By Dan Pompei
Here is how Bum Phillips differed from so many who have stood on an NFL sideline: He connected with people.
He connected with players, to be sure. And he connected with you and me, and everyone who loved the team and the game for which he was a steward.
A simple, unpretentious man and coach, Phillips was unafraid of letting us see who he was. He never learned the King's English, and he didn't care if you didn't like it. The most famous words he ever spoke were in response to a question about Don Shula. "He can take his'n and beat you'n and take your'n and beat his'n."
When he was going to be honored in 2004 at the Super Bowl with 43 Houston sports legends, he said he would "feel like a cow chip that somebody threw into the punch bowl," and said he planned on getting autographs.
Phillips' humility was endearing. And it was genuine. Born in the Great Depression and the son of a truck driver, Phillips enlisted in the Marines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He raised a gentleman son, Wade Phillips, who turned out to be quite the coach in his own right. He devoted much of his retired life to Christian charities. In his later years, he wrote a book aptly titled Bum Phillips: Coach, Cowboy, Christian.
Phillips was known mostly as an Oiler, but he really was a cowboy. He herded him some cattle. Plowed him some fields. Drank him some beer. Ate him some Texas barbeque. Wore him some Ostrich skin boots.
And he loved him that big, white Stetson. Except in domes, where his buzz cut was on display. Why? Momma had told him the hat comes off indoors.
He never would have been sought to endorse a credit card, fine wine or women's apparel like some NFL coaches. But he was an excellent pitchman for sausage and hearing aids.
Phillips never will be thought of like Steve Jobs, Bobby Fischer or even Bill Walsh. His homespun wisdom, however, was pure genius.
"Two kinds of ballplayers aren't worth a darn," he once said. "One that never does what he's told; and one who does nothing except what he's told."
When the great Earl Campbell struggled in a one-mile run in training camp, Phillips simply shrugged. "When it's first and a mile, I won't give it to him," he said.
Phillips once was dozing off while watching game film with Sid Gillman, who woke him and said, "This is better than making love." Phillips' response: "Either I don't know how to watch film, or you don't know how to make love."
The microphones loved him. And so did the cameras. He was the NFL Films version of Will Rogers.
His teams were more popular than they were good. In five years as the head coach of the Oilers, his record was 59-38. Despite never making it to a Super Bowl, those Oilers captured the imagination of Houston like no team before or since. "Luv Ya Blue" was the rallying cry. In a subsequent five-season stint as head coach of the Saints, Phillips could not turn around a struggling franchise.
But with his cutting edge 3-4 defenses, he left a big footprint on the game.
In a time when militaristic disciplinarians ruled the sport, Phillips bucked the trend by being one of the first great players' coaches. He saw the value in keeping his players fresh, so he didn't run them into the ground in practice. And he sought genuine relationships.
"Football is a game of failure," he once said. "You fail all the time. But you aren't a failure until you start blaming someone else."
His assistant coaches and players still speak of him with great reverence. You'll see, they'll come out in droves to pay him their last respects. Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who played for Phillips with the Oilers, made regular visits to his old coach. At a "Luv Ya Blue" reunion in 1989, 97 of 99 players who were invited came, many out of respect for Phillips.
In a sport where head coaches stay in their offices for days on end, have no idea who cultural icons are and think international affairs have something to do with playing a game in London, Phillips had perspective. "Winning is only half of it," he once said. "Having fun is the other half."
When his Oilers were beaten by the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game for the second year in a row in 1980, he said, "Last year, we knocked on the door. This year, we beat on it. Next year, we're going to kick the son of a bitch in."
Next year for Bum Phillips came Friday night. St. Peter, you might want to take a step back.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.