Bummin’ Around

Houston’s favorite ex-coach still airs his views every Sunday.

The most satisfying part of being a Houston Oilers fan isn’t their record this season or quarterback Warren Moon’s command of the run-and-shoot offense or the way the home crowds get so worked up that they threaten to blow the roof off the Astrodome. No, it’s that distinctive drawl on radio broadcasts of the games, the voice that makes Don Meredith sound positively Shakespearean. There’s only one voice like that, and it belongs to none other than Oail Andrew Phillips, the man everybody—strangers included—calls Bum.

In his second year as expert analyst for the Houston Oilers Radio Network, Bum brings to his job the observation skills and humor of CBS’s John Madden minus the hysterics. Between all the “ain’ts,” “yew bets,” and down-home dictums (“An expert is an ordinary fellow away from home”), Bum’s unpolished style contributes to his media appeal. Eleven years after he was unceremoniously dumped as Oilers head coach by team owner K.S. “Bud” Adams following three successive play-off appearances, and six years after Bum stepped down as coach of the New Orleans Saints, he is more popular than ever. In a poll conducted earlier this year by the Houston Post,  he was voted one of the state’s all-time top ten Texans, behind Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, George Bush, Nolan Ryan, and Red Adair, but ahead of Lyndon Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Willie Nelson, and Earl Campbell.

If Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys were America’s team, the Oilers under Bum Phillips were puredee Lone Star. He is the only head football coach to direct Texas teams on the high school, college, and professional levels. He never wore his cowboy hat to home games at the Astrodome because gentlemen were supposed to remove their hats indoors. His down-to-the-follicles buzz cut, chewing tobacco, pressed jeans, and elephant-skin boots only make him larger than life, a caricature of the kind of mentor every schoolboy who played football wishes he’d had.

With Tom Franklin calling the play-by-play and color man John O’Reilly providing the necessary cues, Bum can afford to be himself. “Those two guys make it really easy,” he says, kicking back in his suburban southwest Houston home, where photos of cutting horses on the walls outnumber the football memorabilia. “I don’t have to sit around and look for lines. All I do is kind of answer questions and voice an opinion every now and then about how the technical part of the game is going.”

Only Bum can diagnose a three-deep zone defense as Franklin is calling a play, liken a player’s quick moves to “a minner in a dipper” that darts away when you try to grab it, or get a laugh by describing a lineman as having that perfect Raider mentality: “None.” He smelled New England’s upset of the Oilers in September before the game even started, remarking that the Patriots had nothing to lose. After the game he praised the opposition (“Heck, they earned it”) and observed, “We gave them too much doggone time at the end of the game.” When Franklin asked him what he’d tell the team if he were Coach Jack Pardee, he imparted a classic piece of pigskin wisdom: “Ball game’s over. Let’s go on and get ready for the next week. Don’t worry about something that’s already happened.”

O’Reilly praises Phillips’ verbal economy: “He cuts to the bone.” When the tide of a close contest was turning against the Oilers, Franklin wondered, “Ever had the feeling that it’s not your day?” Bum shot back, “Not till the day’s over.”

The biggest difference between coaching on the field and calling a game in the press box, as Bum sees it, is stress. “There’s obviously no pressure on me now, but I have to admit I want Houston to win,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt me as bad when they lose, and it doesn’t excite me as much when they win. It’s not like when I was coaching. That was life or death to me.”

Although Bum is basking in the glow of the Sunday afternoon limelight, he makes it clear that John Madden needn’t look over his shoulder. “I don’t want a job like a play-by-play announcer or a TV analyst, where you’d have to study film all week and know how to pronounce everybody’s name and know their numbers and all that,” he says. “I had a full-time job before.”

Phillips was 62 when he hung up his cleats for good. “When I left, I left,” he explains. “I checked out my retirement and learned I could draw ninety thousand dollars for the rest of my life. I said to myself, ‘Well, hell, if a guy can’t make it on that, he’s living too high.’ I got into raising cattle, and that’s a full-time job. When I started out in life, my grandfather had a ranch, and I always thought about working on one.

I’ve got three places I lease. I don’t own them. I just coached,” he says with a straight face. “I didn’t play. If I’da played, I’da bought them.”

Bum’s retirement income is augmented by his broadcast-ing salary, a stipend from a four-times-weekly radio show, and several endorsement contracts, including Kraft barbe-cue sauce, whose commercials starring Bum air in the South-east, strangely, but not in Texas. “He’s not up in the Michael Jordan range,” explains his agent and daughter, Andrea McCarthy. “But he’s got enough endorsements to be worried about oversaturation. He doesn’t want people to think he’s obsessed with money.”

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