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Now He's Really Got the Horses
Jeff Pearlman
October 06, 1997
The Oilers are gone and Bum Phillips, Texas rancher, doesn't miss them
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October 06, 1997

Now He's Really Got The Horses

The Oilers are gone and Bum Phillips, Texas rancher, doesn't miss them

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There's no hurt in his voice. Phillips isn't sad, and he's not angry. He's not even bitter, like many coaches who have been fired. He has simply put football in a box on the top shelf of the closet.

On the 250-acre I.O. Ranch, a tortilla-flat spread that Bum and Debbie purchased almost three years ago, the time to think about football is hard to come by anyway. If Phillips isn't tending to his cattle, he's gathering eggs or feeding the cows, plowing land or planting grass, taking a three-mile walk or driving to the feed store, tearing out scrub growth or hosing down his horse, Pokey.

Although Phillips is a little hard-of-hearing and his arms, dark and spotted, look 73, the rest of him does not. His square chin is still square. His shoulders, cowboy-broad, can still handle a full day's work. Watching Phillips, you sometimes see the Bum of two decades ago, walking the sideline with that confident strut. Until this year he still had a place in his soul for Oilers football. So what if owner Bud Adams had given him the boot after Houston went 11-5 and tied for first in the AFC Central in 1980, but lost to the Oakland Raiders in the wild-card playoff? "I'm not mad at Bud for anything," he says. "When he fired me, he made a decision and we shook hands."

Even after Phillips was hired to coach in New Orleans—where he spent almost five miserable years, during which the best he could do was 8-8 in 1983—he was still an Oiler at heart. He quit the Saints during the '85 season (he was succeeded by his son, Wade, who had been New Orleans's defensive coordinator) and did color commentary on Oilers radio broadcasts from 1990 through '94, with Debbie keeping stats for him at road games. At the 1989 Luv Ya Blue reunion in Houston, 97 of 99 invited players showed up, many to pay homage to Phillips.

But when you walk through the Phillipses' house—past the spurs, hats, guns and Old West sculptures displayed against the light-colored brick walls; past the numerous photos of Bum with his six children from his first marriage, of Bum riding Pokey, of Debbie with her cutting horses; past the books stacked on a shelf; past the rock with BELIEVE inscribed on it—you discover there is not one sign of the Oilers.

In the bedroom closet Phillips has seven pairs of cowboy boots. In his Houston heyday he owned dozens. ("Oh, god, thousands," he says.) Back then, Phillips without snakeskins was like Jagger without lips. During games Phillips walked the sideline looking every inch the Texan in his cowboy hat, boots and Wranglers. Now, alas, Bum knows boat shoes. "He had a little problem with his left foot," says Debbie. "It hurts when he wears boots."

What you see in Bum's house and his closet speaks to his current priorities. His only connection to the game is a 1-800 handicapping service, Bum Phillips' Free Pick Phone, which pays him for the use of his name. When Bum and Debbie married in 1990 (the second time for both), they made a commitment to a new lifestyle. For 37 years Phillips had coached football, working his way through the high school and college ranks to the pros. During that time, he concedes, his first wife, Helen (the marriage ended in divorce in 1990), and their kids came second. "It's my biggest regret," he says. "I was absent a whole lot." Not this time.

Bum met Debbie in the late '70s, while he was still coaching the Oilers. A champion cutting-horse rider at the time, she was a quintessential Luv Ya Blue freak who needed a place to board and train her horses. He was the icon coach who also owned a cattle ranch outside Houston. Their friendship was, for many years, just that. "But when we talked, it always was real comfortable—like talking to a friend you've had a long time," says Debbie. "It's wonderful being married to your best friend."

A year after the wedding Debbie learned that she had breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and is doing fine now. In a way, she says, the illness is what has made their marriage work. At 47 she is 26 years younger than Bum. "But it doesn't feel like that," she says. "Going through cancer, you learn to value every day. It takes away any sense of invincibility. That catches me and Bum up. We're both valuing every moment of our lives."

Rare is the moment that at least one of Bum's 18 grandchildren, ages 10 months to 23 years, isn't around. Rarer still is the moment that Bum does one thing and Debbie another. At night they ride together, herding cows into a pen and cutting, the art of dividing herds.

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