Feature

O.A. Bum Phillips, 1923–2013

The cowboy who coached the Houston Oilers

Bum Phillips was as Texas as they come. The celebrated coach of the NFL’s Houston Oilers traced his roots back to the Lone Star State’s frontier past. Like his cowboy ancestors, he did his job in boots, jeans, and a white Stetson—except at the Astrodome, as he thought it disrespectful to wear a hat indoors. Known as the “Will Rogers of the NFL,” he was always ready with a one-liner. “There’s two kinds of coaches,” he once noted. “Them that’s been fired, and them that’s gonna be fired.”

Born Oail Andrew Phillips in Orange, Texas, he got his nickname when a younger sister tried to say “brother,” only for the word to come out as “bumble” and later “bum,” said The New York Times.“I don’t mind being called Bum,” said Phillips, “just as long as you don’t put a ‘you’ in front of it.” He played football in college and, after graduating in 1949, spent the next two decades coaching in high schools and universities.

Tasked with rebuilding the Oilers’ failing franchise in 1975, Phillips crafted a team “that captured Houston’s heart,” said the Houston Chronicle. The Oilers battled the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1978 and 1979 playoffs for a Super Bowl berth, “and both times they came up short.” Still, after each loss, a crowd of 40,000 cheering fans welcomed the team home. “One year ago we knocked on the door. This year we beat on the door,” Phillips told fans after the 1979 loss. “Next year we’re gonna kick the sumbitch in.”

It wasn’t to be. The Oakland Raiders beat the Oilers in a 1980 wild-card playoff, and Phillips was fired. He put in four years with the New Orleans Saints, but after several disappointing seasons he retired to become a full-time rancher. “That spawned another great Bum-ism when Phillips was asked what he did all day,” said FoxSports.com. “Nothing,” he replied. “And I don’t start doing that until noon.”

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