To get to the bottom of Denver Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, drive west of Houston for about an hour, until you run plumb out of town. Take a left onto a narrow state farm road across from the only restaurant for miles. Weave through a few miles of ranch road, past herd after herd of grazing cattle. Go over the one-lane wooden bridge and follow the dirt road to the end. Finally, with three ranch dogs nipping at your feet, walk into the metal-roofed arena where the cutting horses are being trained. Now, this is Texas.
This is an article from the Jan. 29, 1990 issue
Here a portly man wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses sits atop a sorrel horse named Mr. San Powder. He's watching a rider teach Sport Court, a 3-year-old chestnut, how to isolate a calf from the herd and keep it separate for a few minutes. This is high-stakes stuff in Texas. Sport Court is being groomed for a $600,000 competition later in the year, and on this muggy morning the horse and his rider are practicing with a single confused calf. Because the calf doesn't have a herd, Sport Court always wins.
"You put the horse out here without the other cattle so he learns to succeed," says the man in the sunglasses. "You don't want him to fail. You want him to win. So you get him some confidence first."
Wade's father, Bum Phillips, 66, pauses to spit tobacco juice. "You know," he adds, "it's like working with young players. Get 'em thinking too much, give 'em too much right away, and it confuses 'em. You've got to get 'em some confidence. You've got to train 'em right, teach 'em right. I've always said, You show me a good teacher and I'll show you a good coach. Coaching is not how much you know. It's how much you can get players to do."
Looking back, what strikes Wade's mother, Helen, most about her son is how he never minded being a nomad. Not that he had much choice. The Phillips family—Wade was born first and then came five daughters—got a new lesson in Texas geography almost every year, as Bum, then a high school and college coach, chased jobs from the Louisiana border to New Mexico. They moved from Beaumont to Nacogdoches to Nederland to College Station to Jacksonville to Amarillo to El Paso to Port Neches to Houston. "You grew up pretty fast in this family," says Helen. "Nothing ever seemed to bother Wade, not even the moves."
The most abrupt move of all came when Wade was in the ninth grade. The Phillipses were living in Amarillo at the time, and he was going to a junior high school right down the street from his house. He was getting good grades. He was playing all the sports. He had his first girlfriend. One morning, the principal sent for him, and on his way to the office, Wade looked out the window and saw a moving van in his driveway. His father, he soon learned, had quit his position at Amarillo High to take the coaching job at UTEP. Within an hour, Wade was off to El Paso, without even getting a chance to say goodbye to his girl. But he didn't protest. No tears. No anger.
"When Daddy would ask if we wanted to go to the Dairy Queen, we wouldn't want to," says Wade, half in jest. "We'd be afraid if we got in that car he'd move us again."
Bum was boss, and no one questioned him. Not even the family dog, Joe. One day, Bum took Joe with him on a trip to water the high school field. He told Joe to sit, then watered the field and went home for dinner. Sometime after dinner, Wade asked, "Where's Joe?" and Bum got a sinking feeling. They hurried back to the field, and in the gathering dusk there was Joe—still sitting.
Wade idolized his father. Indeed, the only time Bum ever took a strap to Wade was when Wade was seven and tried to shave himself with a straight razor, just like Dad. Says Wade, "Wherever we lived, everyone in town loved Dad. I realized if I wanted to see much of him, I'd have to go down to the field house."
Thus began a youth of hanging around locker rooms absorbing football knowledge from his father and other coaches. Says Bum. "Wade wasn't allowed to talk. He was allowed to listen." So that's what he did. When Wade was in the fifth grade, Bum took him to the Gator Bowl, and he heard Bear Bryant, then head coach at Texas A&M, give a pregame speech he still remembers clearly. Around that same time Wade, in his room late at night, would take 11 pennies and line them up in offensive formations and 11 nickels and line them up in defensive formations. He would figure ways for the pennies to beat the nickels, and ways for the nickels to stop the pennies.
By the time Wade was a senior at Port Neches-Groves High, he was a two-way starter at quarterback and linebacker under his father. Bryant offered him a scholarship to Alabama. Houston coach Bill Yeoman offered him a scholarship too. But Yeoman also hired Bum as defensive coordinator, so Wade naturally followed.
Bum was so sensitive about being accused of favoritism that as Wade's sophomore season approached, he resisted the pleas of his staff to install Wade as a starting linebacker and kept him on the second team. But the coaches protested to Yeoman, who moved Wade to first string. He became a star. "I guess I was pretty hard on him," says Bum. "The kid he roomed with at Houston, Mike Simpson, told me that a few years ago. I had Mike as a free agent with the Oilers. When I cut him, he told me, 'If I was Wade, I could never have played for you.' I asked him why. He said, 'Because you were too hard on him.' "
There was never much of a question with Wade about what he would do with his life. He started as a grad assistant at Houston in 1969 and then went to Stark High in Orange, Texas. From there he moved to Oklahoma State, where his father was defensive coordinator, and then to Kansas. After that, Bum, who had become coach of the Houston Oilers in 1975, hired him as a defensive assistant in '76, when Wade was 28. That first season he worked with Pro Bowlers like Bubba Smith, Elvin Bethea and Curley Culp. "I won't say we looked down on him," says Bethea, "but I will say we didn't have, shall we say, confidence in him. At times, we took full advantage of him."
When Bum became coach of the New Orleans Saints in 1981, Wade went along as defensive coordinator. The Saints had the NFL's worst-rated defense in 1980. Under Wade, from 1981 through '85, New Orleans finished among the five top-ranked teams three times. However, a new Saints regime replaced him after the '85 season (Bum had resigned with four games left in the season), and Wade landed the job as defensive coordinator of the Eagles. Working under Philadelphia's rookie coach, Buddy Ryan, who had been in charge of the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl-winning defense, Wade never felt as if the Eagle defense was really his. So when Bronco coach Dan Reeves offered him the same job in Denver last January, he took it.
For the first time Wade, who is now 42, is casting the shadow instead of living in it. As his mother says, "Now people have finally recognized Wade as his own man."
At the end of the '88 season, Reeves looked at his defense, and what he saw wasn't pretty. In the previous four years, the Broncos, under defensive coordinator Joe Collier, had allowed 20.6 points a game and 4.3 yards a carry. They had made two Super Bowls in that span but had yielded 81 points and 1,001 yards in the two games, which they lost 39-20 to the New York Giants and 42-10 to the Washington Redskins. Reeves had to do something, so he fired Collier and hired Phillips.
"Joe Collier's defense was calculus," says Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "Wade's is algebra. Wade got the best players and let them play."
Last year Mecklenburg might have lined up in one of a dozen spots on the field, when he wasn't missing time with a broken thumb. This year he's the right inside linebacker in the basic 3-4 defense. When the Broncos go to a four-man line, Mecklenburg's the right end. In a five-man line, he's the nosetackle. That's it. Three spots.
"Joe basically built the defense around me and gave me a career, and I was sorry to see him leave," says Mecklenburg. "But for the team, I think it was a blessing. The old defense snowballed into more and more complicated schemes, and you had to be in your third or fourth year before you picked it up well enough to play. This is the kind of brainpower you had to have to play defense for us: At one time, we had a guy with a master's in business [linebacker Jim Ryan], a guy who was a rocket scientist in the off-season [linebacker Rick Dennison] and a guy who was a premed student [nosetackle Tony Colorito]."
Compare the starting defensive lineup Denver will use on Sunday with that of the '88 Super Bowl team, and you'll find that only two players are in the same position they were in then—strong safety Dennis Smith and nosetackle Greg Kragen. The Broncos' defensive improvement isn't all Phillips's doing, though; they also have added several young impact players, including Steve Atwater at free safety, Ron Holmes at defensive end and Michael Brooks at outside linebacker.
Phillips is a patient communicator. Case in point: Cornerback Mark Haynes wasn't long for the Broncos last summer, especially after new defensive backfield coach Charlie Waters saw him going through some drills at half speed. Waters got madder and madder, until Phillips, who players say hasn't yelled at them once all season, told him he had to tell Haynes precisely how each drill was to be run. So Waters explained to Haynes that it was a full-speed drill, and Haynes got the message.
"When I was growing up, people thought bitching was coaching," says Wade. "But players eventually turn off the guys who yell and scream. My father once told me, 'Don't coach the way you were coached. Coach the way you are.' I don't believe in coaching by fear. I believe in coaching by teaching."
Now Phillips must teach his defense, rated third in the NFL this season, Joe Montana 101. Not an easy task, but remember: Montana has completed less than 50% of his passes in only five regular-season games since 1981. Two of them were against Phillips's Saints defense.
"Frisco's playing awful good right now," says Bum. "Montana's throwing the ball so much quicker than when we played him, and he's got so many more targets, and he's clever enough to use them all. It looks to me like the NFC was the better conference this year, and all those good teams disintegrated against Frisco."
Good point, Bum. Now for the real question: Got any advice for the boy? Bum works his chaw and laughs. "He knows everything I know, plus everything he's learned from everybody else," he says. "Hell, if I knew anything to tell him, I'd already have told him."?