally that evening went on as scheduled, and the stadium was jammed to the rafters.
“Don’t forget all those people standing along the road when we were driving in,” Phillips said. “There must have been a hundred thousand of them out there. And we’d lost the damned game. I’ll take that memory to my grave.”
‘They’re proving it now’
The Texans’ remarkable start this season makes Phillips thinks the circle may finally be unbroken. This team, he said, is beginning to remind him of his big-hearted, overachieving Oilers teams that twice reached the cusp of the Super Bowl.
“When the Oilers moved out, it really hurt the people of Houston,” Phillips said. “… That was bad, just plain wrong. When they got a new team, all the young people got excited, but everybody else sort of sat back and said, ‘Now go show me. Prove you can replace the Oilers.’ Well, they’re proving it now.
“They’re playing their butts off every snap — not part of the time — and that’s what people appreciated about the Oilers. It tells you what Gary’s gotten done out there. I’m awful proud of him. He’s a great, great football coach with an excellent football mind.”
Phillips feels the same about Wade. He’ll get the Cowboys’ ship righted, Bum insisted.
“Wade’s like all coaches,” his dad said. “He can take the bitter with the sweet. You have to. (The Cowboys) aren’t getting beat bad. They’re just beating themselves. They’ve outplayed both teams they’ve lost to, but they haven’t outscored them. Sometimes the ball don’t bounce right. You’ve got to outscore ’em first and outplay ’em second.”
Not for a moment has Phillips considered driving the 2½ hours up Highway 59 to attend Sunday’s game. He much prefers the comfort of his cushy easy chair to fighting the traffic and the crowds. He’s content to have Debbie, with Gracie nuzzled up against her, work “the coach’s clicker” for him.
Besides, he admitted, “Whose side would I sit on? Golly, that would be a tough call.”