HOUSTON — The News staff and wire reports
HOUSTON — Bum Phillips, the folksy Texas football icon who coached the Houston Oilers during their Luv Ya Blue heyday and also led the New Orleans Saints, died Friday. He was 90.
“Bum is gone to Heaven,” son Wade Phillips tweeted Friday night. “Loved and will be missed by all — great Dad, Coach, and Christian.”
Phillips died at his ranch in Goliad around 9 p.m. Friday, passing away while the two high schools he coached in Southeast Texas — Nederland and Port Neches-Groves — were meeting for the 90th time. Fans at the game were informed of his passing by the public address announcer.
Nederland coach Larry Neumann, told of Phillips’ death after the game, spoke of him with great reverence.
“It is hard to not think Bum wasn’t hovering over this field tonight,” Neumann said. “You can’t tell me his sprit wasn’t with both teams. I love Bum a lot and had the chance to meet him a couple of times. The people in Nederland will never forget Coach Phillips. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family. I know the PN-G side felt the same way.”
Two years ago, prior to the 88th meeting between Nederland and Port Neches-Groves, Phillips had been saluted in both communities by having a street — Bum Phillips Way — named in his honor. He attended the game that night in Port Neches, where he received a standing ovation when taken to midfield for the pregame coin toss.
Private services for family only will be held early next week on his ranch in Goliad. At Phillips’ request, he will be buried under an oak tree at the ranch. Memorial services are being planned in both Goliad and Houston at dates to be announced next week.
Wade Phillips, who is the Houston Texans’ defensive coordinator, was with his father when he passed away. Wade is expected to go to Kansas City with the Texans for Sunday’s game, then return to Goliad for his dad’s funeral.
Bum Phillips had been in fading health with congestive heart failure for some time and was near death on more than one occasion. The most recent scare came when Wade was summoned to Goliad on Oct. 7. But Bum, with former players Carl Mauck, Dan Pastorini and Mike Barber, and Houston radio personality Barry Warner rushing to Goliad to say good-bye, rallied.
“I went back on Friday and he was sitting up, eat pot roast and feeling good,” Wade told the Port Arthur News this week. It’s just been and up and down thing for quite a while. But I’m really dreading that next phone call.”
Born Oail Andrew Phillips Jr. in 1923 in Orange, Phillips was a Texas original in his blue jeans, boots and trademark white Stetson — expect at the Astrodome or any other dome stadium because he was taught it was disrespectful to wear a hat indoors.
Phillips loved the Oilers and when coaching the team in the 1970s, he famously said of the Cowboys: “They may be ‘America’s Team,’ but we’re Texas’ team.”
He took over as coach of the Oilers in 1975 and led Houston to two AFC Championship games before he was fired in 1980. He was responsible for drafting Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, the player who was largely credited with the success of the franchise.
It was a time marked by a frenzied fan base that filled the Astrodome to root for the Oilers and wave their blue and white pompons during games.
Houston lost to Pittsburgh 34-5 in the AFC Championship game in Campbell’s rookie year. The Oilers returned to the game the following season only to be beaten again by the Steelers, this time 27-13.
The Oilers went 11-5 in 1980 but lost to Oakland in the AFC wild-card round and Phillips was fired.
Fans loved his no-nonsense demeanor and were entertained by his often blunt comments
“Football is a game of failure,” Phillips was quoted as saying. “You fail all the time, but you aren’t a failure until you start blaming someone else.”
He left Texas to coach the Saints in 1981 and didn’t have a winning record in his time there and retired in 1985.
Phillips played football at Lamar Junior College before joining the Marines during World War II. After the war he went to Stephen F. Austin where he played two more football seasons before graduating with a degree in education in 1949.
He spent about two decades coaching in high schools and colleges mostly in Texas — he assisted the likes of Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, Bill Yeoman at Houston, and Hayden Fry at SMU — before making the jump to the AFL in 1967 as an assistant under Sid Gillman with the San Diego Chargers. Phillips came to Houston in 1974 as Gillman’s defensive coordinator and became coach and general manager when Gillman resigned after that season.
Phillips picked up the nickname Bum as a child when his younger sister couldn’t pronounce brother correctly and it sounded like bum. He embraced the nickname and was quoted as saying: “I don’t mind being called Bum, just as long as you don’t put a you in front of it.”
Phillips did some work as an analyst on television and radio football broadcasts for a bit before retiring to his ranch in Goliad. He experienced some health problems in recent years and underwent a triple bypass in 2005.
Although he left Houston, he always remained fond of the city. The Oilers moved to Tennessee and became the Titans in 1997 and Houston returned to the NFL in 2002 when the Texans began play.
He was asked how he feels about the two teams in Texas in 2007 when son Wade was named coach of the Cowboys.
“Your son is coaching one team and the other team is the town you love more than any other,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to pull. They’re not on the schedule, so I don’t have to make that decision this year.”
Phillips is survived by his second wife, Debbie, and six children from his first marriage along with almost two dozen grandchildren.