There are no curfews for the Oilers, few rules, seldom a fine. Last year Phillips held up the team plane an hour and a half to wait for a linebacker who was late. "Houston's traffic's a bitch," Bum explained. In the historically quiet, grim sanctuary of the pregame dressing room, at least 18 different strains of music blare from stereo "boxes" as the Oilers boogie away their nerves.
Phillips drives his red pickup to workouts. He drinks beer with the players. Lots. He sings country and western with some, plays dominoes with others. He "discusses" his on-field decisions with a few. "Hey, Short Hairs, why didn't we go for it?" Center Carl Mauck, Bum's favorite, bellows at the back of the plane. "Hey, Short Hairs. You got to be nuts."
"Loyalty up and down the line," Bum says. "That's what's important. But you know what? I can get away with all this because they like me. If they didn't, the sonsabitches would kill me."
Phillips never criticizes a player in public. "Bum would rather release a player than yell at him," says Ed Biles, the defensive coordinator. Though the Oilers have been one game away from the Super Bowl the last two seasons—Phillips bawled like a baby after the second of the two devastating playoff losses to the Steelers—the most emotionally upset the team can remember him being was following a preseason loss to Dallas in 1979. The locker room was eerily silent for once. "Any one but this one," Phillips murmured. That's all he said. The Oilers felt they had deserted the old man. On Thanksgiving Day, in the rematch that counted, they beat the Cowboys 30-24.
The Good Ol' Boy family atmosphere on the Oilers is not a myth. In search of the perfect chord, Phillips has fine-penciled the waiver lists to bring in every reject, castoff and renegade this side of Jesse James to help the Oilers. At different times he has hired on a fireman, a softball player and a cement-mixer truck driver. This year's kick-return man, Carl Roaches, was driving an ice-cream truck last year. Good Humor's on the 30, the 40, the 50....
Phillips employs his son, 33-year-old Wade, to coach the defensive line. Wade says if he ever messes up he'll claim heredity. Phillips' 1978 team, which went to the AFC title game, included 21 free agents. Andy Dorris, the defensive left end, calls the Oilers "football's melting pot." Recently a 5'9", 230-pound Mexican-American named James Juarez turned up on the Oilers' doorstep wanting to know if—"Don't laugh, amigo" he said—he could help Bum at linebacker. Juarez said he hadn't played football in a couple of years but that he'd been working out at a health club. A trainer told Juarez that Bum would get back to him.
That is the whole ball of wax, don't you see. The reason Bum Phillips has captured the imagination of all football is not so much the hats and the boots and the twanged-out jokes in between the tobacco juice flying into his makeshift spittoons. Why, this fat old red-neck truck driver has turned a disheveled, downtrodden NFL franchise into a Salvation Army Sunday-afternoon sandlot pickup crew, the same kind we see celebrating a W in all those TV beer commercials every week. Luv Ya Blue is nothing but buzz language for "Kick ass, blue collars." Come on down, James Juarez.
Winning enough to play for the AFC championship two years in a row may be merely a footnote in the developing legacy of Bum Phillips.
"Discipline?" Bum says. "My idea of discipline is not makin' guys do something, it's gettin' 'em to do it. There's a difference in bitchin' and coachin'. Some places the whole damn practice is a constant gripe. All negative stuff. The first thing you know is your people tune you out. Then it becomes a challenge to make them do somethin' they should be doin' on their own all along. The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline.
"Anyhow. A long time ago I gave up this philosophy of not gettin' close to the players. 'Stay away. Keep your distance.' That's a lot a bull. It came home to me when I was coachin' my son and workin' his little fanny off. I was mean and tough. But he knew it was just pretendin'. He knew I loved him. There was never any doubt. I'm around these guys seven months, seven days a week. I laugh with 'em. Cry with 'em. I know'em. I want 'em to understand my fondness. I want us to be close. I think it helps 'em play better.