Faith, hope and Bum Phillips: Remembering the New Orleans Saints’ cowboy coach

By Mike Scott

They called him Bum, but he was no bum. At least, not in the way most people meant when referring to members of the New Orleans Saints in the early to mid 1980s. No, when Bum Phillips moseyed into town in 1981 as the eighth head coach in Saints history, he was seen as a hero — maybe even a savior.

New Orleans Saints head coach Bum Phillips works the referees during a 1985 game. (Photo via The Times-Picayune archive)

And goodness knows the team needed one. Not only had the hapless Saints failed to make a playoff appearance in 14 previous seasons, but they had never even experienced a winning record. What’s more, the team was coming off a historically futile 1-15 campaign in 1980 that only further entrenched the black-and-gold as an NFL laughingstock.

Five seasons later, when Phillips hung up his trademark Stetson and rode into the sunset with four games remaining in what would be a scarring 5-11 campaign, few people would have considered him either savior or hero. After all, the team still hadn’t made the playoffs or experienced a winning season.

But this much is certain: His win-loss record aside (which, for those keeping score, was 27-42, making him both the winningest and longest-tenured head coach in Saints history to that point), Bum Phillips is easily one of the most colorful head coaches ever to stalk the Saints sideline.

When you consider that group includes the likes of such characters as Mike Ditka, Jim Mora, Hank Stram and Sean Payton, that’s no small thing.

Under a headline that read “From Erlers to Ersters: Where ya at, Bum?,” The Times-Picayune/The States-Item’s Bill Rainey put it this way upon the Saints’ hiring of the straight-shooting Texan in January 1981:

“The eighth head coach of the New Orleans Saints comes closer than any of the others to being what folks in these parts like to call ‘our kind of people.’ He’s as down to earth as a Dick Nolan, but a whole hell of a lot more talkative. He’s as talkative as Hank Stram, but a hell of a lot more down to earth.”

Phillips, who died in 2013 at age 90, wouldn’t have likely disagreed with any of that.

“Hell, my mother is from Johnson’s Bayou down by Lake Charles, and I’ve rodeoed all over this state,” the Orange, Texas, native drawled at a press conference in which his friend and new boss John Mecom Jr. introduced him as head coach following weeks of media speculation. “I’ve always said New Orleans is the only other place I’d want to coach outside of Texas. It don’t feel no different to me than Texas. As of today, we’re New Orleans people.”

Born Oail Andrew Phillips in 1923, Bum got his famous nickname from his older sister, who couldn’t say the word “brother” properly. It stuck — but it wasn’t exactly an apt description of his personality. Although he liked a laugh as much as anyone, the WWII Marine Corps veteran and former head coach of the Houston Oilers preached the value of self-discipline and hard work.

New Orleans Saints head coach Bum Phillips, left, and Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers, photographed in 1981. (Photo via The Times-Picayune archive)

“I’d rather have preparation than motivation,” he once said. “Everyone likes to play, but no one likes to practice.”

That’s just one of a litany of memorable quotes attributed over the years to Phillips, whose brand of homespun phraseology hid a true Texas wisdom.

“Last year we knocked on the door,” he said memorably after losing the AFC Championship for the second year in a row while head coach of the Oilers. “This year we beat on it. Next year we’re going to kick the son of a bitch in!”

When sportscaster Bob Costas asked Phillips why he took his wife with him on road trips, Phillips didn’t miss a beat, responding, “Because she’s too ugly to kiss goodbye.”

When former Oilers head coach Sid Gillman, for whom Phillips once served as defensive coordinator, remarked that breaking down game tape was better than sex, Bum answered, “Either I don’t know how to watch film, Sid, or you don’t know how to make love.”

And when star running back Earl Campbell took heat after failing to finish a mile run in training camp, a nonplussed Phillips shrugged it off, saying, “When it’s first and a mile, I won’t give it to him.”

While there were certainly those who questioned whether the folksy Phillips was the right man for the job in New Orleans — there always are, aren’t there? — he was an immediate hit with most black-and-gold fans.

After Phillips’ surprise firing by Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams on Dec. 31, 1980, at the conclusion of an 11-5 season and a third consecutive playoff appearance (and third consecutive playoff loss), Times-Picayune Executive Sports Editor Bob Roesler kept track of the readers who called with regard to rumors that Bum’s next stop might be the Crescent City.

Eighteen voiced support for Phillips’ hiring. Two wanted to see the team retain interim head coach Dick Stanfel, who had taken over for the final four games of that wretched 1980 season upon the firing of Dick Nolan. Three were “strongly anti-Phillips.”

Shortly after Phillips’ hiring, bumper stickers, T-shirts and ball caps carried such pro-Bum sentiments as, “Faith, Hope and Bum.” Fans bought up cowboy boots and hats. Local radio disc jockey Cajun Ken Cooper of B-97 FM recorded a parody version of the Jimmy Dean ditty “Big Bad John” — except he changed the words to “Big Bad Bum.” That was a hit, too.

The Bum Phillips era was off and running in New Orleans.

While fans and the media high-fived over the hiring, Bum set about rebuilding the Saints organization in his own image. His first hire: his son Wade Phillips, whom he brought on as defensive coordinator, one of a litany of former Oilers coaches and players to whom Phillips would hitch his wagon. Others included a past-his-prime Campbell in 1984 and the even more post-prime quarterback Kenny Stabler in 1982.

As colorful as he was — and despite what would be an ignominious end to this Saints career — Bum also knew football. Or he knew defense, anyway.

While he led the Oilers to three consecutive playoff appearances, his critics blamed what they saw as a predictable, overly conservative offense for the team’s repeated inability make it to the Super Bowl. It was that that same sputtering offense, in fact — as well as his decision to trade away a No. 1 and No. 2 draft pick for seven-year veteran tight end Dave Casper — that prompted Phillips’ surprise firing by Adams. (His replacement, for the trivia-minded: one-time Saints assistant Ed Biles.)

New Orleans Saints coach Bum Phillips was known to be a stickler for preparation. “Everyone likes to play, but no one likes to practice,” he once said. (Photo via The Times-Picayune archive)

But that doesn’t mean Phillips overlooked the need for a successful offense entirely. With wily veteran Archie Manning at quarterback, Phillips’ first draft class as Saints head coach included No. 1 overall pick George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner and future Offensive Rookie of the Year. Also drafted by the Saints that year were fan favorite Hokie Gajan and tight end Hoby Brenner.

On the defensive side of the ball, that same draft brought future Saints stalwarts Ricky Jackson, Frank Warren and Jim Wilks to the team.

A year later, All Pro kicker Morten Andersen — who is still the team’s all-time leading scorer — became a Saint.

“I remember getting a call from Bum Phillips after I was drafted and he asked me if I liked Budweiser and country music,” Andersen said in a 2009 interview. “Those were the first words out of his mouth. So, lying through my teeth, I said, ‘Yes sir,’ because everybody knows I like Abba and Merlot.”

The problem was, along with all those players and coaches he imported from Houston, Phillips also imported the same football philosophy: a smash-mouth defense countered by a bland offense that was overly dependent on the legs of his star runningback.

The team would finish that first year under Phillips with a 4-12 record — which was at least an improvement over 1-15 — followed by a water-treading 4-5 record in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

By 1983, there were signs that things might be turning around, as the Saints ripped off five wins in their first eight games. They even had a rare “Monday Night Football” matchup on the schedule, bringing superstar broadcasters Howard Cosell and O.J. Simpson to town, not just for the game but for a roast of Phillips at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to benefit the Louisiana chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“I’d tell a funny story now,” Phillips said from the dais after those assembled had taken their shots at him, “but that would change the format too much.”

The Saints would fumble away that Monday-night game to the Jets, squandering a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. It was essentially the story of the season in a nutshell. The team would finish at 8-8 — which again was an improvement over the previous season — but they would lose a heartbreaker to the Los Angeles Rams in the final seconds of the final game of the season, costing them their first winning season and first playoff berth.

While they boasted the league’s leading pass defense for the second consecutive year, it didn’t really matter. The worm had already turned.

Phillips’ mistake-prone Saints took a step backward in 1984, going 7-9. And then came the 1985 campaign, which — with the Saints finishing at 5-11 — was nothing short of a professional disaster for the man many had once hoped would be the team’s savior.

In the first 11 weeks, the team managed only three measly victories, not one of them convincing. In the Superdome, and all around the Crescent City, a chorus of boos began mounting from disillusioned fans demanding his firing.

Phillips would end up coaching through only the 12th game of the season, but in reality the die was cast on his New Orleans career in Week 1. That’s when a ragged, clearly unprepared Saints squad suffered a humiliating 47-27 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs.

It was one of those games everybody wishes they could forget. Dave Wilson set a record for passing futility, completing 2-of-22 passes, reportedly the lowest completion percentage of any NFL quarterback with double-digit attempts. In its weekly listing of game “highs and lows,” The Times-Picayune listed “the Southern University band’s halftime show” as its No. 1 “high.” By the fourth quarter, the angry and exasperated Superdome crowd was cheering when the Chiefs — the Chiefs, for crying out loud — put points on the board.

The cruelest blow, however? When a Saints fan dowsed Phillips with beer as he left the Superdome field following an Oct. 27 loss to the New York Giants.

It was one thing, when, in 1981, a San Francisco fan stole Phillips’ cowboy hat right off his head while he was leaving the field at Candlestick Park at halftime. (Phillips’ response to that was memorable but wordless: He flipped off the hat rustler for all to see, including TV cameras. Later, he would explain — tongue firmly planted in cheek — that he was only trying to point the guy out, and that what some interpreted as an obscene gesture was only meant to indicate, “There he is. Yonder he goes,” Phillips said.)

But having beer dumped on you? By one of your own team’s supposed fans? That was something else entirely.

By early November, and with the losses mounting, Phillips announced that if the team didn’t win five of its next six games, he was a goner. They didn’t, and he was. On his way out the door, however, he was as classy as anyone could reasonably expect.

“My job here was to win football games,” Phillips said upon announcing his resignation. “And my job here was to provide a winning season. I didn’t do that.”

He added, in characteristic Bum fashion: “I’ll miss the fans, even the ones that threw beer on me. At least they cared enough to be mad.”

It was a good line, but new Saints owner Tom Benson admitted the Budweiser incident was no laughing matter.

“Throwing that beer on him really did something to him, too,” Benson said at the time. “He made a joke about it, but I’m telling you, it was a very deciding point to him.”

Rather than collecting a paycheck while waiting to be fired, or demanding a lucrative severance package, Phillips simply asked Benson to buy his Destrehan home off of him and pay his moving expenses back to his Houston ranch.

“I want you to know that I didn’t ask for (Phillips’ resignation),” Benson said. “He told me he was resigning for the good of the city, for the good of the fans. And for me.”

Just like that, the Bum Phillips era was over, not just in New Orleans but everywhere. He would never coach in the professional ranks again.

Wade Phillips coached the Saints for final four games of that ugly 1985 season, going 1-3. Jim Mora assumed head coaching duties the following year.

Two years after Phillips’ departure — and with many of the players Phillips had signed — Mora accomplished what none of his nine predecessors could: The Saints went 12-3, delivering the team’s first ever winning record and its first ever trip to the playoffs. Mora’s Saints would go on to earn a playoff berth four times in the six seasons between 1987 and 1992. (It would be another 13 years, at the end of the 2000 season, before the team would actually win a playoff game, mind you.)

Mora would eventually part ways with the team, too. So would his successor (Rick Venturi), his successor’s successor (Mike Ditka) and his successor’s successor’s successor (Jim Haslett). That’s how the NFL works.

“There’s two kind of coaches,” Phillips once mused. “Them that’s fired and them that’s going to be fired.”

But for all of his faults, and for all of the failures of the 1981-1985 Saints, it’s probably another of Phillips’ famous quotes — delivered when asked about Earl Campbell one day — that probably describes Bum Phillips’ own coaching career best:

“I don’t now if he’s in a class by himself, but it don’t take long to call the roll.”

This story was originally published in June 2016 by | The Times-Picayune.

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