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Among Houston's other free-agent pickups are Placekicker Toni Fritsch, who was reputed to have a drinking problem, and Defensive Back Vernon Perry, who came from the Canadian Football League, allegedly a more serious flaw. Fritsch made the Pro Bowl last year. "Fritsch is so good he practices missin'," Phillips says. "I don't listen to no rumors. Fritsch don't drink during the season. Hail, the man who put that story out would say I have a drinkin' problem."
Phillips has become such a hero in Houston that even his most glaring mistakes are passed over as mere bagatelles. In 1976 Bum gave up on a rookie receiver named Steve Largent, who has gone on to renown in Seattle. Last season, in the first Pittsburgh game, the Oilers were behind 31-7 when Phillips froze on the sidelines and inserted Billy Johnson to return a kickoff. The popular "White Shoes" had missed most of the previous season with knee surgery and was obviously vulnerable, gun-shy. Moreover, Phillips had publicly announced that Johnson was too valuable a property to be used as a kick returner anymore. But here he came in a cause that was long-lost. This time the other knee buckled and, whoops, there went another White Shoes-less season.
Another questionable game-day decision came in this season's opener at Pittsburgh when he decided to punt away on fourth-and-inches in Steeler territory. The Oilers had come from 0-17 to tie the game 17-all and were in full cry with three minutes, six seconds to go in the third quarter. But Earl Campbell didn't get the call; Parsley did. After they recovered from the shock of Phillips' giveaway, the Steelers took the ball and drove 80 yards for the score and won 31-17. Afterward, Joe Greene said, "When you've got a howitzer [Campbell], you've got to fire it." Lynn Swann said, "Campbell should have carried. Chuck Noll would've let us go for it."
Ouch. In New York or Philadelphia, wonderful places like that, Phillips would have been crucified by press and public alike. In Houston the situation was kid-gloved all the way.
This is not to say that every silver lining has lacked clouds. Phillips has lost some credibility with the Houston media—largely a result of his loud denials that the Stabler-Pastorini deal was imminent. There are journalists who claim that, with fame and celebrity, the coach has become too pompous and lazy for his own good. For a long time Phillips didn't speak with the Oilers' administrative vice-president, Ladd Herzeg, a young accountant from Cleveland (Cleveland?) who says it took him "several months to realize how intelligent and sophisticated Bum is." Then there is the coach's ongoing arms-length relationship with his difficult boss, Adams, who some believe would just as soon fire Phillips as not if he could find any good reason.
Phillips' 5-9 record in 1976 would have been grounds for dismissal had not the Oilers been depleted by injuries and had not the season been preceded by the team's fluke 10-4 record in Phillips' initial campaign. In 1978, when Phillips' second two-year contract was running out, Adams was thought to be tying the noose, but the Oilers put together a November winning streak during which they came from 23 points behind to defeat New England 26-23, then beat Miami 35-30 in Campbell's famous (199 yards) Monday Night monster mash. Adams was forced to sign up Phillips for another three years. Now seemingly poised to make a third strong run for the Super Bowl, the coach may be beyond Adams' reach.
Bum Phillips doesn't go out to restaurants in Houston much. He usually escapes to the privacy of his cutting-horse barns out in Dewalt, just west of suburban Missouri City, where he is building a new home on a 10-acre plot hard by the railroad tracks. Bum himself cut out a piece of the land for a lake. Bum got his friend Red Adair, the oil-well fire fighter, to fill the lake with water. Bum stocked the lake with catfish and perch; he has a high old time out there every night just sitting under the cottonwoods feeding the fish and waiting for the house and stables to be built so he can bring over his 14 quarter horses.
Helen Phillips doesn't share much of Bum's football world. She raised the children, and he coached the team. They never related the two lives to one another. After Wade, there were five daughters in a row. Cheerleaders, not players. "Seems like coaches always have daughters," Bum says. Kim Ann, "my 14-year-old," is still at home. So is Charlie, the myna bird.
"I'm 13, Daddy," Kim Ann says.
"Feed the bird," Charlie says. (It comes out sounding a lot like "beat Pittsburgh.")