, Port Arthur, Texas

October 19, 2013

West on Bum Phillips: We're all better for having known Bum

Bob West
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Move over Tom, Vince, Darrell and all you other legendary coaches sitting at God’s right hand. Bum  Phillips just arrived and the Creator has much to discuss with one of the most special and unique individuals ever to walk the face of the earth.

    Meanwhile, for those of us left behind there’s so much to toast and celebrate after the passing of an icon who made such a profound impact on so many lives. Nowhere more than here in the Golden Triangle are there endless reasons to sit back and thank the Lord for seeing fit to bless us with an up close and personal relationship to one Oail Andrew Phillips.

    Remember that all-time Christmas favorite movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and the angel showing Jimmy Stewart’s character how different the town of Bedford Falls would have been if he’d never existed? Put a slight spin on that and think about what this area would have missed if Bum hadn’t been born in Orange, started coaching in Nederland at the age of 26, returned to Mid-County as the head coach at Port Neches, played  at Lamar and been so giving of himself for Southeast Texas causes.

    For openers, Port Arthur’s Hughen School might never have had the funds to help so many handicapped kids. Bum, as those who date back to the 1980s know, threw all his influence into a series of fund-raising celebrity golf tournaments with Bob Hope that generated hundreds of thousands of dollars and invaluable exposure to the school.

    Typically, Bum gave all the credit to Hope. But one of the funniest people to ever crack a joke knew better. “All these big name football players are here because of Bum, not because of me,” he said.

    Beyond the Hughen and Bob Hope High School kids, so many of us have to much to be thankful for that this coaching icon came our way, and kept coming back and kept giving of himself. Put me right at the front of the line when it comes to singing the man’s praises. Nobody ever treated me better or helped me more than Bum Phillips. So forgive me for getting a bit mushy and over the top in bidding him farewell.

    Outside of my own father, I’ve never loved another man more  than Bum. Not only for what he meant to me as a writer, not only for personal projects like the Port Arthur News Homecoming Roast and not only for the insight he gave me about coaches and the game of football am I thankful.

    Indeed, the greatest lesson I learned from Bum was how you should treat people, no matter who they are or what their status in life. At a time when our country is filled with so much hate, with so little disregard for those who are suffering, I just wish God had given Bum an even bigger platform.

    Looking back, of all the quotes I’ve seen and heard about Bum, the one I think that perhaps best defines who he was came from former Houston Oilers quarterback Gifford Nielsen.

    “We had country western parties and rap parties,” Nielsen said of how Bum created a family atmosphere among players of diverse backgrounds. “Bum was able to punch the right buttons for everybody. He was a legend because of how unique he was — the way he dressed, talked and coached. Wherever we went, people wanted to see Bum Phillips.

    “They just couldn’t believe a guy like him existed. He broke down all the barriers on his team and then started to break down all the barriers of the city of Houston. I’ve never seen this in sports and I don’t think I ever will again.”

    Nielsen, for sure, would have appreciated what I witnessed sitting next to Bum in August of 2010, during a marathon book signing for his autobiography, Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian. Former teammates, classmates, players and sons and daughters whose parents had been touched in some way by him streamed through to get a book signed and to reminisce. It was a scene I’ll never forget.

    Among those lining up that day was current Nederland coach Larry Neumann. I mention Neumann because of the thoughts he expressed about Bum in the immediate aftermath of a down-to-the-wire victory over arch-rival Port Neches-Groves Friday night. Part of it is worth repeating, even though I’m running out of space.

    “It is hard to not think Bum wasn’t hovering over this field tonight,” Neumann said of the eerie coincidence of the 90-year-old coach’s death coming roughly at halftime of the 90th meeting of the two Mid-County schools where he coached on the way up. “You can’t tell me Bum’s spirit wasn’t with both teams.”

    Two years ago, of course, both communities did themselves proud and created a special memory for an old coach by naming streets Bum Phillips Way in his honor. A third area city should have done the same, but Port Arthur copped out by saying its policy is to only name streets after those who are deceased.

    OK, Port Arthur, you don’t have that excuse any more. For those who don’t know what Bum did for your city, here’s a brief history.

    • Back in the early 1960s, he took Lincoln High School coach A.Z. McElroy under his wing at a time when it wasn’t fashionable for a white coach to be embracing a black coach. Bum brought Mac to Port Neches to attend practices, gave him equipment for Lincoln’s team and spent many hours talking coaching tactics with him.

    • In 1975, a Lincoln player named David Hanchett was paralyzed from a hit late in a game, and sent to the Texas Institute of Research and Rehabilitation in Houston for treatment.  Bum was a frequent visitor and sent a steady stream of Oiler players. Upon learning Hanchett was a Cleveland Browns fan, he arranged with the NFL and Browns owner Art Modell for Hanchett to be wheeled to midfield to call the coin toss in Houston’s season finale with the Browns.

    • In 1977, PAISD athletic director Howland Reich asked Bum if he’d come to Port Arthur and do a clinic for the district’s junior high and high school coaches. He not only came, he brought his entire staff. Reich was blown away.

    • In the early ‘80s, he teamed with Bob Hope for the aformentioned celebrity golf tournaments on behalf of Hughen School, using his influence to bring in numerous NFL stars and other pro athletes.

    • In 1989, he came back as the target of a Port Arthur News Homecoming Roast and returned in subsequent years as a roaster for an event that raised over $600,000 for the city’s Museum of the Gulf Coast.

    All those examples were the essence of Bum Phillips — giving, giving, giving.

    Thanks for everything, Bum. When they open a greatest human being  Hall of Fame, you deserve to be in the inaugural class. You truly were one of a kind.

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at