In the rear of the Empresario Restaurant, a wood-frame eatery
that serves up killer fried chicken, waitress Marjorie Cornwell
is deep in thought. She has lived in Goliad, Texas, nearly all
of her 35 years, but never before has she been asked to name the
No. 1 celebrity in this town of about 1,900. Does the farmer who
cut off six fingers count? And what about the horse that ran
away? "Y'know," says Cornwell, "this isn't a nothin' town. I
mean, we've had people. But the most famous has to be--I'd
say--Lenny Von Dohlen. The actor."
There's a pause here. A long one. Lenny, star of such hit movies
as Dracula's Wedding and Electric Dreams, would have to place
pretty high. But doesn't Goliad have someone else? "This most
recent Playboy," says a belching, fajita-stuffed cowboy standing
nearby. "A girl from our town. Cute ass."
As this scene unfolds, a 73-year-old man with blue eyes and a
wide-brimmed Stetson keeps to himself, chuckling slightly but
never looking up from his plate of chicken-fried steak. Fame?
Prestige? "Don't matter," he finally says. "And if they did,
they're probably not all they're cracked up to be."
With that, Oail Andrew (Bum) Phillips, one of the most
charismatic NFL coaches ever, but a distant sixth among VIPs in
his hometown to Lenny Von Dohlen, the girl in Playboy, the
farmer, the horse and George Bush (who used to hunt in Goliad),
lifts his 225-pound body away from the table and walks out the
front door, no autographs requested.
October 5, 1997
Where once he was in the spotlight as coach of the Houston
Oilers (1975 through '80) and the New Orleans Saints ('81
through '85), Phillips now blends into the South Texas terrain
like dirt. He breeds cattle in Goliad and like most of his
fellow ranchers is happy to ride the range, drink beer, curse a
little, eat good Texas beef and then call it a night. "Whatever
you say about Bum, say this," says Larry Waters, a Goliad
rancher. "He's just another person."
Goliad is 313 miles from Dallas, 736 miles from Memphis and
light-years from Houston's Astrodome. On Jan. 6, 1980 the
Oilers' bid to reach the Super Bowl was shattered for the second
year in a row by a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC
Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Houston had been
crushed 34-5 the year before, the first time it had advanced to
within one win of the NFL title game. In the rematch the Oilers
got a bad call that nullified a game-tying touchdown in the last
seconds of the third quarter and lost 27-13. Embarrassed and
disappointed, they flew home after the game and went straight to
the Astrodome where 70,000 fans were waiting to show their
support. With tears in his eyes Phillips addressed the crowd,
"Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next
year we're going to kick the son of a bitch in."
In fact Houston never did break through and play in a Super
Bowl--it never returned to the AFC Championship Game--but during
his six-year run Phillips starred as the rowdy coach of the
Oilers. He was, and still is, the symbol of Luv Ya Blue
football, the era in which Houston played a smash-mouth game
featuring Earl Campbell left, Earl Campbell right and Earl
Campbell up the middle. The Luv Ya Blue days were the high point
of Oilers fan frenzy, when crowds of ticketless diehards would
stand in the streets to cheer the players as they drove to games
at the Astrodome. "Crazy," recalls Debbie Phillips, Bum's wife.
"Everything going on was Luv Ya Blue. Bum was their leader--the
And now the last remnant of Luv Ya Blue football, the franchise
itself, has vanished from Houston. Like Campbell, Phillips,
quarterback Dan Pastorini, wide receiver Kenny Burrough and the
rest of the gang, the Oilers have moved on--to Tennessee.
"Forget that team," Phillips says of the Oilers, during a hot
drive on Goliad's dusty side roads. "As far as I'm concerned,
they're Pittsburgh or Cleveland or New York. Once the Oilers
left Houston, they left Bum Phillips."
"Meaning it doesn't matter anymore."
There's no hurt in his voice. Phillips isn't sad, and he's not
angry. He's not even bitter, like many coaches who have been
fired. He has simply put football in a box on the top shelf of
On the 250-acre I.O. Ranch, a tortilla-flat spread that Bum and
Debbie purchased almost three years ago, the time to think about
football is hard to come by anyway. If Phillips isn't tending to
his cattle, he's gathering eggs or feeding the cows, plowing
land or planting grass, taking a three-mile walk or driving to
the feed store, tearing out scrub growth or hosing down his
Although Phillips is a little hard-of-hearing and his arms,
dark and spotted, look 73, the rest of him does not. His square
chin is still square. His shoulders, cowboy-broad, can still
handle a full day's work. Watching Phillips, you sometimes see
the Bum of two decades ago, walking the sideline with that
confident strut. Until this year he still had a place in his
soul for Oilers football. So what if owner Bud Adams had given
him the boot after Houston went 11-5 and tied for first in the
AFC Central in 1980, but lost to the Oakland Raiders in the
wild-card playoff? "I'm not mad at Bud for anything," he says.
"When he fired me, he made a decision and we shook hands."
Even after Phillips was hired to coach in New Orleans--where he
spent almost five miserable years, during which the best he
could do was 8-8 in 1983--he was still an Oiler at heart. He
quit the Saints during the '85 season (he was succeeded by his
son, Wade, who had been New Orleans's defensive coordinator) and
did color commentary on Oilers radio broadcasts from 1990
through '94, with Debbie keeping stats for him at road games. At
the 1989 Luv Ya Blue reunion in Houston, 97 of 99 invited
players showed up, many to pay homage to Phillips.
But when you walk through the Phillipses' house--past the spurs,
hats, guns and Old West sculptures displayed against the
light-colored brick walls; past the numerous photos of Bum with
his six children from his first marriage, of Bum riding Pokey,
of Debbie with her cutting horses; past the books stacked on a
shelf; past the rock with BELIEVE inscribed on it--you discover
there is not one sign of the Oilers.
In the bedroom closet Phillips has seven pairs of cowboy boots.
In his Houston heyday he owned dozens. ("Oh, god, thousands," he
says.) Back then, Phillips without snakeskins was like Jagger
without lips. During games Phillips walked the sideline looking
every inch the Texan in his cowboy hat, boots and Wranglers.
Now, alas, Bum knows boat shoes. "He had a little problem with
his left foot," says Debbie. "It hurts when he wears boots."
What you see in Bum's house and his closet speaks to his current
priorities. His only connection to the game is a 1-800
handicapping service, Bum Phillips' Free Pick Phone, which pays
him for the use of his name. When Bum and Debbie married in 1990
(the second time for both), they made a commitment to a new
lifestyle. For 37 years Phillips had coached football, working
his way through the high school and college ranks to the pros.
During that time, he concedes, his first wife, Helen (the
marriage ended in divorce in 1990), and their kids came second.
"It's my biggest regret," he says. "I was absent a whole lot."
Not this time.
Bum met Debbie in the late '70s, while he was still coaching the
Oilers. A champion cutting-horse rider at the time, she was a
quintessential Luv Ya Blue freak who needed a place to board and
train her horses. He was the icon coach who also owned a cattle
ranch outside Houston. Their friendship was, for many years,
just that. "But when we talked, it always was real
comfortable--like talking to a friend you've had a long time,"
says Debbie. "It's wonderful being married to your best friend."
A year after the wedding Debbie learned that she had breast
cancer. She had a double mastectomy and is doing fine now. In a
way, she says, the illness is what has made their marriage work.
At 47 she is 26 years younger than Bum. "But it doesn't feel
like that," she says. "Going through cancer, you learn to value
every day. It takes away any sense of invincibility. That
catches me and Bum up. We're both valuing every moment of our
Rare is the moment that at least one of Bum's 18 grandchildren,
ages 10 months to 23 years, isn't around. Rarer still is the
moment that Bum does one thing and Debbie another. At night they
ride together, herding cows into a pen and cutting, the art of
There is balance in Bum's life, "a tranquility," he says. "I
have no desire ever to coach again. This is where I'm supposed
to be. You work hard your whole life doing one thing, and now
it's time to do another."
On Sundays now in Memphis, 30,000 people sit and watch a
football float through the air. Bum Phillips isn't one of them,
and that is O.K. with him.