, Port Arthur, Texas

Bob West

August 23, 2012

BEST OF WEST: Being a celebrity an unnatural act for Bum Phillips

PORT ARTHUR — Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on May 12, 1983.

    Bum Phillips wears the spotlight about like he does a tuxedo — uncomfortably. Call him a celebrity if you like, just understand it’s not his term. He may have come a long way from the obscurity of being the B team coach at Nederland High School, yet it’s noticeable only by his income tax bracket.

    Basically, the honoree of Bum Phillips Day in the Golden Triangle remains the same unpretentious, unselfish guy he was 30 years ago in Nederland. A man’s man, he’s ascended to a job of which there are only 27 others of its kind.

    He arrived by doing things his way and made the trip without having to pretend there was mistletoe on anybody’s coattails.

    It is long overdue and altogether fitting that Southeast Texas stop to salute Phillips for his coaching success, as well as for his contributions to the Hughen School complex through the celebrity golf tournament bearing his name. To be able to claim as a favorite son a man so widely respected, so much in demand, so concerned with helping others, is a true blessing.

    If the late Bear Bryant could have been here today, he’d have testified to Phillips’ genius as a football coach, to his remarkable ability to get along with and  motivate people. Bryant spoke on those subjects a few years ago to a writer working on a story about Bum for Pro Magazine.

    “Bum said he came to me for a job when I was at Texas A&M,” said Bryant, in his gravely voice. “Truth is, I’d heard so much about him I went to see him about coming to work for me. I tried to get him to go to Alabama with me, too, but he didn’t want to leave the state of Texas.

    “The thing that impressed me was what a bright person Bum was,” Bryant continued. “He gave you that slow talking country act, but he was very shrewd. He understood people about as well as anybody I’ve ever seen. And his football knowledge was remarkable. He put in Nederland’s defense at Texas A&M and it was so innovative we still use the same basic system at Alabama.”

    Like Bryant, anybody who ever worked for, with or around the current head coach of the New Orleans Saints swears by him. The ones with him on the way up talk about a coach who always had time to help other coaches, a person whose character, integrity and sense of loyalty will never let him stray much from the original Bum.

    “He’s unique, and I think the reason for that is in spite of all the places he’s been, he’s never lost the qualities he started with,” said Alvin High School superintendent Emmitt McKenzie, who coached with Phillips at Nederland. “He never puts on airs. He’d be awfully upset if anybody accused him of it.

    “You can pick up the phone and call him right now and he’d sound the way he did the first day at Nederland.”

    Port Arthur Independent School District Athletic Director Howland Reich still marvels at Bum’s willingness to share his knowledge with others. His openness was such that it was a common occurrence for rival high school coaches to attend his practices, even to be in the huddle.

    “Bum never had a secret,” Reich said. “He’d open his files to anybody who stopped by to talk football. He was just totally unselfish. What always amazed me was that he didn’t take credit for very much. He designed the 27 defense but you’d never know it.”

    As A.Z. McElroy will testify, Phillips’ willingness to share his knowledge knew no bounds. Back in the days when the racial climate was much different than it is now, Bum spent many hours talking football with a young, black coach at Lincoln High School who admittedly needed all the help he could get.

    “He didn’t just tell me things, he’d sit me down and give me books to study,” remembers insurance-man McElroy, now a PAISD school board member. “Then he’d call to make sure I understood what we’d talked about. It was like having your own private clinic any time you wanted it.

    “Not only would he come to Lincoln and visit, he’d invite me out to Port Neches,” continued McElroy.  “It wasn’t the fashionable thing to do in those days, but I don’t think Bum ever saw color. I’m sure he didn’t care what anybody else thought about him working with the coach at Lincoln.”

    Many years later, as head coach of the Houston Oilers, Phillips again responded to the needs of another person associated with Lincoln. When he learned a Bumblebee player  named David Hanchett had been paralyzed from the neck down by a football injury, and was at the Texas Institute of Research and Rehabilitation in Houston, Bum saw to it that several Oiler players spent time with him.

    Upon being advised Hanchett’s favorite team was the Cleveland Browns, Phillips took it upon himself to get in touch with Browns owner Art Modell. The Browns, as luck would have it, were playing the season finale in Houston, and Bum arranged for Hanchett to meet the Cleveland players, then be wheeled to midfield for the coin toss.

    When he died a couple of years later, that day with the Browns was among Hanchett’s favorite memories.

    Yes, Bum Phillips day was long overdue.

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at

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