Epic Confrontations: Rocky, the NFL Network and Bum Phillips
Commentary by PalmerSucks
April 15, 2014
For fans of Stillers past, it’s been quite a couple weeks. First, the NFL Network ran a weeklong junkie-binge of Stillers glory as part of its “Dynasty Week.” This included a lot of classic Super Bowl and playoff games (including the not-so-remembered-but-should-be 2003 wild-card game where the Stillers clawed back from 17 down to stun the Brownies).
Included in this Stillers smorgasbord were episodes of the excellent “In Their Own Words” where the players get to recount history, well, in their own words. Every time I watch the ‘70s episodes I get an appreciation for Mike Wagner, probably the most underrated member of the Steel Curtain defense. (Incidentally, he makes a good case for why the name “Steel Curtain” should be applied to the entire unit, not just the front four.) Next time they run this series, be sure and catch the one featuring Rocky Bleier, who’s made an entire speaking career out of his Swann-like TD grab in Super Bowl XIII. (One fan’s gone so far as to state he should be in the Hall of Fame, which may be carrying things a little far, but regardless: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Put-Rocky-Bleier-in-the-Hall-of-Fame/123943597638992?sk=wall&filter=12)
At the same time, I had the chance to catch “Bum Phillips All-American Opera” in New York City (yep, somebody came up with the idea of making an opera out of Bum Phillips’s life). At first thought that seems a strange undertaking, but if you think about it, the ‘70s Houston Oilers made for quite a tragic, maybe even operatic, story.
Phillips, who passed away this fall (just months before the opera opened) does too. He had in his life the Satanic figure of Bud Adams, who rivaled Art Modell for the title of “all-time greatest jerk of an owner.” Adams even outdid Modell, who at least allowed the city of Cleveland to keep the names and colors of their team when it was moved.
In his day Phillips was seen up north as a bit of a hayseed, an image not exactly discouraged by his chaw, snakeskin boots and snaily East Texas drawl. In fact, however, he possessed one of football’s greatest minds. Message-board posters who want you to know they played the game toss out terms like “three-technique,” but guess who came up with that system of numbering defensive alignments? Yep, Bum Phillips, local yokel. Credit for this innovation often goes to Bear Bryant, but in reality it was a different story: the big, bad Bear was taught football by some guy coaching high-school ball at the time.
What’s more, Phillips popularized the 3-4 defense now mostly used in today’s game. His own unit rivaled even Pittsburgh’s, featuring Hall of Famers Elvin Bethea and Curly Culp, plus Robert “Dr. Doom” Brazile, the prototype of the modern outside linebacker. On offense the Oilers boasted a golden-boy QB and the great Earl Campbell, perhaps the hardest-running back in history. That team also included my all-time favorite kick returner, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, known for his patented “knees-in-knees-out” touchdown dance.
Phillips took over a lame Oiler team in 1975, and in three years had them ready to challenge for a Super Bowl. Along the way he ignited the passion of a city thirsting for a winner – Houston, right smack dab in the middle of the late-‘70s “Urban Cowboy” craze that had gripped the country. About the only thing he did wrong was run into the best team in NFL history at the peak of their glory run.
Phillips also might’ve been the most quotable coach in history. He’s best known for his “He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n” saw, but the list goes on much longer. (Of Terry Bradshaw he once said he could “throw a football through a car wash without it getting wet.”)
The one issue I had with the opera is that it skipped the period between Phillips’s days as an elite WWII Marine Raider and his emergence as head coach in Houston (a space of a mere, oh, thirty years). That leaves out his stint as part of the legendary Texas A&M pre-‘Bama-Bryant staff, plus his days as a Texas schoolboy football coach and the effect he had on so many young lives. Phillips had charisma, yet more, something that approached an aura, or as one of his players later recalled:
“We were all watching the doorway of that old dressing room the first time Bum Phillips walked in. He was right out of college — Stephen F. Austin State. It was his first coaching job.
When he finally walked in, Charles Thomas nudged me in the ribs.
“Damn,” Charles murmured when Bum stepped inside, “did you see that? When he walked in here something sorta walked in ahead of him.”
Bum Phillips will be remembered as a Stetson-wearing good ol’ boy who spouted funny folk phrases and spat tobacco on the sidelines. What he should be remembered as is being one of the great innovators in football, right up there with Paul Brown and Sid Gillman.
Having spent some time in East Texas, I’m familiar with the role football plays down there (to quote the opera, they “eat football for breakfast, and shit field goals for lunch.”) Coming from Pittsburgh, I could identify with their obsession. I learned that Phillips somehow coached high-school ball both at Port Neches and Groves, bitter crosstown rivals; I stepped into the Thomas Jefferson high-school stadium in Port Arthur, and saw a running back/track star by the name of Jamaal Charles. I heard tell of the unstoppable 1980 Jefferson Yellow Jackets team with their way-ahead-of-its-day passing offense, and how agonizingly close they’d come to taking the coveted Texas 5A state title, upset in the final minutes by a scrappy underdog called Odessa Permian – the real-life Dillon High of “Friday Night Lights.”
It was then I came to realize just how adored Phillips was, in a way most coaches aren’t. Chuck Noll is respected, even revered, in Western Pennsylvania, but I don’t think anyone would claim he was “loved.” Phillips was another story altogether.
Unlike Noll, who kept himself at arm’s length from the public, Phillips embraced the people around him. Noll coached like an IBM executive, and while Phillips no doubt took things seriously, he also saw room for something called “fun” – right down to stopping practices to hand out ice cream cones. (Imagine Noll walking up to Jack Lambert and asking if he’d like sprinkles on his French vanilla.) This culminated in the whole lighthearted “Luv Ya Blue” phenomenon that could’ve only happened in Houston during the Bum era.
Many of the ‘70s Stillers will tell you they wanted to win for a beloved figure, but that was the team’s owner. In Houston, the great motivation was to win for the head coach, who had become a father figure to many of the players. Plus there was the local-boy aspect. Noll came from Cleveland, Lombardi from Brooklyn, but Bum Phillips was as Houston as a clogged highway, a true homegrown hero.
But it isn’t just a matter of geography. In East Texas they’re proud of their other coaching icon, Jimmy Johnson, but he doesn’t come close to matching Phillips for sheer adoration. Likewise, unlike Johnson, who committed the blasphemy of later calling Florida home, Phillips stayed as true to Texas as a brand on a steer.
(In fact he lived out his years after football as a rancher.)
And that’s what sets the scene for tragedy: the most beloved coach in the league, with a team capable of beating almost anyone, never does realize his life’s dream of making it to the Big One. It’s a quest that ends cruelly, in the icy confines of Three Rivers, and the eternal agony of a crucial touchdown denied because the refs didn’t use instant replay back then.
The tragedy concludes as barely a year after “beating on the door” to the Super Bowl, Phillips gets fired -- on New Year’s Eve. It adds an epilogue as Bum heads off to New Orleans, only to leave just before the “Dome Patrol” defense he laid the groundwork for (probably the greatest 3-4 unit of all time) comes into its own.
So what does this all mean to you, the Stillers fan? Well, to me, what lifts the Stillers dynasty a cut above the others is the competition it faced during its time. To earn its rings, the Stillers had to overcome such great teams as the ‘70s Raiders, Cowboys and Oilers. I’ve had this debate with 49ers fans, and I always ask one question: “who’d you have to beat, the Bengals?” It always brings about some hesitation before I get a response.
And one more thing: of all the battles the Stillers had back then, the ones with the Oilers were probably the toughest. The Stillers beat Dallas with their passing attack, and though Stillers-Raiders games got nasty, they were overshadowed by the funky bounce of the Immaculate Reception. But Stillers-Oilers games were line-it-up-and-man-it-up pad-rattlers; Campbell smashing through the Curtain on one play, Donnie Shell blasting him backwards the next. These games I saw and remember, and while I may have been a bit too young to have truly appreciated them, the replays bear me out.
If you missed Dynasty Week, by the way, you’re in luck. Wednesday night the NFL Network will be airing its next edition of “Caught in the Draft.” This episode features the Stillers’ 1974 haul, considered the best draft class ever.
As for the Bum Phillips opera, its New York run is over, but I hear it’s going to open soon in Austin, Texas. If you happen to be down that way, look out for it. It’ll both entertain and provide you with a cruel sense of satisfaction.