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Past is prologue, even in Texas. Ironically enough, there were to be many more whistle stops both large and small before O. (for Oail) A. (for Andrew) Phillips came achugging into the wheelhouse of professional football, which may or may not be the same thing as the depot of American life, depending on whether you are a network sponsor or a nickel back. Following his sojourn along the sidelines of the Golden Triangle in East Texas, Oail Andrew worked in chronological order—you may need a scorecard now—for the coaches of the University of Houston, the San Diego Chargers, Southern Methodist University, Oklahoma State University and the Houston Oilers. Then he was catapulted into the head job with the Oilers. How Oail Andrew has survived and prospered in the ultimate megabucks business-sports world of homogenous, regimented and robotized hearts and minds is a feat as wondrous as all...well, considering where the Oilers play half their games, as all indoors.
From the beginning he wore a burr haircut under a 10-gallon hemp hat. He collected a wardrobe of boots made from the skins of every dead beast from the boa constrictor to the kangaroo. He gnawed forever on a plug of Tinsleys stashed somewhere in the porcine cheeks of that marvelous dirt rancher's face. Only in America, right? Only in the NFL. Still, Bum Phillips played against all the modern day, Mad. Ave. rules. When Houston Coach Sid Gillman named his successor in 1975, the designee turned out to be the Oilers' own laid-back defensive coordinator, the rube, Phillips. Oiler owner K.S. (Bottom Line Bud) Adams Jr. said, "I thought he was kind of a cowboy."
Well, by God, he was. But mamas don't let their cowboys grow up to be puppets. Phillips won 44 games in five years at Houston, and when Kenny Stabler, the new Oiler quarterback, joined the team this season, he said, "Me and Bum are as alike as two piles of cow manure. The guy is just an unpretentious cowboy who happens to be a football coach." There is, of course, a world of difference.
To rebuild in the National Football League is difficult enough. To win while rebuilding is something else again. Just ask Bud Wilkinson. To win while rebuilding at Houston—whose team had a well-deserved reputation for having the NFL's cheapest owner, the most outdated practice facilities and an embarrassment of a front-office operation—was considered an accomplishment beyond the fringe.
Adams, a scion of the wealthy Phillips petroleum family (no Bums there) out of Oklahoma, had been through eight coaches in 15 years and four in the previous five seasons before Phillips was offered on the altar. These men included the immortal Slingin' Sammy Baugh, who came off the range long enough to go 4-10; his successor, the immortal Hugh (Bones) Taylor, who was accused by his wife of aggravated assault in the midst of an equally awful 4-10 (she dropped the charge); and, lest he be forgotten, the amazing Bill Peterson, whose Oiler tenure lasted 19 games in 1972-73—the team lost 18—but whose even more amazing contract paid him until 1976.
Adams is the owner who was held up for the John Brodie contract in the AFL quarterback raid. Adams is the man who was involved in a controversy over "stuffing" game tickets—that is, hiding tickets to avoid a sellout and, ergo, home TV, then placing the tickets on sale following the blackout deadline. On whim, Adams has pulled parking passes to stiff the media. Adams has filled the Oiler charter flights with fat-cat business associates—"Here comes the Elks Club," Defensive End Elvin Bethea will bark disgustedly upon the arrival of Adams' cronies on the plane. In place of the ritual holiday cash gifts, Adams has doled out turkeys and hams to his unappreciative staff. In 1978 each Oiler assistant coach received a $3,000 bonus for defeating Miami in the playoffs. The following week the assistants were given $2,000 for beating New England. "If we win the Super Bowl," said one, "we could wind up paying the owner."
In the middle of the Oilers' disastrous 1-13 season in 1973, Adams replaced Peterson with the bow-tied workaholic, Gillman, who had brought Bum Phillips into the league at San Diego in 1967. Gillman enticed Phillips out of the college ranks (Oklahoma State) again in 1974. That year was the first the Oilers used the 3-4 defensive alignment exclusively.
"Hailfire, we don't have but three guys who can play defense anyway," Bum explained. It was the first of a veritable saddlebag full of one-liners that have been shaking down the pinstriped image of the league ever since. Houston's points-against total dropped from 447 to 282 in one season, and the team won seven of 14 games in 1974.
Once he had stepped down as coach, Gillman envisioned total control emanating from the general manager's office. In January of 1975 he resigned his field position to run the team from upstairs, where he could oversee everything the new coach did. The new coach was the old high school guy, the cowboy—"All he needed was a holster," Gillman said—who would be so flattered he would tap-dance at his mentor's every beck and call.
But Gillman—like so many others before and since—had not measured his drawling cattle caller. Behind the gold-rimmed spectacles, the constant chaw and the bumpkin facade, Bum Phillips was one shrewd operator—Douglas MacArthur playing Pa Kettle. Phillips was not the troglodyte gimp carrying the garbage out the back door of the saloon. He was the ruthless shark drawing to an inside straight at the big table in the front. Phillips didn't care about the insulting salary. At 52, with a first shot at the big leagues, a man who loved it as Bum did might coach for free. But that's exactly what he did want: to coach, to lead, to be in charge.