NEW YORK — Bum Phillips, the homespun Texan who was caricatured as a cowboy but possessed a keen football mind that built the Houston Oilers into one of the National Football League’s leading teams of the late 1970s, died at 90 Friday at his ranch in Goliad, Texas.
His death was announced by his son, Wade, defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans.
Outfitted in a Stetson, work shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots — including a powder-blue pair to match the Oiler colors — Coach Phillips was a square-jawed, buzz-cut outsize character with a host of one-liners.
When he became the Oilers coach and general manager in 1975, replacing Sid Gillman, who was renowned as a master of passing attacks, Coach Phillips was charged with rebuilding a downtrodden franchise.
He did just that, developing an outstanding defense anchored by Elvin Bethea at end and Curley Culp at nose tackle, and an offense spurred by the brilliant running of Earl Campbell, all of them future Hall of Famers, twice taking Houston to the brink of the Super Bowl.
Making the playoffs as a wild-card team, the Oilers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers — the eventual Super Bowl champions — in the 1978 and 1979 season American Football Conference championship games. When they arrived home after the second of those losses, a capacity crowd welcomed them at the Astrodome late at night.
“Last year we knocked on the door,” Coach Phillips told the fans, wiping back tears. “This year we banged on it.”
He promised to kick the door down the following season, and traded quarterback Dan Pastorini to the Raiders for Kenny Stabler, hoping that would bolster the offense.
“Me and Bum are as alike as two piles of cow manure,” Stabler, a native of small-town Alabama, was quoted as saying.
But the Oilers were beaten in a December 1980 wild-card playoff game by the soon-to-be Super Bowl champion Raiders. K.S. Adams Jr., the Oilers’ founder and owner, known as Bud, fired Coach Phillips on New Year’s Eve, a few days after that loss, citing his refusal to hire an offensive coordinator.
In 1981, Coach Phillips was hired as coach and general manager of the New Orleans Saints, but he could not produce a winning team in his four-plus seasons. When his Saints were dominated by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter of their Nov. 12, 1985, game, suffering their fifth consecutive loss, Coach Phillips remarked how “the harder we play, the behinder we get.”
He resigned that month with three years left on his contract and the Saints at 4-8.
“There’s two kinds of coaches,” Coach Phillips once said. “Them that’s fired and them that’s gonna be fired.”
Oail Andrew Phillips was born in Orange, Texas, the son of a truck driver. “My name’s pronounced ‘Awl,’ but no one could pronounce it right,” he told The New York Times.
Bum Phillips got his nickname when a younger sister, Edrina, tried to say “brother,” only to have it come out as “bumble” and later “bum.”
“I don’t mind being called Bum,” Coach Phillips once remarked, “just as long as you don’t put a ‘you’ in front of it.”
Coach Phillips was popular with his players, keeping them fresh by shunning overly long practices and encouraging camaraderie. He had a record of 55-35 with the Oilers, and he was 27-42 with the Saints. He was later an TV analyst for the Oilers and owned a ranch.