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John DeShazier: There was more to Bum Phillips than victories

Posted Oct 21, 2013

'He was a great mentor, great coach, great person'

Bum Phillips

Twenty-seven victories in 69 games, over four seasons and 12 games, don’t tell the story.

Raw numbers don’t measure the total impact.

No, those who were in contact with Bum Phillips said. The touch of the former New Orleans Saints coach (1981-85) was far more significant than games, or a won-loss record. Phillips passed Friday night, at the age of 90, at his ranch in Goliad, Texas.

“He wasn’t a coach, he was kind of like a mentor,” said former defensive tackle Derland Moore, a Saint from 1973-85. “Bum is … if we’d have won, it would’ve been the best job ever.

“He had common sense, and he had a lot of sayings that made a lot of sense. Bum never really coached football, he coached life. He was very, very special.

“He was a guy that would bring you in and tell you the truth. If you put your butt out on the line for him, he’d put his butt out on the line for you. They just don’t come around like that very often. The only other coach I had like that was Hank Stram (who coached the Saints in 1976-77).”

But the folksy, fatherly figure cut by Phillips somewhat undercut his successes.

As head coach and general manager of the Houston Oilers from 1975-80, he became the winningest coach in franchise history with a 59-38 record. The Oilers reached the AFC championship game in consecutive seasons, 1978 and ’79.

And though his Saints teams were 15 games below .500 (27-42), in his role as head coach and general manager, several of his draft picks proved instrumental in future Saints success.

The team’s 1981 draft haul included Heisman Trophy winning running back George Rogers with the first overall pick, future Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson (second round), defensive end Frank Warren (third round), tight end Hoby Brenner (third round) and defensive tackle Jim Wilks (12th round). They would all be cornerstones of the club that would later produce the franchise’s first winning season and playoff berth in 1987.

In 1982, kicker Morten Andersen, who would go on to become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time Pro Bowl selection with the Saints, was picked in the fourth round. In 1985 Phillips picked wide receiver Eric Martin in the seventh round; Martin became one of the franchise’s most productive wideouts.

Bum Phillps“He was a gem, he was great, he was a great mentor, great coach, great person,” Andersen said. “He was the guy that gave me a chance in the NFL.

“He drafted me and had the patience to stay with me when it didn’t go really well in the beginning, when I was struggling a little bit. He was unique in the sense that he used humor a lot of times to motivate and tell stories and life lessons. It wasn’t always about football, it was about what kind of wisdom he could give you and how he could make you a better person and a better player.

“Humble, funny, just a lot of fun to be around. He made it fun to play for him. I really looked forward to going to work every day with Bum because you never knew. Every day was different. He had a lot of passion for the game, you just knew that.”

New Orleans Saints Owner/Chairman of the Board Tom Benson said he also enjoyed his exposure to Phillips, though it was limited as a head coach.

“I had the opportunity to work with him when I first purchased the team in 1985 and also enjoyed our friendship following his coaching career,” Benson said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Debbie, (son) Wade and the rest of his family."

Wade Phillips, in fact, finished out Bum’s final season in New Orleans. Bum coached the first 12 games of the 1985 season (the Saints were 4-8) before he resigned and Wade was named interim coach the final four games.

The Saints went 1-3 under Wade and the staff was released after the season, paving the way for Benson to hire Jim Finks as general manager. Finks hired Jim Mora as head coach and the Saints had their first winning season and playoff appearance in 1987, with a 12-3 record.

Before then, Phillips’ Saints matched the most successful back-to-back seasons in franchise history when they went 8-8 in 1983 and 7-9 in ’84. The ’78 and ’79 Saints went 7-9 and 8-8, respectively.

“The toughest part was not winning,” Moore said. “I wanted to win for him so bad. He invigorated me, because I really related to him.

“I came from the farm country in Missouri and me being where I was, it was kind of like a miracle. Bum was kind of a miracle himself.”

Phillips played college football at Lamar College (now Lamar University) in Beaumont, Texas, but enlisted in the United States Marine Corps shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He became one of the elite Marine Raiders.

The fact that Andersen was a Saint also bordered on miraculous.

The franchise once before had used a high draft pick on a kicker/punter – Russell Erxleben, first round, No. 11 overall in 1979.

“The Saints had drafted a kicker/punter in the first round and it didn’t work out really well, so I was really surprised that I was going there,” Andersen said. “I had no contact, pre-draft, with the Saints at all. So I had no indication I was even being looked at or that I was on their radar.

“It worked out for all of us.”

Phillips, too, was known for a quick wit and litany of one-liners.

“He was kind of like a Will Rogers with a coaching whistle around his neck,” said Jim Henderson, the Saints’ longtime radio play-by-play announcer for WWL-AM. “I remember when I was doing his (television) coaching show at one point (from 1981-85), we did that at 7 a.m. on a Thursday and this was in December. And when I got there Bum was already sitting on the set with his Stetson pulled down way over his head.

“And when I talked to him for the first time I could tell he had a really heavy cold. I said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a bad cold, huh Bum?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, I hope it turns into pneumonia.’ I said, ‘Pneumonia?’ He said, ‘Yeah, because they got a cure for pneumonia. They don’t know how to cure the common cold.’ “

Phillips also made training camp a light-hearted affair.

“If you went to Vero Beach during that time, when the Saints trained down there, Bum had a unique way of combining work with pleasure,” Henderson said. “In Vero Beach, in Dodger Town, he had this cabana, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“I don’t think Bum ever went swimming, but (the cabana) was well-stocked with Budweiser and barbecue. And he’d have these pickers and grinners come into camp and they’d show up at practice about 11 a.m., wearing all Saints gear.

“And their primary job was to pick and grin for Bum in the evening as they played dominoes and Bourre.

“One thing he did down there that I’ve never heard of another coach doing is, he coached from the tower. And he would invite members of the media to come up there on a daily basis and just stand up there with him in the tower as he surveyed practice. I spent a couple of practices up there with him and it was something I’ve never seen another coach do.”

He was, Andersen said, one of a kind.

“He had a good life,” Andersen said. “He had a full life. He did what he wanted to do in his career. He’s got kids and numerous grandkids.

“His legacy is cemented forever. He was an iconic figure not only in Texas and Houston, but wherever he went. He’s a national treasure to me and to everybody who came in contact with him.”

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