True story: The start of the 1981 football season was arriving and I was eagerly looking forward to the Atlanta Falcons hosting the New Orleans Saints.
Already a top NFL rivalry, the game, set for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, featured the Falcons, who were coming off a franchise best 12-4 season, against the Saints, who would feature a new head coach who wore a cowboy hat and boots.
Heck, this might even be a game I would ask my parents to take me to.
Any plans of attending the game were dashed, however, when I was informed we would be attending a family reunion that day. “Say what?!” I thought. I quickly began hoping there would be a television set somewhere at the family reunion.
As it turns out, there was no television (or at least not one tuned in to the game) and as we left the family reunion that afternoon I told my father to turn the radio on in hopes of catching the end of the game.
“And once again, that’s the final from Atlanta,” the radio announcer said. “See you next week.”
“Ahhhhhh!!!!” I remember screaming.
It was not until the next day when I opened the newspaper did I read that the Falcons had won the game.
The game was intriguing for this young football fan for two reasons: first it featured the Falcons, my favorite NFL team, and it featured Bum Phillips, probably my favorite NFL coach. Nothing against Leeman Bennett who coached the Falcons at the time, but how could you not be impressed with Bum, who had arrived in New Orleans after a successful stint with the Houston Oilers.
Phillips was a character, jeans, boots, hat and all, but it was not a show.
He was genuinely a cowboy. He just happened to also coach football and had done so for decades, both in college and the NFL.
Phillips’ Oilers waged some memorable battles with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, including two AFC Championship games played at the old Three Rivers Stadium.
The game between the two in 1979, to decide the Super Bowl participant from the AFC, is historic for various reasons. Perhaps the most significant was a blown call which cost the Oilers a touchdown. That played a role in the NFL eventually having instant replay.
Phillips was a natural for NFL Films and the features the company made. It was just so unique to see a coach with a cowboy hat, often with a wad of chewing tobacco, that it caught the fascination of this young, impressionable fan.
However, no coach, no matter how much success they have, is above being fired. The Oilers, in a move that still baffles me to this day, fired Phillips after the 1980 season despite the team once again making the playoffs.
Phillips took over the morbid Saints franchise beginning in 1981 and had them on the brink of being in the playoffs for the first time in 1983. It was truly a remarkable accomplishment, perhaps as much as his two AFC title game appearances in Houston.
Phillips was a believer in the run game. He pounded the football with Earl Campbell in Houston and then selected George Rogers, Heisman Trophy winner from South Carolina, as the first pick in the NFL draft in 1981 for the Saints.
Both the teams played on artificial turf back then and the pounding those two took caused damage that is clear today when you see Campbell and Rogers.
Phillips, even almost three decades after he coached his last game, was still known and remembered by legions of NFL fans. His good old boy image is something most everyone admired.
The coach in the cowboy hat passed away Friday at the age of 90. His son Wade, the defensive coordinator for the Houston Texans, announced his father’s passing. Perhaps I’ll buy a cowboy hat in Bum’s honor. He was one of a kind. The NFL needs more characters like the Bum in 2013.
Chris Bridges is sports editor of the Barrow Journal. Send comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.