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“Last year, we knocked on the door. This year, we pounded on the door. I’m telling you, next year we’re going to kick that sumbitch in.” — Bum Phillips, to a crowd of more than 70,000, shortly after midnight on Jan. 7, 1980.
Those will be the words that, to many, forever will define the legendary Houston Oilers coach, wrangler, legend and gentleman, who died Friday at the age of 90.
But for those closest to Bum — many of whom traveled to Phillips’ bedside at his ranch in the remote town of Goliad in recent weeks — the scoreboard of those fateful losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers never defined his legacy.
His legacy was the men whose lives he changed so profoundly that losing Bum truly was like losing a father.
“People always talked about teams becoming families,” legendary Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini said. “Bum actually turned us into a family.”
It was a dysfunctional family at times. It was a family that fought with each other and for each other. It was a family with all the quirks, gremlins and demons that every family has. But after all the Luv Ya Blue pom-pons were gone and so many legendary, elite athletes became pot-bellied dads and grandpas, the family bond never left.
Former Oilers tight end Mike Barber, a once-partying playboy who became a Minister to prison inmates after retirement and sobriety, was at Bum’s bedside everyday for the past week. Pastorini drove to Goliad at least once every two weeks, or more, for the past year, just to sit with Bum and talk. Calls and visits came regularly from players all over the country in Bum’s final days.
It reflected the true measure of the homespun, tobacco-chewing legend the world knew as Bum. He taught football and character; football and responsibility; football and being a man. The AFC Championship scoreboard ultimately never tipped his way. But the journey and the legacy could not have been more glorious.
“What we had will never happen again,” former Oilers center Carl Mauck told me. “The combination of everything we had and all the personalities and events, that will never be matched again. It was Bum who managed to bring so many different guys from different places together into a true family”
The Luv Ya Blue Oilers were a team of bandits and boys next door, led by a Texas legend named Earl Campbell. At the time, Houston was a city so rich that oil seemed to seep through the cracks of its sidewalks. This town got up early, stayed up late and danced country when country was cool. Houston stood for everything the Oilers stood for – hard work, hard play and booming success.
To a man, every Luv Ya Blue Oiler with whom I ever spoke shared variations of the same theme when it came to their head coach: He understood the environment. He never tried to rope in personalities, he simply managed each one with unique aplomb and somehow got a multitude of different characters to embrace their differences and become one. And when all the cheering was done, it made them better people.
The city could relate to Bum. When the Oilers knocked on the door, they tugged at Houston’s heart. When they pounded on the door, they drummed Houston’s soul.
I asked Bum once how he came up with the glorious rallying cry of kicking the sumbitch in.
“When people have been sitting there in the stands for six hours waiting on you, and you just got beat, you don’t tell them that next year you’re going to try harder,” Phillips said. “I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to say. It just came out. And I really felt we could kick it in. I really felt like we could go through Pittsburgh.”
Of course, they never did. But what Phillips created among his players was a bond and value that stayed with them until the day Bum died — and will be passed down for generations.
When Pastorini reached his lowest point as an adult, getting arrested for DWI after wrecking his car into two parked cars in College Station, after he got home from a night in jail, the first call he received was a from a familiar voice.
“You know, …” drawled Phillips on the other end of the line.
Not once had Phillips ever told Pastorini how to live his life. He had two simple rules: Be on time and play your absolute hardest.
“Bum didn’t care what you were or where you were from, so long as you played,” Pastorini said. “If you did what you were told, showed up and played hard, he didn’t care. He didn’t care if you had long hair. He didn’t care if you were black or white. He just wanted you to do your job. Sometimes, Bum gave me a couple-hundred bucks and said, “Take the guys out and make sure everybody has a good time.” So we did.”
At his lowest point, when Pastorini heard Phillips’ voice on the other end of the line, he knew what Phillips was going to tell him. Pastorini didn’t even have to hear the rest of what Phillips was going to say.
“I know, Bum. I know I have to stop drinking. I’m done. You’ll never see me associated with anything like this again. I’m going to tell you right now: I’ll never drink again. I promise.”
Phillips responded, “Well, that’s all I need to hear. I know you won’t. You’re a man of your word.”
That conversation happened more than three years ago. Pastorini never has had another drop of alcohol. They were all reflections of Bum — every one of them.
The last time I spoke with Bum a few months ago, he talked about how proud he was of Pastorini and of his former players.
“They’re good people with good families,” Phillips said. “That’s always the most important thing … what you’re proud about, if you had any part of it.”
He had the biggest part of it. He gave the City Of Houston an era that never again will be duplicated, anywhere.
Or as Bum told me once, as only he could put it, “We weren’t the prettiest dancers. But we danced every dance.”