An ode to Bum

Published 8:15 am Wednesday, November 13, 2013

It was early September of 1950. I was 16-years old, suited up for football practice at Nederland High School, and sitting with all my teammates in the NHS field house. We had all been directed to do so by Coach Elbert Pickell. He was going to introduce us to the new assistant coach he had just hired.

I was sitting between Charles Thomas and Pat Johnson. Eugene “Wink” Barbin sat beside Pat. Joe Sibley and Ronnie Moye were also present. We were all watching the doorway of that old dressing room the first time Bum Phillips walked in. He was right out of college — Stephen F. Austin State. It was his first coaching job.

When he finally walked in, Charles Thomas nudged me in the ribs.

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“Damn,” Charles murmured when Bum stepped inside, “did you see that? When he walked in here something sorta walked in ahead of him.”

I nodded but didn’t speak. And, yes, I recognized that aura too. Many of us did. But neither Charles Thomas, Pat Johnson, Wink Barbin, Joe Sibley, Ronnie Moye, nor yours-truly, recognized the fact that all our lives were changed the instant Bum Phillips walked in that old field house.

I was a NHS senior by then, as were Pat and Wink. And all of us recognized, in the next week or so, that we had never had been coached like Bum Phillips taught us. He not only told us what to do, he showed us how and told us why we needed to do it that way.

In the years before that, NHS had very average football teams. During that ’50 season we ended up with the highest scoring team in Texas. We averaged 45 points per game. And, what I consider perhaps even more remarkable, our ten opponents averaged only 7 points per game. Even back then I felt Coach Phillips was a defensive genius.

Now I chuckle to myself while I watch and listen to those talking heads on TV as they “explain” the game to millions of viewers all across America…

“They have to block those three techniques better,” the announcers tell us.

It’s only fairly recently that those guys started talking about “techniques…numbered techniques”. A “three technique” is a defensive tackle. And there are numbered “techniques” for all defensive linemen from 0 to 9. Which is too much to explain here.

So guess who invented those numbered “techniques”? If you guessed Bum Phillips, you’re right. Coach Phillips, while at NHS, believe it or not, taught those “techniques” to Coach Bear Bryant, another icon, at Texas A&M.  

Bum also coached coaches. I must have watched him —listened to him — a hundred times as he patiently explained ideas to other coaches.

And, as I’ve written before in this space, a teacher touches forever. Men taught by Bum — like Gene Henderson did at NHS — helped invent the “veer option” which spread all across the football fields of America. In high schools and colleges.

Yes. I was present at NHS when Gene Henderson taught Darrell Royal how the veer option worked. Along came Earl Campbell and Steve Worster at the University of Texas…and the rest is glorious football history, as all football fans know.

So…how many lives, for goodness sake, in the 63 years gone by since Coach Phillips walked into that old NHS field house, did he change for the better? Thousands and thousands…and then some…still occurring.

We — Pat, Wink, Charles, Joe, Ronnie, and I —  who were sitting there, in 1950, ended up with college educations. How? Because Coach Bum Phillips recommended us to college coaches who granted us all football scholarships.

Pat Johnson became a coach and very successful insurance agent. Wink coached and later became the Registrar at Stephen F. Austin U. Charles coached at NHS and later became the superintendent of schools. Joe coached at NHS, Springwood, Galveston. Big Spring, and moved to California. Ronnie coached, then became a super-successful businessman in Beaumont. I coached at three high schools besides NHS, three colleges, and one semi-pro football team and was an elementary school principal for a few years.

So how many lives did the six of us touch because of Bum Phillips? And, of course, we six were the original, and proverbial, “drop in the bucket”. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of guys like us, and their families, who have lived better lives because of Bum Phillips.

Coach Phillips, wife, Debbie, and former PNG Coach Matt Burnet, came by and sat with me on my front porch about a year ago. We talked of old friends, football, aging, and its problems. After he left that day, I remembered how Bum had been a WWII Marine on those Pacific islands, even before he went to college. That was the last time I saw him.

And there’s so much more…

But it wouldn’t make a damned bit of difference if I had the space of the whole newspaper…There will never be enough room to thank Coach Bum Phillips for changing my life…and the lives of my best friends.