Wade Phillips makes his own name while relishing ‘Son of Bum’ role
Football is big in Southeast Texas. Friday nights we’re out for high school teams and over the year’s we’ve watched some home-grown talents traverse the field in the big leagues. Coach Jimmy Johnson, Jonathan Babineaux, Jordan Babineaux, and more than a dozen others are honored at the Sports Hall of Fame at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. Here Chris Moore of Port Arthur News gives an update on Wade Phillips, who follows in the coaching footsteps of his dad, “Bum.” Get ready for game season with a trip to Port Arthur and the Phillips’ display. firstname.lastname@example.org
Many people with famous parents try to create separation so others see them as their own person. Not Wade Phillips.
Mid County native and Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Phillips does the opposite. Phillips’ twitter handle @SonOfBum matches the title of his own book, which pays homage to his late father and NFL head coach Bum Phillips.
“For most people, their dad is their hero,” Phillips said. “Mine certainly was to me. I happen to get into the same profession where he was a great coach. I got to learn a lot from a great coach that I truly looked up to. It was all cherries.”
The younger Phillips is coming off an impressive season as the defensive signal caller for the Rams, who came up short in the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots. Even though Los Angeles lost, the game was widely regarded as a defensive struggle where Phillips’ defense held the defending champs and future-Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady to 13 points, 262 yards passing and no passing touchdowns.
When Phillips retires, he will do so as one of the most accomplished defensive minds the game has ever seen. He orchestrated some of the greatest defenses in NFL history and coached some of the most recognizable games on that side of the ball.
Before that, Phillips experienced both sides of the prep rivalry know as Mid County Madness. Until second grade, Phillips lived in Nederland, where his goal was not to get on the gridiron, but the diamond.
“I wanted to play baseball,” Phillips said. “I was into little league baseball and stuff like that, because they didn’t really have football for little kids anyways. When I moved to Port Neches, I came in the spring and played baseball first.”
His father, legendary coach Bum Phillips, coached the Port Neches-Groves High Indians football team and the younger Phillips went on to play linebacker for the Indians.
While Phillips is a master at scheming different ways to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, he can also sidestep pressure as well, saying he has no allegiance to either side of the rivalry and roots for the area as a whole, especially in the playoffs.
“I was rooting for Port Arthur in basketball when they won the state championship,” he said. “That area is where I’m from so I pull for all of them.”
Phillips’ journey to coaching came after attending one of his father’s training camps in San Diego.
“My senior year, it was going to be my third year as a starter,” he said. “My dad was coaching for the San Diego Chargers so I went out there for the summer with my family. The Chargers started practice before we went back to school. I went out to watch them practice and these were linebackers who were trying to make the team. I could tell they all were better than me.”
Phillips knew he wanted to be around football so he jumped on the coaching staff as a graduate assistant at the University of Houston.
“I saw how my dad enjoyed coaching,” he said. “I was in the coaches’ rooms and I saw how much they enjoyed it. Once I got a chance at Houston, I loved it ever since.”
Phillips said his love for the game continued unabated. He missed playing, but he enjoyed having an impact on the game.
“In coaching, you can make players better,” he said. “I really enjoyed that part of it. It’s been fun all the way through.”
Even though his father was on an NFL staff, Phillips said he was content as a graduate college coach and had no aspirations to climb the ranks.
“I hadn’t thought about the NFL,” he said. “I had a coaching job. I was a defensive coordinator for the freshman team. I enjoyed that. It was like playing. I was going to play until I felt like I couldn’t play anymore. I just never felt like I couldn’t coach anymore.”
After coaching stops at Lutcher Stark High School (now West Orange Stark) as a defensive coordinator, linebacker coach at Oklahoma State and defensive line coach at Kansas, Phillips joined his father on the Houston Oilers staff as a linebacker coach.
“I always just tried to do the best I could do and not worry about it,” he said. “Some people are climbers trying to get the next job or trying to get a better job. I just always did the best I could do. You let the other people decide if you should be more than you are.”
During Phillips’ second season with the Oilers, the team had the 17th pick in the draft and Phillips was scouting a talented Notre Dame defense.
“I was actually scouting Notre Dame’s players,” Phillips said. “They had beaten Texas in the Cotton Bowl. It was a big story because Earl was held to 88 yards. After I watched the film on Notre Dame — they had about six or seven guys that were drafted on defense — there was nobody blocking for Earl. It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe how great he was.
“We didn’t have the first pick at the time. I called my wife a couple of nights later and she said ‘Isn’t that great?’ I was confused and she told me we got Earl Campbell. I was excited because we got one of the best players I had ever seen.”
Phillips said Campbell showed he would be special in the NFL on his first play from scrimmage.
“The first play of the season he went 77 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta,” he said. “Everyone realized it. He was the first pick in the draft. Everyone thought he was going to be great but you never know until you get started. His first play was better than everybody.”
Campbell went on to rack up many accolades in his rookie campaign, including Rookie of the Year, AFC Offensive Player of the Year and NFL Most Valuable Player.
Off the field, Campbell developed a bond with his head coach, Bum.
“My dad was a special person and coach,” Phillips said. “He had more personal relationships with players. A lot of people think a head coach is supposed to be removed from everybody else. He had personal relationships with his players. When we got Earl, it was a real connection from the start with those two. He’s part of the family.”
Campbell would often refer to Bum as a father and Wade as his brother.
In 1981, Bum took the head coaching job for the New Orleans Saints and Wade followed to become the team’s defensive coordinator.
Even though Bum made his name as a defensive coordinator, Wade said he and his father did not bump heads often on schemes.
“When I was young coaching, with him, the other coaches and I would talk about doing this or that,” Wade said. “He would come in and say he had done it this way, this way, this way and this way. This one is the best. We had someone that had all the experience.”
Phillips said the advice didn’t stop when his father retired.
“He would say I think y’all should do this,” Phillips said laughing. “I would say we’ve been doing this and it has worked. We didn’t completely agree. He was easy to work with and work for. If we didn’t agree on something, we would work on it until we got it right.”
While most people don’t get the opportunity to work with their fathers, fewer get to work with their fathers and their son. Phillips’ son, Wesley Phillips, was signed as the Rams tight ends coach in February.
“There are family businesses where people can do that,” he said. “I can see how great it is. I was on one side where I was the son working with my dad. Now, I’m the dad working with my son. I get to see from both sides and it’s great both ways.”
Phillips said he likes to give his son a hard time for breaking the family tradition.
“We don’t know what happened to him,” Phillips said laughing about the fact his son coaches on the offensive side. “He got on the wrong path somehow. He played quarterback in college at UTEP. He naturally gravitated that way. Then he decided to be a coach the same way I did.
“My dad told me if you want to be anything else other than a coach, you should be. If you’re going to be a coach, you better be dedicated. I told Wesley the same thing.”
Phillips said he couldn’t imagine doing anything other than coaching. He said if he weren’t in the NFL, he would be coaching at a lower level.
Phillips has compiled an impressive list of defenses for which he called the shots.
“I’ve been pretty lucky all the way through,” he said. “A lot of the defenses I’ve been associated with were pretty great. Even back in Kansas. We beat Oklahoma when they had won 29 straight. We beat them in Norman 23-3. They won the National Championship that year.”
In New Orleans, the Saints defense finished top-ranked against the pass ahead of the vaunted ‘86 Chicago Bears defense.
Not only is the list of defenses Phillips coached impressive, the list of top-tier players he has coached is as good as it gets. They include Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Rickey Jackson, DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Ed Reed, to name a few. Phillips also coaches Aaron Donald, who won Defensive Player of the Year award this past season.
“The 2015 [Denver] Broncos were phenomenal,” Phillips said. “We led the league in I don’t remember how many categories. In the playoffs, it was even more so. We beat [Ben] Rothlisberger, [Tom] Brady and then Cam Newton. All of those teams were scoring 30 points a game. To play dominant defense like that to win the Super Bowl was the highlight of all of the defenses.”
Dominant might be an understatement for the 2015-2016 Broncos defense. In the Super Bowl, the Bronco offense totaled 194 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, the Broncos set a record for fewest yards amassed by a wining team. The Broncos defense forced four fumbles (recovered three), seven sacks, 13 hits on the quarterback and one interception.
“You always think you’re going to win going into the game,” Phillips said. “Actually, the last play before the half, they had a chance to get into field goal range. We were ahead. DeMarcus Ware sacked Cam on basically the last play of the half. It took them out of field goal range. I went in with the team at halftime and told them they can’t beat us. We keep playing like this, there is no way they can beat us.”
Phillips said he held it together until the final whistle.
“Right before that, Gary Kubiak, the head coach, and I were standing together,” he said. “When we knew we had it won, I said congratulations to him and he said ‘Man, your dad would be proud.’ That was a great moment.”
Phillips was a head coach for five teams. He served as interim head coach for the Saints (1985) after his father stepped down, the Atlanta Falcons (2003) the Houston Texans (2011) after Kubiak had a medical emergency. Phillips was hired as the head coach of the Broncos (2003), the Buffalo Bills (1998) and the Dallas Cowboys (2007).
Phillips has a winning record as a head coach 83-69, but said his 1-5 playoff record will probably prevent him from getting another shot.
“I think that has passed me up,” he said. “Yeah, I had a good record. If you have a good run in the playoffs, you have chance to be a head coach longer. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I had a winning record. My dad had a winning record. I don’t know that any two father/ sons have had winning records as head coaches in the NFL. I did the best I could do and went from there.”
Phillips also said he has not given any thought to hanging up his whistle anytime soon.
“People keep asking me that,” he said laughing. “The older you get, the more people ask. As long as I can contribute, that is a big part of it. When you’re older, health is a factor and I’m healthy. When you love what you are doing and you feel like you can keep doing that, you don’t want to jump out.
“I think if you are thinking about retiring, you probably should. I haven’t really thought about it. If the team that you’re with keeps winning, it helps you. They seem to want to keep you around.”