Bum Phillips finds peace on his Texas ranch

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Not far from Goliad, Texas, a town of nearly 2,000, is the cutting horse ranch of Bum Phillips, the colorful National Football League coach who is remembered, among other things, for his wearing of cowboy boots on the sideline and for his wide-brimmed Stetson, except for games played indoors. As the head coach of the Houston Oilers and the New Orleans Saints, this meant that he was hatless for home games for almost 10 years. He has a simple explanation. “My mamma taught me to never wear my hat indoors.”

Today, Phillips prefers that you call him by his nickname, which is the way it was with his players during his NFL career. Bum was named for his Father, Oail, and an older sister, who stammered as a kid, couldn’t pronounce his name. It came out “Bum,” and it stuck. Bum, who grew up on a ranch, didn’t revert to his roots until he retired from coaching. He enjoys a laid-back lifestyle with his wife, Debbie, on his ranch off Riverdale Lane. Countless former players find their way here to pay their respects to their old coach. “Many of the boys who played for me back in high school come see me,” he grinned proudly.

Bum remains comfortable in conversation, amid the accoutrements that reflect his affection for all things Texas: a collection of belt buckles, spurs from the countless boots he has worn, perhaps a dozen hats, and most impressively a plethora of Remington bronzes. His love of the wide-open spaces of his native state was subdued for much of his adult life, owing to his commitment to coaching. He made several stops before becoming head coach of the Houston Oilers in 1975, boasting a diverse resume that includes stints with Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and Sid Gillman with the San Diego Chargers. “Nobody,” he says, “was better at getting the most out of his players than Bryant.” Bum remembers staff meetings with Bear coming in and sitting down with the assistants, all on time with an ear cocked in Bryant’s direction. “Before he said a word,” Bum recalls, “he took out a cigarette, tamped it on the table and smoked it silently. After he finished his cigarette, he would say, ‘How we going to solve such and such a problem?’”

He remembered that Sid Gillman literally had no interest in defense. “He wanted to score as quick as he could and as often as he could,” Bum says. “The only interest he had in defense was for you to get the ball back to him so he could try to score again.”

Following Pearl Harbor, Bum did what every able-bodied young man did in those days, he immediately volunteered. He became an elite Marine Raider and saw action in the bloody Guadalcanal campaign, never once wanting any attention for doing what he considered his job. “Just like everybody else,” Bum said as plain spoken as you might expect. While I didn’t expect to see a saddle in the kitchen, I wasn’t surprised to see it on a stand, sleek and erect. The saddle was a gift from John Mecom, the Saints owner who gave Bum the last saddle made by Edward H. Bohlin, who made saddles for all the Hollywood movie stars. “His last saddle —makes it sort of special,” Bum smiled.

Drop in to see Bum, and Debbie will give you a signed copy of his autobiography (with Gabe Semenza). You note on a sign at the entrance to their home, “Happiness is not a destination. It it’s a way of life.” He and Debbie have tried to pass that notion on to their 23 grandchildren. The entrance to his ranch carries the symbol of a football engulfed by a Stetson. They host charitable events including “Coach’s Outreach,” which “seeks to build coaches of conviction by encouraging and equipping coaches and spouses to have Christ-like character through practical application of biblical truth.”

On the lawn is a metal cutout of a horse whose reins are held by a cowboy kneeling in reverence with his dog nearby. Bum Phillips may not have won a Super Bowl ring, but he is at peace today in his surroundings and in his heart.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.