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"Anyhow. Our practices aren't that easy. I believe our folks work hard. There's such a thing as 'busy work.' You know, shufflin' your feet. Actin' like you doin' somethin' when you ain't, just so you take up time. A lot of hard work is spent wastin' time. Millin' for practice. Don't write it like this, but a guy has to have confidence not to do things the way others do. Somehow people get long hours and success confused. I say, do what you got to do, get it done and forget about it. Time to go home.
"Anyhow. I just don't think rules are that important. Good people are important. Lookit this Dorris. Nobody thought he was much. But I knew he was good people. He'd be good for this team. Then he muscled up and learned how to play. [Rich] Caster—the Jets gave up on him. What a person! By the time he gets through he could be a politician in this town. Jack Tatum, another one. Hasn't said one word of trouble. These people are team people. That's why we got 'em. I don't pay attention to bad reputations or worry about a guy's past. It's a new day here. 'Course, it was a long haul." (Bum switches to the second person now real fast.) "Sometimes you had to go with what you might call your misfits. A guy has to satisfy your needs, fill the gaps. Sometimes you had to pick up an ornery cuss you'd never want to hold the end of your rope instead of some good Ol' boy who'd get you beat 21-7."
As a 6'4", 225-pound rookie linebacker in 1973, Dorris might have been thought of as a good ol' boy who'd get you beat 41-3. Three seasons later, in a two-month period, he was traded by one team, released by another and rejected by two more after tryouts. But when Bethea broke his arm in a November 1977 game against Oakland, Phillips was desperate. He inquired around the locker room if the Oilers knew anyone who might be home. Somebody mentioned Dorris.
"I'll never forget Bum's words on the phone," Dorris says. "He asked me if I'd like to come down and play a little ball. He sounded like an old farmer trying to get a game going in the pasture. Bum blew my mind. I came out to the field on a bus and asked when practice was. I guess it was when everybody got there. I couldn't believe it. Here were guys sitting on helmets and shinning up goalposts. There were stray dogs running across the field. No whistles. Everybody did his own calisthenics. Guys were wearing different outfits, T shirts, hats. Guys came late. I had just been with New Orleans under Hank Stram. We got fined $50 for having a chin strap unbuckled. They fined a guy who missed practice there even after he told them he'd been in a car wreck. We had three practices a day in the preseason. Stram took two years off my playing life. This deal here looked like a paradise."
In gratitude, after three years in Houston, Dorris has gone from 228 to 260 pounds and become an integral part of the team's fearsome pass rush. He named his youngest son Sam Houston. "Under most of these stiff team regimens around the league, young, untried players play nervous and they're always afraid they'll make a mistake," Dorris says. "The system takes away aggressiveness. But Bum withdraws that pressure. It doesn't seem like a business. It's so much more personal. He's acutely aware of what everyone is doing—in their business dealings, personal affairs, home life. He's told us many times we've been hand-picked for our interrelationships. We're close enough so that we can act like fools, then get down to it."
In the beginning, back in '74, when Gillman was in charge and Phillips was just a small-time cornponist doing Will Rogers in the back of team meetings, there wasn't much evidence that things would turn out this way. Don Haskins down at UTEP remembers "the burr head spitting his juice into that Folger's can, but you know, this coulda happened. The players idolized the guy." And Bill Yeomans, who employed Phillips as an assistant at the University of Houston, says Bum was always good at "the tedious things—getting along with the players, being gentle, sweet, rolling with the punches and not letting anything explode."
But on the Oilers nobody could have predicted where Bum Phillips was going. "He was just another assistant," says Bethea. "Then Bum got to be the man and started bringing in these characters off the street. This got to be a zoo, a wild bunch. I said, 'How could this country hick be a football guy?' Sometimes I sit back and still wonder. But he made players out of people you'd never believe. [Defensive Back] Greg Stemrick. He was cut from here once before. He went with the WFL. [Linebacker] Teddy Washington was at K.C. Teddy was lost. Now they're starters, big contributors. Bum gave these guys the opportunity to find themselves."
Originally, Bethea, a perennial All-Pro who nearly singlehandedly held the Oilers together through the lean years, made it known he wanted no part of Phillips' 3-4 defense. "I've wanted out several times," he says. "I would've even gone to Buffalo, I hated the 34 so much. But Bum kept saying to me, 'Yeah, Elvin, but you got to play it.' Real easy-like. He said we'd win with it. Then when we did, he had me convinced. What Bum does differently is enable us to voice our opinions. And he listens. He lets men be their own men."
Among the men's recognized freedoms is that of speech. After the voluble Mauck was observed with his uniform shirttail hanging out in a Monday night TV game against Cleveland, the league fined him $250. The official statement noted the shirt was out "drastically and continuously." Phillips couldn't wait to hear Mauck's reaction. It was a beauty. "Pete Rozelle is a Czar, he belongs in Russia," Mauck ranted in the dressing room. Then he told Barry Warner of radio station KIKK in Houston, "In the off-season NFL players rob banks, forge checks and sell dope to kids, and Rozelle does nothing. Then he fines me for a shirttail. He's a despicable lowlife. It's people like him who are what's wrong with America."
Phillips himself is the antithesis of harsh. He speaks—as has been written—"with the gentleness of a man stroking a calf." Phillips' most oft-quoted pearl may be the one about the other team in football's toughest division. Of Pittsburgh, Bum said, "Last year we knocked on the door, this year we beat on it, next year we gonna kick the sonofabitch in." He said this last January in front of 50,000 people who were waiting in the Astrodome—20,000 more were in the parking lot—when the Oilers arrived home after losing to the Steelers once again. But Bum's mama, 82-year-old Naomi, didn't like the language one bit. For Western purists, the essential Phillips is better on subjects of general import, such as "They ain't but four things in life I know somethin' about—pickup trucks, gumbo, cold beer and barbecued ribs."