I was thirteen years old on Thanksgiving Day 1979 when the Cowboys hosted the Houston Oilers at Texas Stadium. Being in different conferences, the two teams rarely played each other; being very, very successful football teams from the same very, very football crazy state made those uncommon occasions when they did match up really special. Dallas was coming off two straight Super Bowl appearances — they beat the Broncos for the 1977 title and lost to the Steelers the following season in Super Bowl XIII — and Houston was well on its way to its second straight AFC Championship Game. And on this day, with my grandmother’s turkey and dressing and no-cook strawberry pie churning in my gut, Earl Campbell ran all over the Cowboys and won the game 34-20.
This was before cable TV and the internet, before hour-long post-game shows. It wasn’t until the ten-o’clock news on channel 8 that night that I saw it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears. Bum Phillips, the boot-wearing, ten-gallon-hat-wearing, tobacco-chewing, straight-shooting coach of the Oilers had looked right into the cameras after the game and declared, “I’d rather be Texas’ team than America’s team any day!”
I knew immediately that he had said a very clever thing. I also knew, deep in my heart of hearts, that he was right.
It was hard not to like those Luv Ya Blue! Oilers of the late ’70s. The faces of the franchise, the Tyler Rose and the coach called “Bum,” were Texas icons. Earl Campbell was an east Texas kid who had won the Heisman Trophy with the Longhorns in Austin and Bum was a Texas high school and college coaching legend. He has assisted Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and Bill Yeoman at Houston and Hayden Fry at SMU. Before that, he had actually been the head coach for our Amarillo High School Sandies, for three seasons from 1959-1961. It was during his time here in the panhandle that he came up with his defensive numbering system that is used by all coaches and fans at all levels of football from Pee Wee to the NFL. When a defense is described as a 3-4 or a 4-3, you’re using Bum Phillips’ original terminology. He invented the 3-4 defense and introduced it to Bear Bryant during the Junction Boys days. And he brought it to the San Diego Chargers when he made the move to the pros in 1967. All real football people in Texas knew about Bum Phillips. And with Phillips calling the plays and Campbell making highlight reel runs in his tear-away jerseys, the Oilers won a bunch of football games. And a whole bunch of fans.
They packed the Astrodome, waving their Columbia blue and white pom-poms, screaming and cheering wildly from the opening kickoff to the final gun. They were crazy, these Oilers fans, in stark contrast to the cheese and wine crowd at most Cowboys games. Their quarterback, Dan Pastorini, was a gun-slingin’ guy with long hair, who wasn’t afraid of getting into a scuffle with reporters or fans in a random parking lot. Elvin Bethea was a relentless sack-happy monster of a man. Billy “White Shoes” Johnson flaunted NFL convention with every outlandish touchdown celebration. Kenny Burrough. Ray Childress. This was a fun team to watch.
And it all started with their colorful coach who, quite honestly, was more cowboy than the coach of the Cowboys.
Bum Phillips is better known for his catchy quotes than for almost anything else. He once famously said of Dolphins coach Don Shula, “He can take his’n and beat your’n and then take your’n and beat his’n.” His fatalistic line about coaching rings true: “There are only two kinds of football coaches: them’s that’s been fired and them’s that’s gonna be fired.” When asked about Earl Campbell’s inability to finish a one-mile run at training camp, the coach replied, “When it’s first down and a mile, I won’t give it to him.”
Along with the line about being “Texas’ team,” the other Bum Phillips line I remember seeing and hearing the day it happened was, again, on the channel 8 news the day after the Steelers beat Houston in the 1979 conference championship game. A frenzied crowd had greeted the team on its return from Pittsburgh at a celebration / pep rally that had been planned at the Astrodome, win or lose. It was standing room only. Nearly a hundred thousand people with their Luv Ya Blue! signs stomping their feet and cheering their team that had come a couple of plays short of their first ever Super Bowl. Bum Phillips took the stage, leaned in to the microphone, and said, “Last year we knocked on the door, this year we beat on the door, next year we’re going to kick the #@!%&* in!”
And, yeah, I was hooked. I’ve always loved those old Houston Oilers who never quite got it done, but had a whole lot of fun trying.
Bum Phillips died over the weekend at 90-years-old at his ranch in Goliad. Under-appreciated for the innovations he brought to the game, maybe a bit caricatured by his over-sized hats and personality to match. I’ll say about Bum Phillips what he once said about Earl Campbell: “I don’t know if he’s in a class by himself; but I know when the class meets, it don’t take long to call roll.”