In the rear of the Empresario Restaurant, a wood-frame eatery that serves up killer fried chicken, waitress Marjorie Cornwell is deep in thought. She has lived in Goliad, Texas, nearly all of her 35 years, but never before has she been asked to name the No. 1 celebrity in this town of about 1,900. Does the farmer who cut off six fingers count? And what about the horse that ran away? "Y'know," says Cornwell, "this isn't a nothin' town. I mean, we've had people. But the most famous has to be—I'd say—Lenny Von Dohlen. The actor."
There's a pause here. A long one. Lenny, star of such hit movies as Dracula's Wedding and Electric Dreams, would have to place pretty high. But doesn't Goliad have someone else? "This most recent Playboy," says a belching, fajita-stuffed cowboy standing nearby. "A girl from our town. Cute ass."
As this scene unfolds, a 73-year-old man with blue eyes and a wide-brimmed Stetson keeps to himself, chuckling slightly but never looking up from his plate of chicken-fried steak. Fame? Prestige? "Don't matter," he finally says. "And if they did, they're probably not all they're cracked up to be."
With that, Oail Andrew (Bum) Phillips, one of the most charismatic NFL coaches ever, but a distant sixth among VIPs in his hometown to Lenny Von Dohlen, the girl in Playboy, the farmer, the horse and George Bush (who used to hunt in Goliad), lifts his 225-pound body away from the table and walks out the front door, no autographs requested.
Where once he was in the spotlight as coach of the Houston Oilers (1975 through '80) and the New Orleans Saints ('81 through '85), Phillips now blends into the South Texas terrain like dirt. He breeds cattle in Goliad and like most of his fellow ranchers is happy to ride the range, drink beer, curse a little, eat good Texas beef and then call it a night. "Whatever you say about Bum, say this," says Larry Waters, a Goliad rancher. "He's just another person."
Goliad is 313 miles from Dallas, 736 miles from Memphis and light-years from Houston's Astrodome. On Jan. 6, 1980 the Oilers' bid to reach the Super Bowl was shattered for the second year in a row by a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Houston had been crushed 34-5 the year before, the first time it had advanced to within one win of the NFL title game. In the rematch the Oilers got a bad call that nullified a game-tying touchdown in the last seconds of the third quarter and lost 27-13. Embarrassed and disappointed, they flew home after the game and went straight to the Astrodome where 70,000 fans were waiting to show their support. With tears in his eyes Phillips addressed the crowd, "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."
In fact Houston never did break through and play in a Super Bowl—it never returned to the AFC Championship Game—but during his six-year run Phillips starred as the rowdy coach of the Oilers. He was, and still is, the symbol of Luv Ya Blue football, the era in which Houston played a smash-mouth game featuring Earl Campbell left, Earl Campbell right and Earl Campbell up the middle. The Luv Ya Blue days were the high point of Oilers fan frenzy, when crowds of ticketless diehards would stand in the streets to cheer the players as they drove to games at the Astrodome. "Crazy," recalls Debbie Phillips, Bum's wife. "Everything going on was Luv Ya Blue. Bum was their leader—the man."
And now the last remnant of Luv Ya Blue football, the franchise itself, has vanished from Houston. Like Campbell, Phillips, quarterback Dan Pastorini, wide receiver Kenny Burrough and the rest of the gang, the Oilers have moved on—to Tennessee. "Forget that team," Phillips says of the Oilers, during a hot drive on Goliad's dusty side roads. "As far as I'm concerned, they're Pittsburgh or Cleveland or New York. Once the Oilers left Houston, they left Bum Phillips."
"Meaning it doesn't matter anymore."